Weekly D’var Torah Parashat Vayeshev 5779

In today’s ideological climate, in which people’s sympathies are based far less on objective analysis of facts and much more on group affiliation, either with the right-wing camp or the left-wing camp, Parashat Vayeshev is a healthy antidote to the danger that such polarization poses to our moral consciousness. This is precisely because it contains two incidents in which a person’s gender makes them vulnerable. In one instance, the vulnerable person is a woman, and in the other, a man.

In one instance, it is Yehudah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is left widowed, and without the security of a household to fully belong to. When God punishes her husband, Er, his younger brother, Onan, is likewise punished with death for refusing to fulfill the mitzvah of yibum, or levirate marriage; he refused to give Tamar children and to continue his older brother’s family. Yehudah promised Tamar his youngest son as a groom, but when that promise was not kept, Tamar ensured her own security and the continuity of her husband’s line by disguising herself and seducing Yehudah. Yehudah finds her pregnant, and orders that she be burned to death. When he realizes that he is the father, he relents, and praises Tamar. From this child, King David is descended.

In the other instance, it is Yosef. When his master, Potifar, was away, his master’s wife attempted to seduce him. When Yosef refused, she lied, saying that he tried to force himself upon her. She produced his torn garment as evidence to support her lie. Yosef was imprisoned as a result.

What each victim/hero has in common is obviously not their gender. While it is because Tamar’s womanhood that makes her situation possible, and Yosef’s manhood that enticed Potifar’s wife to abuse him as she did, we need to look at what Yosef and Tamar each had in common in under to understand the simple, plain truth behind their respective abuses: they were both subordinates.

Yosef could be the target of Potifar’s wife’s attempted seduction and subsequent life-wrecking slander because she was a noble, and he was a servant. Tamar’s only legitimate defense against poverty and loss of home was marriage, which she was not free to seek out herself. When she made an attempt to do so, even within the family that she was bound to by her marriage to Er, she almost paid with her life.

What does the Torah mean to do by telling us these stories? We, as readers and students of Torah, understand the circumstances around Yosef’s false imprisonment and Tamar’s desperation. We see these incidents not from the viewpoint of characters in the story, who would have no way of knowing that Yosef, the servant, was falsely accused, or that Tamar was forced by circumstance to seduce her father-in-law. Without that knowledge provided to us by the Omniscient Narrator, we would likely have sided with the noblewoman and with the head of household.

Here, in a way that is subtle, but illustrative, we are commanded to hear the story of the disadvantaged. We are told to love the stranger, to seek justice for the widow and the orphan, all of whom are disadvantaged. We are taught that no society on Earth has ever been fair, but we must, as children and servants of the all-knowing Creator, strive to be fair ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Aaron Shub

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