“Jacob settled,” begins the Parshah of Vayeishev, “in the land of his father’s dwelling, in the Land of Canaan.”
His Charan years were behind him, with Laban many miles away on the other side of a pile of stones attesting to a nonaggression pact between them. A truce of sorts had been made with Esau. Dinah had been rescued and avenged, and his beloved Rachel had been buried and mourned.
The 100-year-old patriarch now hoped that he had experienced enough hardship and heartbreak for a lifetime, and looked forward for some tranquil years in “the land of his father’s dwelling” (Hebron) as his sons shepherded his flocks in the hills and valleys of Canaan.
But this was not to be.
Matters were not helped by the fact that Joseph preferred the company of the children of Bilhah and Zilpah—whom Leah’s sons regarded as their inferiors because they were the “sons of the handmaids”—and that he was constantly bringing his father critical reports of his brothers’ behavior.
And Joseph had dreams.
Joseph dreamed a dream, and he 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.”
His brothers said to him: “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” And they hated him all the more for his dreams and for his words.
Then he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brothers: “Behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.”
His father rebuked him: “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow down ourselves to you to the earth?” But Jacob said this only to defuse the jealousy between the brothers, while “keeping the matter in mind.”
The Sale of Joseph
When they saw him from afar, even before he came near to them, they plotted against him to kill him.
They said, one man to his brother, “Behold, here comes the dreamer!
“Let us kill him, and throw him into some pit, and we will say, ‘A wild animal has devoured him’; then we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
But Reuben, the eldest of the brothers, says to them: “Let us not kill him. . . . Do not shed blood, but throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand upon him.” Reuben said this, attests the Torah, “so as to save him from their hands, to bring him back to his father.”
It came to pass, when Joseph came to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the many-colored coat that was on him. They took him and threw him into a pit; the pit was empty—there was no water in it.
They sat down to eat bread. Then they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a company of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balsam and laudanum, going to carry it down to Egypt.
Judah said to his brothers: “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not let our hand be against him; for he is our brother and our flesh.”
Reuben was not there when Judah proposed that Joseph be sold; when he comes back, intending to rescue Joseph, he finds the pit empty. He berates his brothers, but the deed has already been done; now they must find a way to explain Joseph’s disappearance to their father.
They dip Joseph’s coat in the blood of a goat, and bring it to their father. “This we have found,” they say.
He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s coat; a wild animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” Jacob tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son for many days.
All his sons and all his daughters stood up to to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted; and he said, “For I will go down to the grave mourning my son.”
Joseph, in the meantime, is taken to Egypt, where he is sold to Potiphar, a minister in Pharaoh’s court.
Judah and Tamar
The saga of Joseph is interrupted to relate an incident in the life of Judah. Judah separates from his brothers, marries and has three children: Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er comes of age, Judah marries him to a woman by the name of Tamar.
Er “was wicked in the sight of G‑d” and dies young. Judah tells Onan to perform “the duty of a brother-in-law” to marry the widow of a childless brother and “raise up progeny for your brother” (a practice called yibbum—cf. Deuteronomy 25:5–6). Onan, who does not desire to father children that will be regarded as his brother’s, “spilled his seed to the ground.” He, too, dies an early death in punishment for his sin.
Since Onan, too, had died childless, Shelah was now supposed to marry Tamar. But time passes, and Tamar realizes that Judah has no intention of marrying her to his third son. She resolves to find a way to have a child from Judah’s family—if not from Shelah, then from Judah himself.
It was told to Tamar, saying, “Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” She took off her widow’s garments, covered herself with a veil, wrapped herself, and sat by the crossroads which is by the way to Timnah . . .
When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot, because she had covered her face. He turned to her by the way, and said: “Come now, please, let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.
Judah promises her “a kid goat from the flock” in payment, but she insists that he leave “your signet, your cord, and your staff that is in your hand” with her as a pledge until the payment is sent. Tamar becomes pregnant from him.
It came to pass, about three months after, that it was told to Judah, saying: “Tamar your daughter-in-law has committed harlotry, and also, behold, she is pregnant by harlotry.”
Judah said: “Bring her out and let her be burnt.”
When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant”; and she said: “Acknowledge, please, whose are these—the signet, the cord and the staff.”
Judah acknowledged them, and said: “She has been more righteous than I . . .”
Tamar gives birth to twins: Peretz (“bursting forth,” because he pushed his way first out of the womb despite the fact that his brother’s hand emerged first) and Zerach (“shining,” because the midwife had tied a crimson thread on his hand to mark him as the firstborn).
Back to Joseph, who is rising in the ranks of the servants of Potiphar, his Egyptian master. “His master saw that G‑d was with him, and that G‑d made successful everything that he did. Joseph found favor in his sight . . . and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had, he put into his hand.”
Potiphar’s wife was attracted to the handsome, fortuitous youth.
It came to pass, after these things, that his master’s wife laid eyes upon Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.”
He refused, and said to his master’s wife: “Behold, my master . . . has committed all that he has to my hand. There is none greater in this house than I; neither has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against G‑d?”
Potiphar’s wife persisted, and on one occasion, when no one else was home, she grabbed hold of his clothes. To get away from her, Joseph “left his garment in her hand, and fled, and went outside.” She decides to avenge herself on him, and tells her husband that Joseph tried to force himself on her. “When I lifted up my voice and cried,” she claimed, “he left his garment with me, and fled.”
Joseph is thrown into the royal dungeon.
Joseph’s charisma, enterprising spirit and divine blessing follow him to prison. Before long,
the officer of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatever they did there, he was the doer of it . . . because G‑d was with him, and whatever he did, G‑d made it successful.
Years pass. Then Pharaoh’s chief butler and his chief baker, each of whom had committed some offense against their king, are thrown into the prison where Joseph was, and are entrusted to his care.
One morning, Joseph finds them in a troubled mood. They’ve both had dreams whose meaning they cannot fathom. “Do not interpretations belong to G‑d?” says Joseph. “Tell me them.”
The chief butler relates his dream:
Behold, a vine was before me. And on the vine were three branches; and it was as though it budded, and its blossoms sprang forth, and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand.
Joseph offers the following interpretation:
The three branches are three days. In another three days Pharaoh will lift up your head, and restore you to your place; you shall place Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, as was the case when you were his butler.
The chief baker, liking Joseph’s interpretation of his colleague’s dream, tells his own:
I also in my dream, behold, I had three baskets of white bread on my head. And in the uppermost basket there all types of baked foods for Pharaoh; and the birds ate them out of the basket upon my head.
Which Joseph interprets:
The three baskets are three days. In another three days Pharaoh will lift up your head from off you, and hang you on a tree; and the birds shall eat your flesh from off you.
Joseph has a favor to ask from the soon-to-be-freed butler:
But think of me when it shall be well with you, and show kindness, please, to me; mention me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house.
For I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.
Three days later, Pharaoh celebrates his birthday, and remembers the two ministers he had ordered thrown in jail; he reinstates the chief butler and hangs the chief baker, “as Joseph had interpreted to them.”
“The chief butler did not remember Joseph,” concludes our Parshah, “but forgot him.”