Jacob settled . . . (Genesis 37:1)
Jacob desired to settle in tranquility, but there pounced upon him the agony of Joseph. For when the righteous wish to settle in tranquility, G‑d says: “Is it not enough for the righteous what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they ask also for a tranquil life in this world?”
These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years old . . . (37:2)
Should not have the verse said, “These are the generations of Jacob: Reuben, etc.”? Why Joseph?
Because everything that happened to Jacob happened to Joseph. As Jacob was born circumcised, so was Joseph born circumcised. As Jacob’s mother was infertile, so was Joseph’s mother infertile. As Jacob’s mother had difficulty in childbirth, so did Joseph’s mother have difficulty in childbirth. As Jacob’s mother bore two sons, so did Joseph’s mother bear two sons. As Jacob was hated by his brother, so was Joseph hated by his brothers. As Jacob’s brother sought to kill him, so did Joseph’s brothers seek to kill him.
Jacob was a shepherd, and Joseph was a shepherd. Jacob was persecuted, and Joseph was persecuted. Jacob was blessed with ten blessings, and Joseph was blessed with ten blessings. Jacob was exiled from the Holy Land, and Joseph was exiled from the Land. Jacob took a wife outside the Land, and Joseph took a wife outside the Land. Jacob fathered children outside the Land, and Joseph fathered children outside the Land. Jacob was escorted by angels, and Joseph was escorted by angels. Jacob was made great through a dream, and Joseph was made great through a dream. The house of Jacob’s father-in-law was blessed on his account, and the house of Joseph’s father-in-law was blessed on his account. Jacob went down to Egypt, and Joseph went down to Egypt. Jacob ended the famine, and Joseph ended the famine. Jacob adjured [his children], and Joseph adjured [his brothers]. Jacob charged [his children], and Joseph charged [his brothers]. Jacob died in Egypt, and Joseph died in Egypt. Jacob was embalmed, and Joseph was embalmed. The bones of Jacob were brought up [from Egypt to the Holy Land], and the bones of Joseph were brought up [from Egypt to the Holy Land] . . .
Jacob fathered tribes, and Joseph fathered tribes. Jacob was lost to his father for 22 years, and Joseph was lost to his father for 22 years. Jacob was indentured on account of a woman, and Joseph was imprisoned on account of a woman. Jacob supported Joseph for 17 years, and Joseph supported Jacob for 17 years . . .
(Midrash Rabbah, Zohar, et al)
Joseph brought their evil report to his father (37:2)
Said the sages: Two righteous men were punished on account of the bearing of malevolent reports—Jacob and Joseph. Because Joseph spoke badly of his brothers, he was incarcerated in prison for 12 years; and because Jacob listened to these reports, the divine spirit departed from him for 22 years. This teaches us that one who speaks negatively of another is punished once, while someone who listens to negative talk about another is twice punished.
(Pirkei d’Rabbeinu HaKadosh)
Israel loved Joseph more than all his children . . . and his brothers envied him (37:3, 11)
“Love is strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6)—this is the love with which Jacob loved Joseph. . . . “Envy is harsh as the grave” (ibid.)—this is the envy of the brothers to Joseph. What can love achieve in the face of envy?
Said Reish Lakish in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah: A person should not discriminate among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our father Jacob made for Joseph, “they hated him.”
Ketonet passim in the Hebrew. The word passim can be translated as “colorful” (Radak; Septuagint), “embroidered” (Ibn Ezra; Bachya; Nachmanides on Exodus 28:2), “striped” (Ibn Janach; Radak, Shorashim) or “illustrated” (Targum Yonathan). It can also denote a long garment, coming down to the “palms” of the hands (Rashbam; Ibn Ezra; Baalei Tosafoth; Midrash Rabbah) and the feet (Lekach Tov). Alternatively, the word denotes the material out of which the coat was made, which was fine wool (Rashi) or silk (Ibn Janach). Hence, ketonet passim may be translated as “a full-sleeved robe,” “a coat of many colors,” “a coat reaching to his feet,” “an ornamented tunic,” “a silk robe” or “a fine woolen cloak.”
(The Living Torah)
They could not speak peaceably to him (37:4)
From what is stated to their discredit, we may infer something to their credit: they did not speak one thing with their mouth while having something quite different in their hearts.
Joseph dreamed a dream, and told it to his brothers. . . . “Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and behold, your sheaves stood all around, and bowed down to my sheaf.” (37:5-7).
We live in a disjointed and fragmented world. Its countless components each seem to be going their own way, each creation seeking only its own preservation and advancement. Our own lives include countless events and experiences, espousing different priorities, pulling us in different directions.
But this is but the most superficial face of reality. The deeper we probe nature and its laws, the more we uncover an underlying unity. The more we assimilate the lessons of life, the more we discern a “guiding hand” and a coherent destiny. The more we utilize our talents and resources, all the more do the various aspects of our uniquely individual role fall in place.
This is the deeper significance of Joseph’s dream. We are all bundlers in the field of life. Here, each stalk grows in its own distinct little furrow; our challenge is to bring focus to this diversity, to gather these stalks together and bind them as a single sheave.
But this alone is not enough. As Joseph saw in his dream, his brothers’ individual bundles stood in a circle and bowed to his. This means that while every individual should view the various components of his life as a distinct “bundle,” the piecing together of his life is not an end in itself, but the means to a higher goal. In the words of our sages, “The entire world was created only for my sake, and I was created only to serve my Creator.” So while every person should view his entire world—the resources and opportunities which Divine Providence has sent his way—as being there for him, this “bundle” must in turn be dedicated to the fulfillment of his divinely ordained mission in life.
The way this is achieved is by subjugating one’s own bundle to “Joseph’s bundle.” The Torah is G‑d’s communication of His will to man, and charts the course for man to serve his Creator. And each generation has its “Joseph,” an utterly righteous individual whose life is the perfect embodiment of the Torah’s ethos and ideals. This is the tzaddik whom the “bundles” of the various tribes of Israel surround and to whom they subjugate themselves, turning to him for guidance as how best to realize the purpose of their lives.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
So he sent him out of the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem (37:14)
A place predestined for evil: in Shechem Dinah was violated; in Shechem Joseph was sold by his brothers; and in Shechem the kingdom of the House of David was divided (I Kings 12:1).
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a)
A man found him wandering in the field; and the man asked him, saying: “What do you seek?” And he said: “I seek my brothers; tell me, please, where they are pasturing their flocks.” The man said: “They have left here, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them in Dothan. (37:15–17)
“The man” was the angel Gabriel.
They said, one man to his brother (37:19)
Who were they? Simeon and Levi.
Reuben heard it, and he saved him from their hands (37:21)
Had Reuben known that the Torah would write of him, “Reuben heard it, and he saved him from their hands,” he would have loaded Joseph on his shoulders and carried him back to his father.
(Vayikra Rabbah 34:9)
They took him and threw him into a pit; the pit was empty—there was no water in it (37:24)
Since it says “The pit was empty,” don’t we know that there was no water in it? What then is added by the phrase “there was no water in it”? There was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.
(Talmud, Shabbat 22a)
The mind and heart of man are never empty. If there is no life-nourishing “water,” there are “snakes and scorpions in it.”
(The Chassidic Masters)
Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit (37:29)
Where had he been? Rabbi Elazar said: He was taken up with his fasting and sackcloth (in repentance over his sin in violating his father’s marital bed), and when he became free, he went and looked into the pit. . . . Rabbi Judah said: Every one of them attended his father one day, and that day it was Reuben’s turn.
They took Joseph’s coat, slaughtered a kid goat, and dipped the coat in the blood (37:31)
G‑d pays back man measure for measure . . . even the righteous He pays back measure for measure. Jacob deceived his father with goatskins (cf. Genesis 27:16), and his sons deceived him with the blood of a goat . . .
Likewise, Judah, who deceived his father with the blood of a goat, was deceived by Tamar with a “kid goat.”
Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son for many days (37:34)
Why didn’t G‑d reveal to him the truth? Because when the brothers sold Joseph, they made a vow that none of them would tell their father of their deed, and they included G‑d in their vow.
From here we learn that the divine spirit does not rest upon one who is in a state of torpor, nor on one who is in a state of sorrow; this is why Jacob could not know the fate of Joseph.
He refused to be comforted (37:35)
One can be consoled over the dead, but not over the living. . . . For regarding the dead it has been decreed that they be forgotten from the heart, but no such decree was decreed regarding the living.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
It came to pass at that time . . . (38:1)
The sons of Jacob were engaged in selling Joseph, Jacob was taken up with his sackcloth and fasting, and Judah was busy taking a wife, while the Holy One, blessed be He, was creating the light of the Messiah. (Peretz, born of Judah and Tamar, is the ancestor of King David and the Messiah.)
It came to pass at that time that Judah went down from his brothers (38:1)
They took him down from his greatness when they saw their father’s agony. They said: “You told us to sell him; if you would have told us to return him, we would have listened to you.”
Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of G‑d; and G‑d killed him (38:7)
Er was guilty of the same sin as Onan, of spilling his seed, as it is written regarding Onan, “G‑d . . . killed him too” (38:10)—Onan’s death was by the same cause as Er’s. And why did Er spill his seed? So that Tamar should not become pregnant and her beauty be ruined.
It was told to Tamar: Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep (38:13)
Yet in the case of Samson it says, “Samson went down to Timnah” (Judges 14:1). For Timnah sat on the slope of a hill: one ascended to it from one side, and descended to it from the other.
The town of Timnah is thus the prototype for all of life’s destinations. One never simply goes to Timnah; one either ascends or descends to it. The same is true of the journey of life. There are no two parallel points on the slope of human development, where every step is either a step up or a step down from its predecessor.
This is also the lesson implicit in the lights of Chanukah (which always falls in proximity to the Torah reading of Vayeishev). One who kindles a single flame on the first night of the festival observes the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights in the most optimal manner possible. But to kindle that same flame on the following night is not only a failure to increase light, but a decline in relation to yesterday’s achievement: on the second night of Chanukah, a single flame represents a less-than-optimal observance of the mitzvah. For in the diagonal trajectory of life, our every deed and endeavor either elevates or lowers us in relation to our prior station.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
She covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself (38:14)
Two women covered themselves with a veil and gave birth to twins: Rebecca and Tamar. Rebecca, as it is written, “She took her veil and covered herself” (Genesis 24:65); Tamar, as it is written, “She covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself.”
When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot, because she had covered her face (38:15)
Because she had covered her face, he thought her to be a harlot? Rather, because she had covered her face in her father-in-law’s house, he did not recognize her now.
Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Every daughter-in-law who is modest in her father-in-law’s house merits that kings and prophets should issue from her. From where do we know this? From Tamar. Prophets issued from her, as it is written: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amotz”; and kings issued from her through David [who is descended from Peretz].
(Talmud, Sotah 10b)
When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot. . . . And he turned to her (38:15–16)
Said Ulla: Both Tamar and Zimri (cf. Numbers 25) committed harlotry. Tamar committed harlotry, and gave birth to kings and prophets. Zimri committed harlotry, and on his account many tens of thousands of Israel perished.
(Talmud, Nazir 23b)
Said Rabbi Yochanan: Judah wished to pass her by, but G‑d sent the angel who is in charge of lust to have his effect on him, saying to him: “Where are you going, Judah? Whence then are kings to arise, whence are redeemers to arise?” Thereupon, “He turned to her”—despite himself and against his wish.
The Zohar points out that Moshiach (the Messiah) is the product of a number of morally dubious unions: Judah and Tamar; Boaz and Ruth; David and Bathsheba.
He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” And she said: “Your signet, your cord, and your staff that is in your hand” (38:18)
A prophetic spirit was enkindled within her: “your signet” alludes to the royal house of David; “your cord” alludes to the Sanhedrin; “and your staff” alludes to the Messiah, as in the verse, “The staff of your strength will G‑d send out of Zion” (Psalms 110:2)—all of whom are the progeny of Judah and Tamar.
When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying: “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant” (38:25)
She did not wish to shame him by saying explicitly, “I am pregnant by you,” only, “By the man to whom these belong,” saying to herself: “If he wishes to admit it, he will admit it himself; if not, they will burn me, but I will not shame him.” From this our sages derived: One should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public.
Joseph was brought down to Egypt . . . (39:1)
Said Rabbi Tanchuma: This is comparable to a cow upon whom it was desired to place a yoke, but the cow was withholding her neck from the yoke. What did they do? They took her calf from behind her and led him to the place where they wanted her to plow, and the calf was bleating. When the cow heard her calf bleating, she went despite herself, because of her child. By the same token, G‑d wished to fulfill the decree (Genesis 15:13), “Know [that your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs] . . . ,” so He plotted all these events (of Joseph’s sale to Egypt) . . .
Jacob might have had to be brought down to Egypt in chains, but then G‑d declared: “He is My firstborn son; shall I then bring him down in disgrace?” Now, if I provoke Pharaoh [with the intention to bring him down], I will not bring him down with befitting honor. Therefore I will lead his son before him, and so he will follow despite himself.
Joseph was of beautiful form and beautiful appearance (39:6)
When he saw himself in a position of rulership, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. Said G‑d: “Your father is in mourning, and you curl your hair! I shall incite the bear against you.” Immediately, “His master’s wife laid her eyes upon Joseph . . .”
It came to pass, after these things, that his master’s wife laid her eyes upon Joseph (39:7)
Why does the Torah adjoin the incident of Potiphar’s wife to the incident of Tamar? To tell us that just as Tamar acted for the sake of heaven, so did Potiphar’s wife act for the sake of heaven. For she saw through her astrologers that she was destined to produce children from him. But she did not know whether through herself or through her daughter. (Joseph married Potiphar’s daughter, as per Genesis 41:45.)
She said: “Lie with me.” (39:7)
Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman: Accursed are the wicked! In another passage [we find Ruth saying], “Spread your skirt over your handmaid” (Ruth 3:9); but this one spoke like an animal: “Lie with me.”
He refused. And he said to his master’s wife: “. . . How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against G‑d?” (39:8–9)
Said Joseph to her: “I am afraid of the Holy One, blessed be He.” Said she: “But He is not here.” . . . She drove him from room to room and from chamber to chamber, until she brought him to her bed. Above it was engraved an idol, which she covered with a sheet. Said Joseph to her: “You have covered its face . . . how much more then should you fear Him of whom it is written (Zechariah 4:10), “The eyes of the L‑rd, that run to and fro through the whole earth”!
A matron asked Rabbi Yosei: “Is it possible that Joseph, at seventeen years of age, with all the hot blood of youth, could act thus? [Surely the Torah is not telling us the whole truth!]” Thereupon he produced the book of Genesis and read the stories of Reuben and Judah. “If Scripture did not suppress anything in the case of these, who were older and in their father’s home, how much the more in the case of Joseph, who was younger and his own master.”
“How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against G‑d?” (39:9)
Should not Joseph have said, “How then can we do this great wickedness, and sin against G‑d”?
But Joseph did not want to share in anything with her—not even the pronoun “we.”
(Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)
It came to pass, about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his work (39:11)
This means that he went to satisfy his desires [i.e., he was ready to succumb to Potiphar’s wife]. . . . At that moment his father’s image came and appeared to him through the window, and said: “Joseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod . . . Is it your wish to have your name expunged from amongst theirs, and to be called an associate of harlots?”
(Talmud, Sotah 36b)
When his master heard the words of his wife, which she spoke to him, saying, “These things did your servant to me,” his anger burned (39:19)
“These things”—she said this to him during intercourse.
It came to pass, after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt, and his baker, offended their lord the king of Egypt (40:1)
A fly was found in the goblet prepared by the butler, and a pebble in the baker’s confection.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
The chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him (40:23)
Because Joseph placed his trust in him, he had to remain imprisoned for another two years. . . . Thus it says (Psalms 40:5): “Fortunate is the man who places his trust in G‑d, and does not turn to the arrogant.”