Thoughts on Parashat Vayeshev

This week’s parsha is Vayeshev is Genesis 37.1 – 40.23.[i] While there are many things that could be spoken about, I have been specifically drawn to the first verses of the parsha, Genesis 37.1-11. Incidentally, this is the section read in synagogue on Monday and Thursday this week. There are several things in these first eleven verses that one should really be noted.

Let’s begin with the name of this parsha, vayeshev (וישב) literally, “and he sat” but with the understanding of living or dwelling. Jacob “dwelled in the land where his father sojourned (magur / מגור)” (v 1). Why two different words? It is possible that even though Isaac never left the land, he did not really settle in the land either – he was ready to move on to another place, within the boundaries of the land, if things became too difficult. Hence he sojourned, but there was ever present a fear that he would have to move on. Jacob, on the other hand sat, he put down roots with the intention of staying put. After sojourning with Laban for twenty years, he was home to stay.

The next verse sets the stage for the other important issue in this small section. “These are the genealogies of Jacob, when Joseph…” (v. 2). The sages are quick to point out that a fuller genealogy was given in last week’s parsha, Genesis 35.22-25. But the fact of the matter is, Jacob “loved Joseph more than all his other sons” (v 3) and wasn’t very good a hiding this fact – if he even tried. When Joseph’s brothers realized this fact, “they hated him and could not speak to him in shalom” (v 4). The JPS Study Bible[ii] translates it this way “they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” No matter how one looks at the situation, this is intense – and sad to say, it is Jacob’s fault. Solomon taught, “Train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22.6). It appears that, whether intended or not, Jacob taught his son Joseph, that he was more special than his other siblings. Also, Joseph’s special status clouded his brother’s understanding, as well as his father’s when Joseph shared with them his visions from the LORD. “Then Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers—and they hated him even more” (v 5); “Then his father rebuked him and said to him, ‘What’s this dream you dreamed? Will we really come—your mother and I with your brothers—to bow down to the ground to you?’” (v 10). In hindsight, we know these visions were true and from the LORD, and eventually were fulfilled in plain view of all. However, with the family situation the way it was, there was no way that Joseph’s brothers were going to accept anything from him – let’s face it, not only was he Jacob’s favorite son but it appears that he is favored of the LORD as well. The rest of the parsha does relate favorable conditions for young Joseph. How might things have gone differently if Jacob had treated Joseph and his brothers fairly? In the Apostolic Writings it is recorded,

But if you show favoritism, you are committing sin and are convicted by the Torah as transgressors. (James 2.9)

You are to do no injustice in judgment. You are not to be partial toward the poor nor show favoritism toward the great, but you are to judge your neighbor with fairness. (Leviticus 19.15)

Favoritism can potentially cloud the judgment not only of those less favored but also of the favored. Joseph’s brothers were blinded to the LORD’s working in his life, but Joseph was also blinded. Knowing that his brothers had a problem with his “status,” he probably should have kept his visions to himself. Joseph needed to learn to watch his words and realize that just because the LORD spoke to him, he did not necessarily need to share everything with everyone. There are times and seasons for all things. We need to follow Yeshua’s example “But Yeshua did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew all men” (John 2.24), as well as His mother’s “But Miriam treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2.19). We would do well to learn from Joseph, or as Solomon wrote,

For everything there is a season and a time for every activity under heaven: … a time to be silent and a time to speak… (Ecclesiastes 3.1 & 7)

The haftarah, Amos 2.6–3.8, is usually linked to the parsha by the words “A man and his father go to the same girl” (Amos 2.7) referring back to the narrative in Genesis 38 concerning Judah and Tamar. However, there is another connection that occurs even earlier, “For they sell the righteous for silver” (v 6). After the dream episodes, Joseph’s brothers (all except Reuven) decide to sell Joseph (Genesis 37.26-28) – “why kill him when we can make a bit of profit and still get rid of him?” Looking again at Jacob’s family relationships, one can only wonder how it got so bad that Joseph’s brothers would entertain the idea of killing him, and then actually selling him – just to get rid of him.

Later in the haftarah, the LORD asks “Can two walk together unless they meet by appointment?” (Amos 3.3). Joseph’s brothers agreed to get rid of Joseph one way or another. Jacob by his actions and treatment of Joseph set this scenario in play, showing that our actions and attitudes have far reaching effects on those around us. But it was not only Jacob’s error but Joseph’s as well. Rav Shaul wrote to the believers in Rome, “I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think—but to use sound judgment” (Romans 12.3). Like Joseph, each of us needs to be careful not to elevate ourselves or others to a higher position than we ought, or else we might just find ourselves in a pit – or someplace infinitely worse.

Shabbat Shalom

Remember that Motzei Shabbat begins the eight-day celebration of Chanukah with the lighting of the first candle. Among the various blessings that are said that evening, this one reminds us of who it is that has provided for us and will continue to do so.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.

Chanukah lights

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, with New JPS Translation and Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna. JPS, Philadelpha, 1989. p 256

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Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.