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

“Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.”
(Genesis 37:1)

Why is there is so much bad behavior between relatives in the book of Genesis? Daniel Elazar (1934-1999; a leading political scientist and specialist in the study of the Jewish political tradition) explains: the Torah is a series of case studies presenting examples of human behavior in a social context. This allows us to evaluate them from a moral perspective. So, we read and study the Torah to learn what the right thing to do is and to discover the best way to do the right thing.

Parashat Vayeshev, which introduces the cycle of Joseph-and-his-brothers stories, the longest sustained narrative in Genesis, offers a good example. After Joseph provokes his brother’s enmity, Judah suggests they kill him and be rid of him. Reuven, the eldest, attempts to save Joseph, suggesting they cast him into a pit, instead. The brothers agree and Joseph receives a reprieve (Gen. 37:20-22).

In modern terms, Judah is a bully. And like most bullies, he has a complex relationship with his victim. And like most bullies, he does his bullying publicly (85%-90% of bullying incidents occur in front of bystanders). While all the brothers know this is wrong, only Reuven does the right thing and steps in to challenge Judah on Joseph’s behalf, to good effect. (Up to 50% of bullying attempts cease if a bystander speaks out.) But Reuven leaves the brothers, allowing Judah to suggest they sell Joseph into slavery. With no one to speak up on his behalf Joseph ends up with Midianite traders on his way to Egypt (Gen. 37:25-28). We’re left wondering if Reuven does the right thing the best way, and what we might do, in his place.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom


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