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Parashat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

“About that time Judah left his brothers and camped near a certain Adullamite whose name was Chira.” (Genesis 38:1)

Parashat Vayeshev introduces the Joseph saga. Joseph infuriates his brothers with his arrogance and Israel (formerly Jacob) doesn’t help much by favoring him. One day, “They saw him from afar and before he came close to them, vayitnaklu oto l’hamito, they conspired to kill him” (Genesis 37:18). Reuven (the first-born) convinces them not to kill him, so instead they throw Joseph into a pit (Genesis 37:24). Later, they sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, who take him down to Egypt.

Ovadiah ben Jacob S’forno (~1470 – ~1550; Italian commentator and physician) diverges from almost all commentators and claims the reflexive form vayitnaklu oto l’hamito allows the verse to mean Joseph conspired to kill his brothers. S’forno needs to justify the brothers’ heinous act; after all, they are so righteous their names are inscribed on the High Priest’s breastplate; it had to have been self-defense. S’forno knows Joseph is innocent, but feels the brothers’ station “gives them a pass.”

Joseph’s brothers are annoyed; they feel their rights are threatened. They turn Joseph, their brother, into an “other.” Their resentment and jealousy isolate him, magnifying his differences and obscuring his similarities. The brothers’ fearfully imagined future overshadows a relatively typical present (have their ever been brothers without some strife?). They use their emotional discomfort as a psychological shield and cover as they resort to violence to solve their problem.

Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997; a renowned scholar and teacher) promotes looking at the week through the lens of the weekly parasha, or portion. S’forno seems to be reading Vayeishev through the lens of today’s newspaper headlines (Powerful Men Behave Badly) and reminds us: every generation reads into the Torah’s ancient stories tales of today’s world.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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