Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’shev – B’resheet (Genesis): 37 – 40
with (surprising) Hebrew Tools
“Now Jacob dwelt (“va’ye’shev”) in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years of age….” (Gen. 37:1, 2). The root for the verb “to dwell” is y.sh.v. (yod, shin, bet/vet) and means to “dwell, reside, sit, remain.” According to the scripture just quoted, Ya’acov lived in his father’s land, but the “account of his generations” (“toldot”) is related through the life of his son – Yoseph. Incidentally, Esav’s chronicles (in chapter 36), as well as Yishma’el’s (25:12-18), are simply lists of names, whereas the Patriarchs’ chronicles are narratives presenting increasing revelations of Elohim and His involvement in the lives of those who bear His name.1 Additionally, identifying Ya’acov’s dwelling place with “the land where his father had sojourned,” and tying up his annals with the name of his son (Yoseph) serve to illustrate the typical Hebraic approach to the continuum of the seed. Those living in the present do not identify solely with their contemporaries; they are no less connected to their ancestors as well as to their progeny.
In telling the story of Ya’acov, the narrative highlights the story of Yoseph who was favored by his father. As a mark of his affections, Ya’acov made his son a special tunic, “k’tonet passim,” a tunic of “passim.” Unlike the commonly held view that this robe, or tunic, was made up of multi-colored stripes, the word “passim” actually indicates that the robe was extra long – covering the feet and especially the flat of the hands. The verb p.s.s (pey, samech, samech) means to “disappear” or “pass on” (e.g. Psalms 12:1), which means that the hand would ‘disappear’ because of the ampleness of the cloth. It was of a style “such as the daughters of the king dressed themselves” (in 2nd Sam. 13:18, David’s daughter, Tamar, is recorded wearing such a robe). By clothing Yoseph in a princely garb, Ya’acov communicated to the rest of his sons that he had ordained him to inherit the birthright. It is no wonder that Ya’acov’s favored son incurred the wrath of his brothers, even before he shared his dreams with them. When Ya’acov heard Yoseph’s second dream, he too became somewhat exasperated with this spoiled brat. However, the text goes on to tell us that, “his father kept the saying in his heart” (37:11). Another parent, who on one occasion “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart,” and who at another time “hid [the words] in her heart” was Miriam, Yeshua’s mother (Luke 2:19, 51). In her case, as well as in Ya’acov’s, these “things” were prophetic and had to do with a grand destiny awaiting the son.
Yoseph’s brothers’ response to each dream’s account was that they “hated him even more” (37:5, 8). “Even more” is not a direct translation of the original, which is “va-yosiphu” – “and they added.” In other words, more hatred was added to the negative emotions that the brothers were already harboring toward their sibling. What makes the usage of this verb here quite intriguing is its root connection – a.s.ph (alef, samech, pey/fey) – to the name of the one who was the object of this hatred.
The Parasha’s account of the conflict between Yoseph and his brothers, in particular the sons of Bilha and Zilpa (ref. 37:2), is marked by an absence of “shalom”: “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him” (v. 4, emphasis added). But even though the situation was not resolved, when the brothers went to Shechem to shepherd their father’s flocks, “Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ So he said to him, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said to him, ‘Please go and see if it is well with your brothers [‘see the peace of…’] and well with the flocks [again ‘see the peace of…’], and bring back word to me’” (37:13-14 emphases added). Yisrael sought information as to the “peace” of his sons who were, supposedly, doing their work in Shechem. Some years earlier, when he returned to the Land after his sojourn in Aram, Shechem was the first location where he found himself. Last week we noted that, “Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem” (33:18). That “safely,” as we know, is actually “shalem” – which is whole, unharmed (and perhaps ‘in one piece’). However, this condition of “shalem” did not lead to “shalom.” The fallacy of “shalom in Shechem” (or Sh’chem, in Hebrew) was perpetuated when Hamor and Shechem his son, the “lords of the land,” who were also involved in the rape of Dina, presented to their compatriots the so-called peaceable offer of Yaacov’s sons: “These men are at peace with us. Therefore let them dwell in the land and trade in it. For indeed the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters to us as wives, and let us give them our daughters” (34:21 emphasis added). Sure, if flesh and greed are gratified, we can all be happy and at peace! The all-time guarantee for the ultimate “shalom” in the world is made up of gratifying sexual appetites, material covetousness, and egoistic ambitions. And when those are not to be had, the spirits of lust, greed and jealousy prevail, as is so well demonstrated in Parashat Va’yeshev.
Another quick note on the parallel of the Sh’chem episode to our current one: There it says that “Dina went out to see the daughters of the land” (34:1), while here her uncle is “wandering in the filed” on his way to find his brothers. Both “field trips”, in the very same area of the country, ended in harmful and violent circumstances perpetrated upon these two walkers. Yet the one obvious difference is that Dina, unlike Yosef, went on her own volition.
Ya’acov may have been concerned for his sons’ safety in Sh’chem, as that town’s residents most likely remembered them only too well.2 Much latter, in B’resheet (Genesis) 45:8, the following words will be declared by Yoseph to his brothers who, in parallel with his present situation, had also been sent, but this time to Egypt: “So now it was not you that sent me hither, but Elohim…”.3 The commentator goes on to say that “this verse supplies the key to the understanding of the whole story, which unfolds a dual level of the mission. There is the obvious mission which Ya’acov sends his son on, but underlying this mission lies the hidden (deep) workings of Providence Who is sending the descendants of Avraham to Egypt.” It is this connection to Avraham which brings the “Valley of Chevron” (see 37:14) into the picture, even though Chevron was on a mountain and not in the valley. The commentator continues: “Emek (“valley of”) Chevron is referring to God’s mysterious and deep prophecy to Avraham, and is a play on the word “emek,” literally “deep place”.4 To that we would add that the episode of the father (Ya’acov) who sends his son to seek “the remainder of his brethren [who will return]…” (Micha 5:3), also forms an equivalent picture of the heavenly Father sending His Son to bring back to Himself His children (the sons of Yisrael/Ya’acov). Let us also take note of Yoseph’s response to being sent, “here am I” – “hineh’ni,” being a condensed form of “hineh ani” – “behold here I am.” Although a common idiom, which we have encountered even up to this point (e.g. Gen. 27:18), what comes to mind is another ‘send off.’ In Yisha’ayahu (Isaiah) 6:8 we read the following: “And I heard the voice of YHVH, saying, whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, here am I [hineh’ni]; send me!“ (Italics added).
Ya’acov sends Yoseph from Chevron, which is in Yehuda, to Sh’chem which is in Shomron (Samaria), from where Yoseph goes on to Dotan (Dothan), also in Shomron, and is then taken to Egypt (“the world”). This route becomes a geographical prototype foreshadowing the journey of the Gospel and its witnesses, from Yehuda to Shomron and to the uttermost parts of the world (ref. Acts 1:8).
Interestingly, the shepherds did not lead their flocks to the green and serene pastures of Sh’chem (or at least did not stay there), but continued on their way. As for Yoseph, he was directed by “a man” to follow them northward, to Dotan. Notice that Yoseph’s informant did not require much information; he already knew who the “brothers” were, and neither was he ignorant as to their whereabouts. Even so today, if we earnestly seek for our brothers, the Man will not withhold any information from us. He will lead us directly to them (even if there is a cost involved). It is just a matter of having ears to hear and a heart to obey.
But what awaited Yoseph in Dotan was far from a hearty reunion. His brothers sought to kill him, and only by Reuven’s intervention was his life spared, and he was cast into a pit. While Yoseph was naked, and no doubt thirsty and hungry, his brothers sat down to eat bread (37:24-25). “Bread” is “le’chem,” of the root l.ch.m (lamed, chet, mem) which is also the root for the verb “to fight,” and for the noun “war” (“milchama”). The men ate their bread – lechem – while in their hearts there was a war-like attitude – milchama – toward their brother. Proverbs 4:17 says of the wicked: “they eat the bread of wickedness.” The verb for “eat” there is “la’cha’mu,” which normally would be understood as “fight,” making this verse applicable therefore to the wickedness manifested by Yoseph’s brothers. Shlomo Ostrovski comments here that Yoseph’s brothers had no idea that some day they would seek out their victim for the very substance with which they were now satisfying their hunger 5, while denying him of it.
That Yoseph is the protagonist of our story is not difficult to determine, and Scripture continues to underscore this fact, not only overtly but also by using subtler means. In chapter 37, as we observed above, and also in 38 the verb y.s.f – to add, to repeat – which is the root of Yoseph’s name (the second meaning that Ra’chel gives for naming him thus, 30:24), appears four times. And so we read in 37:5, 8: “And she conceived yet again – va’tosef – and bore a son, and called his name Shelah” (38:5a). “So Judah came to the realization and said, ‘She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.’ And he never knew her again – “velo yasaf” (38:26 ).
And so, even when the various episodes involve other individuals, named and unnamed, the Word points to Yoseph’s central role.
While in Dotan, a caravan of merchants passed by and Yehuda, using his pragmatism to suppress his guilt, suggested selling Yoseph to them (ref. 37:25-27). Later, in the family home, a great turmoil was caused by Yoseph’s (supposed) death, particularly so since Ya’acov could not be comforted. Yehuda, therefore, ‘ups and leaves,’ or in the words of the text he, “departed from his brothers and descended” (“va’yered” – “and he went down”) to his Adulamite friend (38:1). While in that state of separation, which led to a great decline in his life, Yehuda married a Canaanite woman who bore him three sons. The narrative is very quick to make a point, as straight away after these sons’ birth we are told of the firstborn’s marriage to Tamar. That two of Yehuda’s sons were displeasing to YHVH, who took their lives (ref. 38:7-10), is stated as a matter of fact. Without wasting time and words, the narrative goes on to tell us the story of Tamar and her insistence to “raise up the name of the deceased” (to borrow words from Ruth 4:5). Tamar’s real identity and motive were only discovered when she produced a pledge in the form of a seal, cord and staff left to her by her father-in-law, upon her demand to be paid for the “services” she provided him when she masqueraded as a harlot. The pledge given to Tamar was “era’von,” of the root a.r.v, which we observed in “erev” – “evening” (in Parashat B’resheet in Genesis 1). This pledge is a guarantee for that which is to come. Indeed, without it Tamar would have been burnt at the stake (ref. vs. 24, 25). But more than just saving the life of Tamar, it also guaranteed that YHVH’s principle of redemption was implemented; that is, the bringing forth of life from death (Yehuda having suffered the loss of two sons gained now another two), while also insuring the continuity of what was to become the tribe of Yehuda.
When it was her time to give birth, Tamar, like Rivka, had twins who, like the former pair, had an innate ‘knowledge’ of the importance of the birthright. Again, a competition over who would be born first took place. Ultimately, the “breaker,” the “portetz,” gained the upper hand and was therefore named Peretz (v. 29). Many years later, the prophet Micah will declare, “the breaker goes up before them. They break out, pass through the gate and go out by it. So their king goes on before them and YHVH at their head” (2:13). The preceding verse informs us that the subjects of this description are those who will be gathered out of Ya’acov, and who are the remnant of Yisrael which will be “put together like sheep in the fold, like a flock in the midst of its pasture they will be noisy with men.” Thus, not only will the proverbial “Poretz” – Breaker-Leader – be a descendent of Peretz, so will some of those who will follow Him.
Back to Yoseph and his immediate destiny, which was marked by a down-spiraling course, first into a pit and then by being sold to merchants who were “on their way… down to Egypt” (37:25 emphasis added). However, in the process he was also pulled up (from the pit), being indicative of the fact that each of his downfalls will also be marked by being ‘lifted up.’
Yoseph was brought to Egypt – “mitzrayim” – the narrow place of adversity – but “YHVH was with Joseph, so he became a successful man…” (39:2). “Successful” takes us back to the word “matzli’ach” that we studied in Parashat Cha’yey Sarah (in Genesis 24:21), which is where we noted that it means to “cause to advance.” It is quite evident who caused Yoseph to advance, so much so that even his pagan master, Potiphar, recognized it (v. 3). According to Studies in B’resheet, Yoseph’s “master saw and heard Yoseph make mention of the name of his God and attribute his success and abilities not to his powers but to the Almighty.”6 This conclusion by the Sages is not unfounded. In fact, it is borne out by what Yoseph says on various other occasions. In 39:9, when warding off the advances of Potiphar’s wife, he exclaimed, “How then could I do this great evil and sin against Elohim?” In 40:8, when asked to interpret dreams while in prison, he responded: “Do not interpretation belong to Elohim?” Yoseph will continue to mention the name of his Elohim even when brought before Par’oh (Pharaoh), in the next Parasha.
But in the meantime, the opening verse of chapter 39 reiterates his (temporary) decline: “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt” (emphasis added). This event seems to have taken place simultaneously with Yehuda’s departure from his country, from his family and from his father’s house (cf. Gen. 12:1). What is the difference between each of those descends? Yehuda’s guilt and self-condemnation caused him to choose a way out, which led to his spiritual back sliding, whereas Yoseph was brought down not of his own volition. There is a very clear distinction in the respective responses of these two men. The one was moving from bad to worse, without looking for a redemptive opportunity, whereas the other, who was subject to others’ decisions, made good of every opportunity that came his way. However, in each of those cases there exists the overriding sovereignty of YHVH, in spite of what may be ‘natural’ inclinations (see Proverbs 16:9). When Yehuda left his family, he followed his heart’s leaning – va-yet (meaning “incline” or “lean” 38:1) and went over to his Adulamite friend Hirah upon whom he was relying for help. Later, when he saw the “harlot,” it says that “he turned – va-yet – to her” (38:16), once again following his inclinations and desires. On the other hand, after Yoseph was subject to someone else’s lust, it says of him that YHVH “was with Yoseph and [literally] – va-yet – inclined/turned his mercy/loving kindness/grace [chesed] toward him” (39:21 emphasis added).
Yehuda’s downward journey was accompanied by many mishaps, although every now and then there was evidence of an attempt on his part to do the “right thing.” How typical of guilt, shame, and self-condemnation to lead us to try and cover them up by “good works”! Thus, his sons’ names provide a clue as to these feeble attempts. Yehuda named his firstborn “Er,” meaning “awake.” He was hoping that his depression and spiritual slumber could be redeemed by having this firstborn. His second son was called “Onan” – “on” being strength. Rachel named Binyamin, Ben-Oni, “son of my strength” (and not “sorrow” as commonly thought) as his birth had depleted all of her strength and brought about her death. As to Yehuda’s third son, the latter was born under strange circumstances: “He was at Chezib when she bore him” (38:5). Who was at Chezib? Was it the newborn (and his mother), or was it the father? What is Chezib? Is it truly a place, or is it a description of a condition? Chezib means “lie, deception, falsehood.” Is it possible that Shelah was a product of lying and deception, and was therefore the son of another man, rather than Yehuda’s? Or was Yehuda away while he was born, causing his wife great grief? One way or another, Shelah’s birth was not a cause of great joy, otherwise why would Scripture take the trouble to record the fact that “he was in chezib” at the birth? The name Shelah could possibly mean “hers,” reinforcing the possibility that the boy may have not been Yehuda’s biological son.
When Yehuda’s degeneration reached its peak, he turned (as we saw above) to a prostitute, with whom he left his most precious possessions: signet, cord and staff. Like Easv, who for momentary satisfaction was willing to give up his birthright, Yehuda had given the ‘markers’ of his identity and authority to the one whom he perceived to be a prostitute. Interestingly, later, when he went looking for her to retrieve his treasures and to cover up his embarrassment and pride (and said, “Let her take them – the objects – for herself, lest we be shamed; 38:23 emphasis added), he used the term “k’desha,” which is a “temple prostitute.” However, that word shares its root with “kadosh” – set apart and holy. In verses 21 and 22 of chapter 38 this word appears 3 times. Again, a hint as to the true nature of this woman, who turned out to be “kdosha,” holy and “righteous,” as Yehuda himself came to realize (v. 26). Interestingly, at Yehuda’s lowest point of spiritual and moral collapse, YHVH intervened by using that which appeared to be the very symbol of lowliness and humiliation.
Among the many lessons that Yehuda was taught by Tamar, his daughter in law, he also had to realize that things are not always what they seem to be, a lesson that he will apply one more time when many years later he will meet the ‘mighty Egyptian ruler.’
Now back in Egypt, Potiphar’s wife, in her attempt to cover up her own disloyalty and take revenge at the same time, tried to implicate Yoseph. She, like so many others in the course of history, subtly enlisted the various members of her household to join her in an all out attack on her servant. In the process of her “unscrupulous defaming of Yoseph she makes subtle differentiation between her phrasing of the account to her slaves and subsequently to her husband. She does not employ the term “slaves” when addressing the slaves themselves. Yoseph is simply a Hebrew. To her husband, however, she says, “the Hebrew slave.” In order to win her slaves over and gain their sympathies she is at pains not to create any feeling of solidarity among the slaves for Yoseph, as one of them. After all, it was a common thing for masters to denounce their slaves. They would naturally side with their fellow sufferer. Therefore, she subtly changed her tone and stated that he is was not one of them, but a stranger, a Hebrew, the common enemy of all of them. To strengthen the impression and arouse their hostility for Yoseph she did not say that the Hebrew slave came to “me,” but rather: “see, a Hebrew was brought to us, to mock us” (39:14 italics added). In short, the Hebrew man has not only wronged me but all of us; he has dishonored the whole Egyptian nation… Potiphar’s wife in her effort to gain sympathy lumps her slaves together with herself, as part of one family. The common enemy is the Hebrew. The immense gap is forgotten, the enormous class distinction between slave and master is overlooked in the cause of temporary self-interest.”7
This Parasha’s two women, whose stories are told side by side, are both involved in sexual promiscuity. However, in spite of the fact that it was Tamar who actually ‘exercised’ her heart’s intent, while the second, Potiphar’s unnamed wife did not, it is the first who was declared righteous (38:26) for having pursued, at all costs, the righteousness of Elohim, i.e. life from the dead in the form of redemption.
After the episode in his master’s house, Yoseph was put in prison and just like an echo from his previous experience, we read the words: “YHVH was with him, and whatever he did YHVH made to prosper (“matzli’ach”)” (39:23 italics added). Although our Parasha ends with Yoseph seemingly being forgotten and once again being repaid evil for the good he had done (see 40:9-15, 21), this is just the beginning of what is to become a glorious career.
The nation of Yisrael-in-the-making is seen learning the principles of redemption, as each of its figureheads (Yehuda and Yoseph) is exposed to powerful personal experiences pertaining to YHVH’s kingdom principles.
1. Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem 1976, 1999.
3. Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
5. Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem 1976, 1999.
6. Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use
This time we have something quite different. Remember that in Chapter 37:15 it says that a man found Yoseph in the field, while Yoseph was wandering around? We noted above that the man did not wait for Yoseph to approach him, but rather he took the initiative by asking Yoseph what he was seeking (notice, he didn’t refer to people, as he didn’t say “whom are you seeking?”). Yoseph, for his part, responded (v. 16) by saying, “it is my brothers whom I am seeking. Pray tell me where are they shephering?” (lit. Hebrew translation). Yoseph took it for granted that the man would have information about his brothers.
Here is the transliteration of Yoseph’s response, in verse 16, to the man:
Et achai anochi meva’kesh, hagida na lee eyfo hem ro’eem.
And here is the order of the words as they appear in Hebrew:
It is my brothers (which) I am seeking, tell please to me where they (are) shephering.
Now that you have all of this information, are you ready to learn to sing these words?
Aaron Razel is a very popular musician and singer who often sings Biblical texts. In between the sung part of this particular piece he ‘raps’ a text that is relevant to life in present day Israel, inspiring and encouraging a focus on unity. For you Yoseph’s words may also have great current relevance and significance.
By Ephraim Frank (israelitereturn.com)