Parshat Vayeshev: The making of two men, Joseph and Judah

Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, and a leader in his time. But Judah was ultimately the leader of Israel. In this parsha we witness the making of these two titans.

Parshat Vayeshev virtually opens with a verse that is at once remarkably parallel and diametrically opposite to the opening verse of Parshat Toledot.

(Toledot: Genesis 25:19

ואלה תולדות יצחק בן אברהם אברהם הוליד את יצחק

This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac.

(Vayeshev: Genesis 37:2)

אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף בן שבע עשרה שנה

 This is the story of Jacob, Joseph was seventeen years old.

In both verses the Patriarch is being framed and defined by another personality. In the case of Isaac it is his father Abraham. In the case of Jacob it is his son Joseph. In effect Isaac is totally overshadowed by his father from whose greatness he derives his own place in history, while Jacob – although a far stronger personality than his own father Isaac – ultimately lives and flourishes under the generosity and shadow of his son Joseph.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Jacob plays favorites and appears to have every intention of passing the baton exclusively to one son, namely Joseph. But there is a difference in that both Abraham’s selection of Isaac at the expense of Ishmael (and his myriad siblings), and Isaac’s (ultimate and somewhat coerced) preference for Jacob are dictated by G-d.  Jacob’s preference for Joseph is pure prejudice. There is no evidence of G-d’s direction here, and no conceivable justification for this raw bias.

Apparently Joseph’s dreams of grandeur occur in his early childhood rather than in close proximity to the events that lead to his being sold into slavery.  This is evident both from the text and by common sense.

(Genesis 37:10) “And he told (the dream) to his father, and to his brothers; and his father growled* and told him: ‘What is this dream that you dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers come to bow down to the ground before you?”

From the verse it is clear that Rachel is still alive at the time, which would have been long before Joseph’s 17th year.  Hence I suggest that Jacob’s response was meant in jest rather than as a serious rebuke. And thus, the common translation of ‘vayig’ar bo’* as ‘and he rebuked him’ is more likely that he growled at Joseph playfully.

As well, it is highly unlikely that Jacob would dispatch Joseph to spy on his brothers in the immediate aftermath of a dream that provoked such a hostile reaction on the part of his siblings.

And finally, when it says regarding the dream (Genesis 37:11) “And his father kept the saying in his mind”; regardless of the implication of this phrase, the indication is that a prolonged period of time ensued.

Nevertheless, one has to question Jacob’s thinking when he sends Joseph alone to report on his brothers’ activities.  After all, why was Jacob worried about them? Why did he think Joseph, of all people, was the right candidate for this reconnaissance mission?  What possible good could come from shipping a coddled, spoiled and resplendently attired 17 year old all alone into the wilderness, let alone to check up on a band of hostile older men, even if they were his half brothers?

It could well be that, having acted as both father and mother to Joseph, Jacob has a conflicted attitude toward his favorite child.  Jacob is to Joseph what both Isaac and Rebecca were to himself.  On the one hand he desires to bequeath his mantle to this particular son, and at the same time, he cannot justify this desire as Joseph has yet to demonstrate any characteristics of leadership.

And so, Jacob instinctively – or knowingly – ships Joseph out into the wilderness, alone, unarmed, and ill prepared, much as he himself had been dispatched in similar fashion from his own father’s home. In doing so, Jacob hopes Joseph will become a man, much as he had become a man by confronting the fears and challenges of going unaccompanied into a hostile environment.

And, indeed, this is precisely what occurs. The Joseph we respect and revere, like his father before him, is not a born hero. He has to undergo a transformative series of solo experiences which cumulatively mold him into the leader and exemplar that is “Joseph the Righteous”, fit to rule his brothers and, indeed, even his own father.  Hence the inexplicable appearance of the ”man” (Genesis 37:15) “And a man found him as he was wandering in the field” – a striking parallel to Jacob’s encountering the “man” with whom he wrestled (Genesis 32:25) the moment in which Jacob’s destiny is actually sealed.

Tamar: The Fifth Matriarch?

Moving on to the fascinating episode of Judah and Tamar…

The first thing we notice is that Judah takes a Canaanite bride (Genesis 38:2) – with nary a word of rebuke from his father or mother. As I mentioned earlier, the issue of Canaanite brides appears to have been Rebecca’s ruse to gain Isaac’s complicity in shipping Jacob off to Laban. In truth, neither she nor Isaac had any real objection to local girls, evidence Esau’s marrying several of them without any indication of Isaac’s disapproval. Rebecca’s belated histrionics regarding Canaanite brides was intended to remind Isaac that his own father had sent away for a bride from Haran, and hence he was tricked into believing that perhaps, indeed, Abraham viewed local girls with disfavor.

Far more likely in Abraham’s case, as if often the case with first generation immigrants, he felt more comfortable sending for a bride from his hometown.  His preference was not necessarily a negative judgment of Canaanite girls.

The other noticeable anomaly is that Tamar, in posing as a prostitute, veils her face.

Apparently, covering a woman’s face was not a sign of modesty in those times. Rather it was an expression of a woman’s desire to be invisible to a particular man —  Tamar did not want to be seen by Judah for obvious reasons.  Rebecca did not wish to be seen by Issaac, or perhaps she did not desire to see him; “And she took the veil and covered herself” (Genesis 24:65). Judah took Tamar for a prostitute, “because her face was veiled”.

Could it be that it was covering her face that made it possible for Rebecca to cohabit with Isaac just as it was covering her face that made it possible for Tamar to cohabit with Judah?

Parenthetically, it is evident that the Tamar-Judah liaison was not a one-time occurrence. Surely she did not assume that a single encounter could guaranty the desired results. Hence her requesting three different pawns from Judah, when one would have sufficed per encounter. Scripture as much as tells us that Judah, upon realizing the harlot’s identity; “ … ceased to know her further” (Genesis 38:26), clear evidence that their transactions were somewhat extended.

In this Parsha, yet again, we see how seemingly insignificant occurrences, and experience that might seem negative at the time, often play a key role in the unfolding of developments of epic if not cosmic importance.  As human beings, we live on a small stage and concern ourselves with the petty daily dramas without realizing – or even considering the possibility – that these momentary setbacks are crucial parts of a far larger production.  Indeed, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Tamar: The making of Judah

Yet the story of Judah and Tamar is not simply an ancillary tale in the larger drama of Vayeshev. Indeed it is a critical, even seminal, episode in Jewish history.

While tension and dysfunction were hardly unprecedented in the sagas of the first two Patriarchs, neither was there any evidence of the sort of unanchored mayhem and potential fratricide that we observe in the chronicle of Jacob. Compared to the madness that seems endemic in Jacob’s household, the families of Abraham and Isaac were models of serenity.

Where did Jacob go wrong? Or did he? Why was he, alone among the Patriarchs, living in a vortex of conflicting passions and plottings that bordered on fratricide, and stopped barely short of such murder? How could he be so clueless and so incapable of ruling his roost?

Perhaps the answer lays in the fact that Jacob did not have a Sarah or a Rebecca in his life. The first two Matriarchs were not merely vessels for the bearing of sons. They were strong, smart, proactive, sharp tongued, strategic-minded, and possessed of iron wills.

Were it not for Sarah, Abraham would have been adrift and Jewish history would have been a non-starter. He seems to have been content with Ishmael as his son and heir, and even after the arrival of Isaac, somewhat ambivalent regarding his parental preferences. It was Sarah who put her foot down, forcing him to evict Hagar and Ishamel; tough measures that met with the Almighty’s approval.

Sarah’s daughter-in-law Rebecca was a smooth, smart, strategically savvy woman who prevented her husband Isaac from making the catastrophic mistake of driving his blessings and legacy through Esau.

We can only surmise that these two women were hardly pushovers, even on a day-to-day basis, and exerted a great deal of influence that helped keep their households functional.

There may not have been much romantic love between Abraham and Sarah, or Isaac and Rebecca. But it is clear that the women were the gyroscopes that gave stability to their respective marriages, and without doubt determined the course of history.

Jacob had no such woman in his life. He hated Leah, and his beloved Rachel died too soon to manifest any complimentary stability. Jacob was left on his own with twelve, mostly unruly boys, a wife he detested and two servant girls, Bilha and Zilpah, who are first upgraded to the status of wives in our parsha (Gen 37:2).

As a result, the entire mishpacha seems on the verge of meltdown. Jacob cannot manage alone, and none of his sons seems to offer the kind of galvanizing leadership that would impel his siblings to fall into place.

Our tradition suggests that Judah, in this parsha, establishes himself as a true leader through two acts; the first being his ‘saving’ Joseph’s life by arranging his sale into slavery (see above), the second is his rising to the occasion and coming clean when Tamar presents the evidence of his paternity (“She has been more righteous than me…” – Gen 38:26).

And, yet these two examples seem to fall somewhat short of establishing one’s credibility as a leader and as the progenitor of royalty and the Messiah. After all, if one were to run for President of the United States on the basis of having not murdered his brother (merely sold him to a bunch of Arabs) and of having confessed to a sexual peccadillo, not too many voters would be persuaded to cast their ballots in his favor.

Hence I would like to suggest another explanation for Judah’s ultimate maturation into the undisputed leader of his brethren, and as the Patriarch of the Davidic/Messianic line. And this explanation can be summed up in one word: “Tamar”.

From the text alone we know absolutely nothing about this woman, other than the fact that Judah’s firstborn son Er – from his Canaanite wife – married a girl by the name of Tamar. We are told nothing about her nationality, tribe, color, religion, father, mother, or siblings if she even had any.

And yet, if we observe her conduct and deeds over the course of a long and despairingly lonely widowhood, we witness the blossoming of an incredibly strong woman. What’s more she emerges ultimately as a woman who, if not divinely inspired with prophecy or the holy spirit (ruah ha-kodesh) has a profound faith and the courage of convictions that are simply staggering.

Widowed relatively young from her childless husband Er, Tamar expects to be wedded in levirate marriage to his brother Onan whose responsibility it is to make sure the deceased brother’s legacy will continue through his surviving sibling.

Onan shirks his responsibility, and is killed by G-d. The remaining brother Shelah, is very young. Judah uses his youth as an excuse to withhold him from Tamar, who is then consigned to her father’s house in widow’s weeds until Shelah is old enough to fulfill his obligations.

But this never occurs. For whatever reasons, Judah does not allow Shelah to take Tamar (Gen 38:14) who, by now, is no longer in the first blush of womanhood. She has patiently, and chastely spent her years in anticipation of a union that never materializes.

But this is a woman with a mission. She will not go passively into old age without child. More importantly, she clearly has a sense of destiny, and knows that she will have children, and that these children will be the progeny of Jacob and Judah. Her determination is absolute. And thus she organizes her plot to entrap Judah who has yet to hit his stride as a mature and focused man.

Her plan is to pose as a veiled prostitute at a crossroad that Judah is expected to traverse (Gen 38-16). He would then avail himself of her services which would result in her impregnation. His purse would be empty, therefore necessitating his providing his personal rod and seals as security against subsequent payment (Gen 38:17-18). When word would get out that his now pregnant daughter-in-law violated the norms of widowhood and had indulged in harlotry, he would arrange to have her burned in an honor killing (Gen 3:24-25). At the very last moment she would produce the evidence of his paternity and the rest would be history.

And indeed this is how it all works out.

But let us stop for a moment and consider the statistical likelihood of any of these stages working out as planned. The probability of the ultimate denouement being successful seems pitifully close to zero.

Let us begin with her sitting temptingly at the crossroads. It is not every man who happens by who engages a harlot’s services. In fact most simply ignore her offerings. And yet, Tamar counts on the fact that Judah will succumb to her charms. Rather a long shot.

Secondly she is counting on the fact that Judah will be without the means to pay her. For had Judah had his purse with him, Tamar would have met a dreadful end. She would have become pregnant. She would have lacked the evidence of Judah’s paternity, and her honor killing would have been a foregone conclusion.

Thirdly, Tamar absolutely believes she will become pregnant from this single encounter. Again, the statistical likelihood of a woman who has been abstinent for so many years becoming pregnant from a single act is a long shot at best.

And finally, Tamar is counting on Judah coming clean when she presents him with the pawns she had taken in lieu of payment. One can easily imagine Judah denying any knowledge of her, and claiming his personal effects had been stolen as he consigns her to the flames.

For a woman to build her hopes on such flimsy assumptions proves that we are dealing here with a woman whose sense of destiny and determination are of a caliber that is beyond the reach of most mortals.

Indeed she foreshadows the saga of Ruth. Both are childless non-Israelite widows in quest of levirate marriage and children. Both have a burning desire to be part of the Israelite nation and faith. Both use their sensuality to insinuate themselves into the favor of Judah and Boaz respectively. And both become Matriarchs of the royal Davidic/Messianic line that descends from Judah.

Which brings us back to the original question, namely what

is the relevance of the Judah/Tamar story to this week’s parsha? The answer, of course, is everything.

By marrying Tamar, Judah brings the much needed and normalizing balance into Jacob’s family. It is Tamar who succeeds Sarah and Rebecca as a de facto Matriarch. And it is through her that Judah ultimately finds the stability that enables him to restore some normality to Jacob’s family, and fulfill his true potential as an undisputed primo inter pares, the leader and galvanizer of Jacob’s sons.





About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.