Parshat Vayeshev marks the beginning of the story of Joseph and his brothers. It takes us from the intense sibling rivalry that leads to throwing Joseph in the pit and subsequently selling him to passing traders who in turn sold him on to Ishmaelites en route to Egypt. It ends with Joseph in Egypt, with the episode of attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife and the resulting imprisonment. And despite interpreting the butler’s dream leading to his reinstatement, the sedra ends with Joseph languishing in jail forgotten and alone.
The midrash famously refers to Joseph as a righteous man. And some commentators suggest that Joseph himself was the very purpose of Jacob’s family line and the source of all holiness. The second verse of Vayeshev reads, “These are the generations of Jacob Joseph,” indicating to the Hasidic masters that Joseph was the moral continuation of Jacob. His very name comes from the root, to add (לְהוֹסִיף), which can be interpreted as growing in holiness. It is indeed clear that over the course of his life and through his lived experience, Joseph grows from an impetuous young self-absorbed brother to a role model who has overcome many challenges and emerged stronger and capable of unifying his family.
We admire his sexual restraint — rejecting the advances of his master’s wife; his wisdom — ability to interpret dreams; his administrative talent; and the fact that he saves his family from starvation during a famine. He is clearly a successful leader and economist, devising a plan to survive a devastating famine across the entire region: וְכָל הָאָרֶץ בָּאוּ מִצְרַיְמָה לִשְׁבֹּר אֶל יוֹסֵף כִּי חָזַק הָרָעָב בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ “So all the earth came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the earth” (Gen. 41: 57). This hyperbole underscores Joseph’s global importance. He was the savior of all the inhabitants of the known world at the time.
However, this parasha is much more than Andrew Lloyd Webber would have us believe. Its complex narrative structure sheds light on the character of Joseph but also asks us to question his righteousness.
In chapter 38, there is a discreet and unusual section that interrupts our narrative. Judah leaves his family, according to Rashi, because his brothers made him feel guilty for selling Joseph and causing Jacob to fall into depression. Tamar seduces her father-in-law Judah disguised as a “kedeshah” (prostitute) on the roadside. After the death of her husband Er and being duped by his brother Onan who refuses to fulfil his “yibum” (levirate marriage) obligations and give her a child to perpetuate the name of his dead brother and giving up waiting for her father-in-law to give her his third and final son, she takes matters into her own hands. She sleeps with Judah and becomes pregnant with twins.
There are many parallels in the stories of Joseph and Judah. Tamar, like Potiphar’s wife, entraps her man. Like the brothers bringing Joseph’s bloodstained coat as proof of his death, Tamar brings Judah’s staff and signet ring to him as proof that it was indeed he who had slept with her. The same word “וַיַּכֵּ֣ר” (and he recognized) is used as a clear intended echo. Judah’s admission of guilt raises his moral stature, making him worthy of his future position of authority as a progenitor of the kings of Israel. Tamar is vindicated.
Joseph’s record is checkered. Economic theorists have analyzed his policies (chapter 47:13-27) which instituted a new social system reducing the status of the Egyptian farmer by appropriating their land and allowing them to farm as serfs in exchange for a 20 percent tax. Some comment that this even leads them to be more willing to enslave the Israelites remembering Joseph having turned them into landless serfs. Others criticize his full-on Egyptization, signified by his abandonment of his Israelite identity and heritage in exchange for power which goes further than political expediency requires.
Both Joseph and Judah are described as characters with flaws and yet we know they are both leaders of the dominant tribes and both have a lasting legacy.
Yet what of the legacy of Tamar? She demonstrates traits which speak to our 21st century growth mindset of personal development. She shows real courage. She is loyal to Judah’s family and manages to heal their internal fractures. She shows what it is to take initiative and be assertive for the greater good. She knows when to wait and when she is called upon to act. She shows how to resolve a situation with minimal shame or embarrassment of the other.
She transgresses and causes Judah to transgress too and she still proves her righteousness. She causes Judah to grow by acknowledging and learning from his mistakes. According to Rashi, she is vindicated by Judah who marries her. Joseph is well known for his strategy to demonstrate to his brothers their wrongdoing and to help them repent. However, Tamar is a lesser known agent for change. She has no kingdom named for her and no musical celebrating her ascent to power and yet we should celebrate her. She is not shamed by God for her transgression. To the contrary, Perez her first born, produced the line leading to King David and ultimately, we are told, to the messiah. Her qualities are also demonstrated in Ruth, who appears later in the lineage of Perez and preserves Boaz’s part of that line.
So as we read Vayeshev let us focus on the less told and more complex story. Let us see these figures not as a source of embarrassment or shame, but as a roadmap for growth and true heroism.