For Beit Warszawa. 12th. December 2020.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
This week’s sidra starts off with a calm, reassuring verse about Jacob feeling at last that he can settle down in peace in the land where his fathers were only wandering foreigners. ”Vayeshev Ya’akov be’Eretz megurey Aviv, beEretz Canaan.” It is, sadly, about the last calm verse in the whole sidra. Ironically, before the chapter is over Joseph, the son whom Jacob favours over the others, has managed to annoy everybody by spouting on about dreams of grandeur, his half-brothers have decided to take matters into their own hands rather than relying on God, they have kidnapped him and – the details get a little confused as to who sold whom to whom for how much but it doesn’t really matter, suddenly Joseph is NOT dwelling in the land where his father is living and where his grandfather was a sojourner but is himself now a stranger in a strange land – not just that but a powerless slave, bought and sold like a Thing, an object. For Jacob, living in the land but without his beloved son is also only half a life.
In chapter 35 he and his estranged twin brother Esau – who has also had five sons from three wives but somehow without the same sibling stresses – have buried together their father Isaac in Hebron – and ironically this part of the family – now called the Edomites – LEAVE the land. In 36:4 Esau ”took his wives and sons and daughters and all the 'souls of his house’ (an echo here of the phrase used of Abraham and Sarah in 12:5) and all his beasts and possessions which he had acquired in Canaan and went to another land away from his brother Jacob; for it was not possible for them to dwell together in ”the land of their wanderings” – so they headed east to what became known as 'Edom’ after the nickname for Esau, 'the red one’ – what we would now call the Kingdom of Jordan. Esau voluntarily and sensibly separates to avoid potential conflict, an echo of the division earlier between Abraham and Lot, or between Jacob and Avimelech, when their flocks and herds get too extensive as to be able to share the same scarce resources of land and water. How strange and how convenient – Jacob, who had been so afraid of Esau as he returned from Haran in chapter 32, who had sent gifts ahead, and who later in chapter 33 first encounters Esau at last then lies to him, saying he will follow but instead thinking he can settle in Shechem, buy land, stop wandering – undergoes the embarrassment (to put it mildly) of two of his sons massacring the inhabitants of Shechem (chapter 34) but is now in 37:1 able to relax because all his external threats have politely removed themselves – only to be confronted now by the internal tensions which split his family apart.
It is rare that anyone looks at this context, which is why I make no apology for citing at length from last week’s sidra. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The sons of Jacob are not stupid and they have seen how their father lies to his own brother, they must know the story also of how their father was prepared to trick his own father Isaac and pretend to be someone else, their uncle. (Come to that, they must know how their Grandmother Rivka encouraged their father to perform the intrigue and then they must have heard how Mother Leah (mother of six of them) tricked Mother Rachel (mother of Joseph and Benjamin) by agreeing to get married off to their father first – thus asserting the first-born Daughter’s rights.) So when they in turn come to conspire to deprive their brother Joseph of any first-born rights and privileges, or when they come together to trick their father with a piece of bloodstained clothing (which they themselves had stained!) one is entitled to ask where they had first learned of these modes of behaviour.
Then suddenly in chapter 38 we get a total change of scene but essentially another story concerned with the rights and inheritances of the first-born. Judah marries a local girl in Canaan – well, this is what it means to be a resident and no longer a sojourner here! – and has a son Er, then another Onan, then a third Shelach. Just like that. No lengthy problems with infertility. Now Jacob has become a grandfather, though we get no mention of any contact, we get no mention of Er being the first-born grandson or any privileges. All we read is that Judah takes a wife for Er – presumably also a local girl, not one of his nieces? – Tamar, the date palm. Er, however, comes to an Er-ly grave. What to do? Since he was the first born, it is important to keep his lineage intact and so Tamar is simply married off to Onan with the intention that Onan should provide a son for his deceased brother. In terms of the context of how brothers have cheated brothers until now so as to prevent them getting any status and inheritance, it can hardly be described as surprising that Onan decides not to perform his duty – the later term is 'levirate marriage’ although it is Judah, not Levi, who first organises it. (Actually this is just a bad pun, the word ’Levir’ is Latin not Hebrew and just means 'brother-in-law’). So Onan leaves the scene abruptly as well. Which leaves Tamar as a double-widow stuck waiting until her remaining brother-in-law is old enough to step up to the plate. In the meantime her mother-in-law Shua also dies and Judah, now a lonely widower, seeks some comfort on a commercial basis. Tamar takes advantage of this, disguises herself (so Judah does not realise he is with a 'blind Date’) and at last she is made pregnant – albeit by her father-in-law, not her brother-in-law. Judah is furious at her ”infidelity” – (in fact she is not married any more, just betrothed to the third son) until he is publicly embarrassed by her, as she fights to save herself from execution. And the result is – oh no! – ANOTHER pair of quarrelling twins, Peretz and Zerah.
What on earth is the Torah trying to tell us with this chapter? Which is not one that appears prominently in Children’s Bibles.
In the meantime Joseph is facing his own temptations and troubles in Egypt where he is bought by the Chief of Police whose wife takes a fancy to him and makes false accusations when he does NOT succumb to her pressures and pleadings. (I would say ”her charms” except that the Torah never tells us that she was attractive, only that Joseph was…. and using the 'argument from silence’ there is an implication that she is childless and maybe, like Tamar, she is also simply desperate to get pregnant from anyone who is around when her busy husband is always away fighting the Pharaoh’s enemies; Why would she take the risk otherwise?) In case one might think he could not sink any lower, from being a slave he now becomes an imprisoned slave. Once more he interprets dreams – this time not his own – and he is proved correct, for one of his fellow prisoners is executed whereas the other is amnestied and liberated – but, despite having promised to put in a good word for Joseph, he neglects to do so.
What a long and tortuous journey we have come from chapter 37 verse 1 to chapter 40 verse 23! Jacob thought he was settled at last, but first his favourite son disappears, presumed killed, then his fourth son loses two sons of his own and unwittingly conceives two sons who will also be his grandsons…. and Joseph in Egypt is stuck in a stinking jail. Later we will define ourselves as ”the children of Jacob” or ”the children of Israel” (Jacob’s alternate name) but truly, one wonders whether this is the sort of family one can be proud of, or whether one would rather keep quiet about one’s origins….
What can we learn from all this?
First – to be careful. It is at precisely the moment when one feels one can relax, that one has eliminated another ethnic group from the country, that the next catastrophe can hit!
Secondly – to be modest. Our ancestors were not the sort of people whom one can hold up as models of moral integrity, of filial love, of sibling solidarity, of ethics and spirituality. When one works with people one soon learns that the majority of abuse and violence – including sexual – occurs within the home, within families. Those politicians and fundamentalist clergy who trumpet ”Family Values!” as a solution to all modern problems should be aware of that. Often one feels they have never actually read the book they hold up so eagerly. Admittedly some of the families described in these chapters would be described more as 'patchwork’ and 'extended’ but all are dysfunctional.
Thirdly – to be aware that there MIGHT be a long-term divine plan behind so much of what happens. It is clearly God’s plan that Jacob and his family should come to settle to Egypt – at the end of chapter 46 and in 47:6 they come to ”dwell, settle”, ”yashvu ba’aretz Goshen” – the same word as our sidra ”Vayeshev” began. God had already told Abraham that his descendants would have to go to a foreign land and serve there….. In 15:13 God told Abraham that his descendants would serve another people four hundred years in a foreign land, but in 17:8 had also told Abraham that his descendants would inherit the ”eretz megurecha, Eretz Canaan”, the ”land of your wanderings, the land of Canaan”. The text is full of these echoes and resonances and word-plays which form a background surrounding structure to the narrative and there is always a danger that if one focusses on just one sidra at a time one will overlook these parallels and this context.
Then – Peretz will be mentioned again in 46:12 as one of the family of Judah who come to Egypt as a refugee from a land stricken by famine but, much more significantly, in Ruth 4 he is listed as one of the ancestors of Boaz and hence of King David….. which means that David, who is also a younger son who has to outshine his older brothers, who will also have many competitive sons by several wives (some of them even his own!) will be himself a descendant from someone born under exceptional circumstances in this sidra. (Plus a Moabite mother). Was this the divine plan already? Why else is this chapter inserted?
The story will continue. Don’t miss next week’s exciting episode! (Spoiler alert – Joseph gets out of jail! His brothers will come to buy grain from state warehouses, whereas their own descendants will later have to build yet more warehouses….) But never forget that each episode is precisely that – just one part of a lengthy story, one which has (thank God!) not ended yet…..
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild