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Parashat Vayeshev: The Challenge of Recognizing - Dr. Gili Zivan

Parashat Vayeshev tells us the tragedy of Jacob's family. We learn of discrimination between brothers, of hatred, jealousy, a plot to commit murder, and the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites. From there on Joseph's adventures in Egypt become increasingly complex, bringing him first to the house of one of Pharaoh's high officials and then to prison. In the middle of the parasha, just as it reaches the height of its narrative tension, when all our attention is concentrated on Joseph, who had just been sold as a slave to Potiphar, Pharaoh's chamberlain, chief of the slaughterers, the continuity of Joseph's tale is broken. We are forced to leave him in a foreign land and take up the story of Judah in Canaan. What is the point of this rupture?

Various suggestions have been suggested to solve our parasha's structural riddle, but I would like to focus on just one of them that shed light not only on parashat Vayeshev but also on Bereishit's entire collection of stories.

Our parasha may be viewed as one dealing with interpersonal communication and the possibility of dialogue between people. The entire development of events from the beginning of the parasha and Joseph's adventures, point to the terrible tragedy of a lack of communication. The heroes of these stories are not capable of participating in a true dialogue with another person. They are not attentive to the voice and needs of the "Other" - they listen only to themselves.

Many utterances are mentioned in the story, many words and sentences, but they are incapable of making their way to the "Other" because the speaker or speakers do not see him, his problems, his fears, or his feelings. Sometimes, as we shall see later, words not only fail to reach the "Other", the words themselves generate alienation and isolation. Sometimes the words create pain and loss, mourning and heartbreak.

Our parasha begins with a description of Joseph who herds the sheep together with the sons of the concubines and brings an evil report of them to their father. He does not speak to his brothers but rather about them. He assigns himself the role of his brothers' accuser. Jacob stokes the hatred that has begun to burn between his sons by coronating his favorite son with a royal striped tunic. He does not notice the bitterness of those who had been reported on and pays no attention to the jealousy felt by his sons. He is withdrawn into himself. Perhaps he is focused on his beloved late wife, Rachel, and projects his love for her onto her son Joseph. The rift grows until there is no more communication between Joseph and his brothers, only ever-intensifying hatred: so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully.

Joseph, with his egocentrism and narcissism, is completely unaware of his brothers' burning jealousy. In a strikingly tactless move, he tells them his dreams of greatness and they hated him yet more. It is almost possible to visualize the scene described by Scripture: when the brothers see Joseph walking towards them they move away, and he, completely insensitive to the situation, runs after them, calling out: "Please hear the dream I have dreamt..." He is completely oblivious to their problems; he

asks them to listen to him while he remains deaf to the cry of their jealousy. Later, after he has related the dream of the sheaves, they explicitly express their jealousy

and their frustration over his arrogance: "Will you really be king over us, will you really rule over us?" And still he does not hear their voices. He does not sense how, thanks to his "dreams" and "words," their hatred grows ever stronger. Now he adds the straw that broke the camel's back by telling them yet another dream of haughtiness and discrimination

.Jacob ignores the danger signs and sends Joseph into the lion's den - to his brothers who were pasturing their flocks in Shechem.  In this scene, Joseph and his brothers no longer exchange words. The brothers speak among themselves about this dreamer. They strategize with each other until a plan is formulated: Let us go and kill him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we shall say that an evil beast devoured him. Then let us see what becomes of his dreams! No more words are passed between the brothers.

They listen no more, as the brothers themselves later admit in a moment of self-accounting: But we are guilty regarding our brother, having seen his soul's trouble when he begged us and we did not hear (Bereishit 42:21). Joseph's cries remain hanging in the air at the edge of the pit. There is no connection between Joseph and his brothers; he is a stranger to them, detached from them.

Their detachment reaches its climax, however, in relation to their father. They take the striped tunic which had ignited their jealousy, dip it in blood, and send it to their father. With a simple utterance they subject their father to many days of mourning, pain, and tears. The words appearing in the end of chapter thirty-seven do not serve to facilitate connection and dialogue; they are meant to create alienation and pain. They are intended to create a destructive reality for Jacob. The father who did not listen to his sons will now attend solely to his pains and longings. Indeed, an evil beast devoured him. The beast of jealousy and the humiliation burning within the brothers killed Joseph. We readers know that it is all a ploy, but that does not reduce Jacob's profound grief. The virtual reality created by the brothers' harsh words is Jacob's existential reality.

The story of Judah and Tamar is the first in which a reversal takes place. The beginning of the story continues the tragic lack of dialogue with which our parasha begins. The story's characters do not speak to each other, they do not look the "Other" in the eye; they only see themselves. Judah is incapable of understanding Tamar, who is left "forever married to the dead" and who cannot create a real family for herself or know the pleasure of hugging her own child. Judah cannot understand her loneliness and disappointment. She sits in her widow's garb until the days multiply...she sees how Shelah had grown but she was not given to him as a wife. They forgot her at home. She, apparently, is supposed to end out her days as a living memorial. She has no options left besides dressing as a harlot and executing her creative and daring plan to acquire the seed of Judah, who, meanwhile, had become a widower himself.

Again we come face to face with double standards of expectations from men and women. Judah, the family patriarch, has no problem satisfying his sexual needs with a kedesha,(harlot) while he immediately orders that Tamar be taken out and burnt, when she is revealed to have played the harlot... and become pregnant through harlotry.

Here the reversal takes place. The pledge [eravon]is revealed: Please recognize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these? Judah recognizes not only the objects that evidence his identity; he also recognizes his own error: Then Judah recognized [them], and he said, "She is right, [it is] from me, because I did not give her to my son Shelah." It is the pledge which first moves him from a world of detachment to a world in which the individual recognizes the Other as a subject possessing her own emotional world, human being with desires, troubles, and fears of her own.

This kind of recognition generates interpersonal responsibility [arevut] and concern for the other.  Judah learned his lesson from Tamar well. In parashat Vayigash he will be the one who succeeds in getting the Egyptian viceroy to reveal his true identity and reacquaint himself [hekerut - another use of the same Hebrew root as in the word for identify] with his brothers. It is only Judah, who had learned the hard way about the need to engage with the "Other" and to feel him and listen to him, who could express Jacob's feelings powerfully enough to pull Joseph out of the game of detachment and towards a rediscovery of his father and brothers. Joseph responds to Judah's words by revealing himself. The brothers who were alienated from Joseph when the parasha began and could not speak with him peacefully, and who were so detached from their father that they were capable of bloodying the beloved striped tunic in order to make him descend to the grave in grieving, are now exposed to a whole raft of new feelings and re-acquaintances.

Those who had said to their father,"Now recognize whether it is your son's coat or not," come to a new recognition of their story.  Jacob, of whom it had been written, He recognized it, and he said, "[It is] my son's coat; a wild beast has devoured him, now learns to recognize Joseph and his other sons anew.

In the heart of parashat Vayeshev, in the middle of the story of Joseph in Egypt, the narrative flow is broken to include very important parenthetical material: the story of Judah and Tamar. If Judah had not gone down from his brothers, and if he had not taken Bat Shua for a wife, and if she had not born him three sons, and if he had not married off the elder son, Er, to Tamar, and if Er had not died, and if Onan had not acted as he did and died, and if Judah had not ignored Tamar's widowhood by preventing his son Shela from marrying her - then Judah would never have learnt the most important lesson of our story: that neither a family nor a society can survive without the establishment of relations of attentiveness towards and recognition of others; they cannot survive without taking responsibility for the life of the "Other."

In the thirty-eighth chapter of the book of Bereishit Judah learns what it means to take responsibility for the suffering of others.  That is why he alone will later

be able to convince Jacob to let him go down once more to Egypt to buy food during

the famine. Reuben, in contrast to Judah, did not learn the lesson, and his offer, Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you, is rejected by Jacob. Reuben did not learn to break out of his own world into that of his father; he did not understand that his promise to sow yet further death in the family did not inspire confidence in him.

In the emotional encounter between Joseph and his brothers recounted in chapter 44, only Judah will be able say forthrightly: For your servant assumed responsibility for the boy from my father, saying, 'If I do not bring him to you, I will have sinned against my father forever.'

Parashat Vayeshev, and perhaps the entire book of Bereishit, teaches us the need for true dialogue in our lives, the great destructive potential of words, and the great power of words to heal and connect people.

Dr. Gili Zivan former director of the Yaakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies continues to teach at the Center.


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