Biblical family dysfunction

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This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23.

As we begin parshat Vayeshev, Jacob is settled. Literally and figuratively, he is comfortable and stable. Raised in a home of favoritism, Jacob continues this family tradition and expands on it. He gifts 17-year-old Joseph, a multicolored coat. Jacob’s gift was the opposite of discreet, it was rather an “in your face” gift to be displayed. Couldn’t Jacob see that giving one child in a large family beautiful new clothes is not the wisest choice?


Nevertheless, Joseph shows off his favored status; he probably wore that coat to the dinner table. Like a newly engaged woman who positions her hand prominently so all can view her diamond, Joseph flaunts his status. How did the other brothers react? The Torah tells us the brothers hated Joseph. They could not speak civilly with him: Vayesnu oto vlo yachlu dabro shalom. This is a case of deep-seated, long-lasting anger. These grown brothers competed for their father’s attention for far too long. This may have been the last straw in a long line of slights and inequalities.

How does Joseph handle this? He adds insult to injury and proceeds to share his dreams of supremacy and domination over his family with his brothers. This is more than the brothers can bear. At this point, can’t Joseph sense his brother’s hatred towards him? Did he think sharing his dreams could possibly end well? After debating the details of getting rid of Joseph, they throw Joseph into the pit and smear blood on the coat.

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The brothers lie to their father, presenting Jacob “evidence” of Joseph’s death. Can Jacob see through their deception? Possibly something in their behavior suggests to Jacob that his beloved son is not actually dead?

At this point we shift to Judah and Tamar. One can reasonably ask: Why is the Judah/Tamar story placed here? Tamar also ends up in a delicate situation – she must have suffered greatly. Her first husband, displeasing to God, was probably not a model spouse. Her second husband made sure not to impregnate Tamar and also died young. Tamar’s moves in with her in-laws and waits for son number three to grow up.


Judah’s wife dies during this time. Imagine such a household: a recently widowed older man, his remaining teenage son whose older brothers were married to this woman and Tamar, stuck to this family but not actually a part of it.

When Judah looks for a prostitute, Tamar seizes an opportunity to conceive. She changes clothing, veils her face and is not recognizable to Judah, with whom she lives. She figures out a solution that took bravery, courage and proactive thinking. How are we to interpret the situation: Tamar tricks Judah by disguising herself? Judah tricks Tamar by letting her think she would eventually marry his third son? Imagine the family dynamic around that dinner table with Judah, his son, and Tamar.

Why does the Torah contain one instance of deception after another? Beginning in the very first chapter with Adam, Eve and the snake, we encounter dishonesty, truth-twisting, outright lies and disguises. These same issues plague us in modern times. The gamut of human emotions has not changed. What lessons can we learn from studying out characters and their challenges? By dissecting their human failings, can we apply them to our own challenges so we behave with dignity and truthfulness?

Questions:

Can tricking someone ever be justified?

Being a modest person is a Jewish value. Under what circumstances is flaunting good fortune appropriate?

We often have the most friction between those closest to us: siblings, parents, spouses. What lessons does parshat Vayeshev teach us about jealousy and fairness?

As we approach Chanukah next week, what lessons can we learn from our parsha about giving and receiving gifts?

Aviva Janus is the education director at Shaare Tefila.

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