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

“Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins,
and observed mourning for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34).

Xenophobia is much in the news these days. Parashat Vayeshev, which introduces the Joseph saga, shows the ancient roots of the fear of the other.

Joseph’s brothers sell him off to a caravan of Ishmaelites (or maybe Midianites; Gen. 37:28) who bring him down to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar, a government official. Joseph becomes indispensable to Potiphar and irresistible to Potiphar’s wife, who tries to seduce him (Gen. 39:7-12). When she fails, she turns the table and accuses Joseph twice, telling her husband, “…The Hebrew slave whom you brought to us came to me to sport with me” (Gen. 39:17). She even tells the other slaves, “Look, he brought us a Hebrew man to sport with us…”(Gen. 39:14) to head off any class-based solidarity with Joseph.

Potiphar’s wife plays the foreigner card because she knows it will work; Egyptians don’t like foreigners, generally. Onkelos (2nd Century Roman convert to Judaism who translates the Torah into Aramaic) claims Hebrews are particularly loathed because they eat animals, which the Egyptians worship (commentary to Gen. 43:32). By accusing Joseph’s ancestry, rather than his actions, Potiphar’s wife distracts her audience and seals Joseph’s fate: he is sent to jail despite his innocence (Gen. 39:20).

God commands Abraham to go out into the world to be a blessing (Gen. 12:1-2). God also commands, repeatedly, to remember being strangers in Egypt. And God commands, specifically, “Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled (Lev. 17:3). Together, these three texts both describe and prescribe Jewish destiny: to always be the outsider and to always repudiate fear of the foreigner.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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