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

“God was with Joseph and turned toward him with loving-kindness;
He caused him to find favor in the eyes of the prison warden.” (Genesis 39:21)

Parashat Vayeshev introduces the Joseph saga, the longest sustained narrative in the Torah. It invites many questions. But Dr. Barry Holtz (Baumwritter Professor of Jewish Education at Jewish Theological Seminary) says the individual’s orientation to the Torah determines which questions get asked—and an expectation about the answers the Torah provides. An orientation comprises both what you know about and believe about the Torah.

A sacred-devotional orientation believes the Torah is the word of God and expects Joseph’s ups and downs (Gen. 39:20-22) to illustrate God’s role in history. A contextual orientation believes the Torah is but one document among many from a particular time and place and uses the information about the spice trade in the Joseph story (Gen. 37:25) to explain the rise of Israel’s geo-political significance. A moralistic orientation believes the Torah’s purpose is to teach life-lessons and asks whether Reuben’s effort to save Joseph’s life (Gen. 37:22) is the best way to do the right thing. A literary orientation appreciates the Torah as a composed piece of art and focusses on the repeating motif of the double-dream (Gen. 37:5-9).

While each orientation is independent (Holtz identifies eight), they are not mutually exclusive and frequently overlap. And, at different times, an individual might approach the Joseph story with different orientations and therefore, different questions. More importantly, they are not hierarchical: one is not more significant or important than the other. This is in keeping with the Jewish interpretive tradition (itself a discrete orientation) which permits and even celebrates multiple (and conflicting!) interpretations of individual verses, words, and even letters of the Torah. So, what’s your orientation?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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