Weekly Reading Insights: Vayeishev

Overview of the Torah Reading

To be read on Shabbat Vayeishev, 23 Kislev 5783/Dec.17

Torah: Gen.37:1-40:23; Num. 7:18-23; Haftorah: Amos 2:6-3:8

Vayeishev is the 9th Reading out of 12 in Genesis and it contains 5972 letters, in 1558 words, in 112 verses

Vayeishev describes how Yosef shepherded with his brothers and brought bad reports of them to Yaacov. Yosef was Yaacov's favorite son, to whom he gave a colorful coat, but this favoritism bred jealousy towards Yosef. By reporting in detail two dreams he had, Yosef provoked even more jealousy. One day, the brothers went to shepherd in Shechem, and Yaacov asked Yosef to go to them. Seeing Yosef approach, the brothers plot to kill the 'dreamer'. Reuven stopped them and suggested throwing Yosef into a pit instead, in the secret hope of saving Yosef later. After removing his coat, the brothers threw Yosef into the pit. In Reuven's absence the remaining brothers sold Yosef to merchants who were on their way to Egypt. To hide their deed, the brothers dipped Yosef's coat in goat blood. Believing his son killed by wild animals, Yaacov grieved inconsolably. Yosef was sold to Potifar, captain of Pharaoh's guard. Meanwhile, Yehuda married and had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shela. Er married Tamar. When Er died in consequence of a sin, Yehuda told Onan to marry Tamar and have a child to carry on Er's name. Onan died as well due to his sins. Yehuda was reluctant to let her marry his third son. When Yehuda went to shear sheep, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and became pregnant from Yehuda. As payment to the 'prostitute' he doesn't recognize, Yehuda promised a goat, and as collateral gave her his seal, wrap, and staff. Sentenced to death for unlawful pregnancy, Tamar sent Yehuda his seal, wrap and staff, hinting to her innocence but protecting him from embarrassment. Yehuda declared Tamar's righteousness. Tamar gave birth to twin boys, Peretz and Zerach. In Egypt, Yosef became manager of Potifar's house, but attracted the attention of Potifar's wife. Because Yosef evaded her advances, she became angry and accused Yosef of trying to rape her. Yosef was subsequently imprisoned. He became the supervisor of the other prisoners. Pharaoh's butler and baker were imprisoned in the same dungeon. Each dreamt a dream which Yosef interpreted correctly: The baker was to be sentenced to death, but the butler would be returned to his position. Yosef asked the butler to mention him to Pharaoh, hoping this would free him. Yet when the butler was released, he forgot his promise to Yosef.

An Essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent

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This week's Torah portion, Vayeishev, begins with the conflict between Yosef and his brothers and continues until we find Yosef unjustly imprisoned in Egypt. The portion ends with the story about Yosef and the two stewards of Pharaoh, who were also imprisoned. Yosef had been commanded to attend to their needs. One day he notices that they are unhappy. Yosef asks, "Why do you look so sad today?"

The Torah is teaching each of us a crucial lesson that can change our lives, and the course of history. Yosef was not only stolen from his father's house, but also sold as a slave, among the worst things that could happen to a person. And once he arrived in Egypt he was thrown into prison because he acted in a moral way. The Torah is clear that he did not misbehave or commit any crime.

In such circumstances, the way that most people would react is to be broken, bitter and distant, rather than alert, sensitive and communicative. Even more, it is natural to be especially angry with the establishment, in particular Pharaoh's officers, since it was one of them actually had him imprisoned.

Not so Yosef. As soon as he saw that the two stewards were unhappy, he immediately wanted to help, reaching out and speaking to them directly. Remember too, this is a prison where it is "normal" to be unhappy. Yosef was so focused, he actually discerned that they were even more unhappy than usual and put himself forward to ask about it. We are not referring to hunger or thirst, a situation that would put anyone into crisis mode, but people who were emotionally distraught.

It was Yosef's concern for the wellbeing of another, even though he himself was in difficult straits, that ultimately led to his own freedom and opened the door for his rise to glory as Viceroy. (See next week's portion, Miketz, where the wine steward eventually remembers Yosef.) In the end, it was a salvation for the Jewish people and entire world from famine and starvation.

How do we use this lesson in our own lives? Everyone agrees that when another person is hungry or thirsty, ill or in physical danger, the Torah commands us to assist them. But what about a person's mental or spiritual needs? Where is the mitzvah (commandment)? Where does it say in the Torah that I should invest my valuable time to help a Jew with their emotional or spiritual life?

This is the lesson we learn from Yosef the Tzadik ("the Holy One" as he is often called). Yosef put himself out for the sake of another person just because they looked sad. This was not a commandment, just a decent and kind thing to do. He understood that non-material needs are as important as physical needs. And what happened as a result? Salvation was brought to the entire world!

The Torah is not a story book. It is teaching us how to behave in the most effective way for ourselves and for the sake of the world. What point is the Torah trying to make? Through helping another person, we can merit to save the entire world.

[Adapted from Likrat Shabbat 5770]

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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


Specifically, for an overview of the recommended articles in the columns:
Holy Zohar, Holy Ari, Mystic Classics, Chasidic Masters, Contemporary Kabbalists, and more, click to Vayeishev

one sample:

Mystical Classics

Seal, Cord and Staff

From the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach of Avritch

When Judah (the metaphor for G-d) is "informed" that His bride Tamar (the Jewish people) has betrayed Him, substituting him with another partner, Tamar is convicted.

But the Jew says to G-d, 'Gaze into my identity and you will see that my intimacy is shared only with You, G-d', to which G-d answers, "The Jew going astray is my fault…because I did not give Tamar to my son Shelah," referring to the Mashiach.

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