Vayeshev, Descents, Darkness, Clothing and Lights

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb 07th Dec 2017

Jacob and his family return to Eretz Yisrael after two decades in Haran with Jacob’s uncle, Laban. Jacob is getting older, his beloved wife has died on him, his sons Simeon and Levi have put him through additional stress following the rape of Dinah. Jacob is eager for some quiet (retirement?) after an eventful life, to say the least. 

Vayeshev Yakov” – Jacob lived/dwelled in the land of Canaan where his father had sojourned. “He wanted to live serenely,” the Midrash quoted by Rashi explains, but it gives Jacob no discounts. “What do tsaddikim expect?” God asks. “The reward that’s awaiting them in the World to Come is not enough? They also want ‘happily ever after’ in this world.” 

Tough words, fighting words. Jacob’s sojourns are far from over, despite his deepest desires. He is certainly not the “master of his fate,” and perhaps not even the “captain of his soul”. The time he hopes to pass in peace and quiet will be one of the most painful and turbulent of his life. 

Vayeshev is a parashah of transition and movement – mostly downwards. Jacob has dominated the narrative for three weeks – the last dozen chapters – but Joseph, his 11th son (the first-born of Rachel), moves to center-stage early, and will be there till the end of Bereishit. The third verse this week (37:3) tells us that Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons, and, to make family matters worse, favors Joseph prominently with a ktonet passim, a beautiful (or ornate) robe. Joseph, either unaware or indifferent to his brothers’ jealousy, tells of his dreams in which they are subordinate to him. The parashah goes downhill quickly from there, on many levels. 

When Jacob, apparently blind to the sibling dynamics, sends Joseph to them tending the flocks, they consider killing him, but then agree to strip him of his robe and throw him in a pit. The pit is “empty, there was no water in it” (37:24). Rashi, again following the Midrash, says that the mention of “no water” indicates that there were snakes and scorpions. The “pits” we encounter in life, if they lack the “water” of Torah, threaten us with snakes and scorpions. The brothers, the Torah tells us, keeping no secrets, sit and eat a meal after completing their sweet revenge, showing an indifference that is difficult for our sensibilities. For them, too, life has surprises waiting. 

When Abraham had encountered famine in the land of Canaan, he had “vayered – gone down – to Egypt,” – a term of not only geographical but also of spiritual and moral significance. Joseph’s experiences in Egypt expose him to the values there, and he is tested by Potiphar’s wife. The rabbis debate whether he is above the temptation or not (Rashi on 39:11), one saying he indeed intended to lie with her, “but his father’s likeness appeared to him” and he restrained himself. There is a nice gematria (the system of looking at the correspondence between Hebrew letters and numbers) on this – verse 39:2 told us “the Lord (26) was with Joseph (156),” which totals 182, Jacob. In any event, Joseph does resist the woman’s advances and flees, but she catches his garment, his exterior appearance. She cannot imagine what is going on inside. 

The story of Judah and Tamar, in Chapter 38, has ironic parallels. Judah “went down” (vayered) from his brothers (38:1) – again more than geography. Then when he refuses to give his third son to Tamar, who has been twice widowed by his two older sons, Tamar uses clothing to trick him. (This is the third time that clothing has played a key role). She dresses as a prostitute, tempting Judah so she may conceive. One of the twins she bears, Peretz, will be the progenitor, ten generations later, of King David. 

The parashah ends, unhappily, with Joseph cast down again, into the royal dungeon. Here, too, he impresses his supervisor, but Pharoah’s chief butler, whose release Joseph foresees, “does not remember, and forgets him,” with the same indifference Joseph had received from his brothers. 

Vayeshev is a parashah of descents and darkness. It comes close to the winter solstice, the darkest days of the year. It also falls either just before Hanukah, the Feast of Lights, or on Shabbat during Hanukah. In the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai debate how we light the candles. Shammai says we start with eight candles and go down to one on the last night, like the cruse of oil diminishing each day, while Hillel says we start with one and add each day, which is what we do today. 

In Vayeshev, all the verses begin with letter “vav” – vai, vai, vai – indicating pain, sadness, darkness. But for nine verses, it is also perhaps a numerical hint (“gematria”?) of the nine candles which will burn that last night of Hanukah. In spite of the darkness, of the pits and dungeons we encounter in life, we must seek out the light, and if, hopefully, “the Lord is with us,” it will grow and we will see the images of our ancestors and be empowered to make the right decisions and overcome the obstacles. Shabbat Shalom and Hanukah Sameach! 

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb is Retired Director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and Editor of Torah Sparks 

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