This week’s parsha- “VaYeishev” (and he dwelled) is the beginning of a long, long narrative devoted to the life and adventures of Joseph, Jacob’s favourite son. In unusual detail 4 weeks of Torah readings, 13 chapters of text, are dedicated to Joseph’s trajectory from being a shepherd’s son to becoming second in command to the ruler of a large and powerful nation. In this parsha we do get another story as well, the story of Yehuda and Tamar. What I will do today is compare the paths of these two brothers.
Our parsha begins stating that Isaac loved Joseph more than all his other children, and made him a striped, or multi -coloured, coat. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and aggravated by him, especially after he shared his dreams of grandeur with his brothers. Not only had he been given a regal coat by his father, but shared the dream in which his entire family bowed down to him. The brothers were so angry they decided to kill him. Yehuda was the one sibling who spoke up and convinced them not to murder Joseph, rather they should sell him to passing traders.
As the stories play out we witness certain events in the lives of Yehuda and Yosef. Yosef was the favoured son, given a regal gift by his doting father. He had dreams of grandeur then was abruptly thrown into a pit and sold into slavery. In Egypt he was bought by Potiphar, rose to a position of responsibility within Potiphar’s home, then was thrown into jail because of Potiphar’s jealous and conniving wife. In prison he once again rose to a position of influence where he interpreted two dreams. Ultimately he was taken out of jail to again interpret two dreams for the Pharaoh. Through his correct interpretation of the dreams he became Grand Vizier over of all of Egypt. He became a leader, and a man of power.
Yehuda had a very different path. He iwa the fourth son of Isaac and Leah and barely mentioned until the incident where he saved Yosef from death. There is an unexpected story in the midst of this parsha featuring Yehuda and Tamar, his daughter-in-law. Yehuda “went down from his brothers” and married an unnamed Canaanite woman. They had three sons. The oldest, Er, married a woman named Tamar. Er was punished by God and died, so Yehuda had his next son, Onan, marry Tamar. Onan also sinned and was punished by God and died. Yehuda thought the deaths were Tamar’s fault. Instead of taking care of her he sent her away ostensibly until his third son, Shuah, could marry her. When years passed and Tamar realized she would forever be forgotten she took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a lady of the night. Yehuda, not knowing her identity, slept with her. It’s an interesting story. Ultimately Tamar was to be punished for being a harlot. When Tamar proved to Yehuda that her situation had been untenable due to his wrongful actions Yehuda took responsibility. Tamar gave birth to twins. Her son Perez was the first of the Davidic line. Later in the Yosef narrative Yehuda took a lead role in Egypt and attempted to alleviate and solve difficult issues.
These different paths of Yehuda and Yosef are thought provoking. Yosef was the favoured and talented son. He consistently became a leader wherever he lived. Each time he was toppled from his position he would rise again, becoming an advisor, an interpreter, and a leader. It would have been logical for him to be seen as the next leader of the Jewish people. Why did that role fall to Yehuda?
When we look at Yehuda’s life we see that he made some challenging decisions. He disagreed with his brothers and convinced them to let Yosef live. He left his father’s home to marry a Canaanite woman. This seems to have been against the family culture. Remember, Isaac went to Padan Aram in order to avoid marrying a Canaanite. It is possible that he wanted to leave behind the fighting and jealousy rife within his family. By separating from them and marrying a Canaanite he could live a more straightforward life, one without bickering and rivalry. His integrity is obvious in how he honoured Tamar’s testimony and how he was the first of the brothers to step forward and try to negotiate with the Grand Vizier of Egypt. In contrast Yosef was a product of circumstance. He didn’t take strong initiative. His intelligence, talent, and of course God’s guidance helped him through each step of his interesting life.
We are called “Yehudim”- Jews- named after Yehuda, the fourth son.
King David, our greatest king, and King Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem descended from Yehuda. And the Messiah is from that same line. Yehuda was the son who knew that to lead a life of observance and truth he had to separate himself from the pettiness and jealousy that weakened his birth family. He retained his identity and love of God while separating from the in fighting. He joined in the family events and family crises while preserving his integrity.
I hope we can all learn to do the same, to retain our identity and Jewish faith while separating ourselves from what is petty and negative. And like Yosef- may we be able to interpret our dreams for good and follow our dreams to create a better world.
Shabbat Shalom, Laya