Commentary for Vayeishev

28 Dec

This week’s parshah contains two stories, and a goat plays a minor but symbolic role in both of them. The first and more well-known story is the beginning of the story of Joseph, who so irritates his brothers to the point where they sell him into slavery. Then they slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s famous technicolor dreamcoat into the goat’s blood before taking it back to their father and passing off the goat’s blood as Joseph’s, telling Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

The second, and lesser-known story, is that of one of the aforementioned brothers, Judah, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Tamar’s husband, Judah’s oldest son Eir, is smitten by God due to his wickedness, leaving behind no children. Judah then instructs his second son, Onan, to enter into a levirate marriage with Tamar. In a levirate marriage, the brother of a deceased man conceives a child with his late brothers wife for the purpose of giving his brother an heir. The heir is considered to be the son of the deceased brother and inherits his property. Knowing that, without an heir, he would be next in line to inherit his brother’s property, Onan takes steps to ensure that Tamar does not get pregnant, and so God strikes Onan down as well. With two sons now dead, Judah instructs Tamar to go live with her father until his third son, Shelah, comes of age.

Much time passes and Shelah comes of age, but Judah does not send for Tamar to marry him, so Tamar decides to take matters into her own hands. Judah’s wife has recently died and Judah is making a trip to see her family, so Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute on the side of the road near Judah’s in-law’s village and seduces him. Judah was travelling light and thus did not have any money with him, so she asks him for some collateral in the form of his signet ring, his staff, and his wrap- all important identifying items that would have borne either Judah’s personal seal or that of his father’s household. When Judah later returns with the promised goat in payment, she is nowhere to be found, and the townspeople claim there has never been a prostitute by their town. Although he could have just turned around and walked away and kept his goat, Judah leaves the goat with his father-in-law in case she does show up again. Tamar becomes pregnant, and when she begins to show she is accused of harlotry and taken to be burned, but when she produces his signet ring, staff, and wrap, Judah figures out what has happened and marries her himself.

There is a famous Talmudic saying, “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh (Shevuot 39a).” This phrase is often translated as “all of Israel is responsible for one another,” and although the context in the Talmud is that of preventing sin, it has been expanded to pretty much every sphere of Jewish life, whether giving political support, taking steps to not tarnish the reputation of the Jewish People, or something as simple as looking out for each other’s physical and emotional wellbeing. The phrase literally translates to “all of Israel are guarantors for one another,” and that is what Judah is doing here. By taking steps to find Tamar and repay her, he is not only being honest by repaying his debt, but by asking around for her he is ensuring that the townspeople know he has done this, ensuring that they have no reason to distrust any members of Jacobs’ household that they might come across in the future. Tamar, for her part, is portrayed as acting more in the original context of the phrase, engaging in her deception so that either Judah or Shelah will not be struck down for engaging in the same sin that Onan was.

On the other end of this spectrum we have the other story of Joseph and his brothers, where the brothers sell him into slavery and then kill a goat for the purposes of deceiving their father about what they have done. This action, seen by some commentators as the beginning of Israelite slavery in Egypt, is the beginning of a series of events in Jewish history that brings us through to the present day. This chain of events (and some beyond the present day) is allegorically described in the Passover song Chad Gadya, which literally means “one little goat,” and chronicles the various ups and downs in Jewish history, with the goat at the beginning representing the Israelites.

It is interesting to note that despite multiple characters behaving in ways we might find objectionable, or at the very least shocking, for biblical figures, in the story of Judah and Tamar the goat survives, while in the story of Joseph and his brothers it does not, killed by the literal children of Israel after they have turned on one of their own. The principle of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh” has been an extremely important one in the survival of the Jewish People, both physically and spiritually. It is up to us today to leave our descendants with a world in which Judaism can thrive.


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