In the second set of dreams, in Genesis 40, Joseph knows exactly what sort of information he is sharing. Joseph notices that his comrades are upset and volunteers his dream-interpretation services. However, this compassion does not extend to the way he relates the information he has to give. Joseph tells the baker he has three days left to live before he is impaled and his body is eaten by birds. He uses the same initial language he has used in interpreting the cupbearer’s dream of restoration to his old position, starting with, “In three days time, Pharoah will lift your head…” The cupbearer’s head will be lifted and restored to its old position while the baker’s head will be lifted clean off his body. After giving the baker a moment of hope that he might share in the cupbearer’s good fortune, Joseph mercilessly reveals the information he has to give, with no regard for the one receiving the news.

Judah and Tamar, in Genesis 38, are on the other side of the spectrum for how to relay information. Rather than telling the truth no matter the consequence, Tamar and Judah determine their desired consequences and then relay information that will lead to those consequences. While they are certainly more aware of how their news will affect the listener than Joseph is, their primary concern is not for the listener but for themselves. First, Judah, tells Tamar a half-truth, sending her home in order to try to preserve the life of his one remaining child. Tamar, in turn, wanting to ensure the continuation of her dead husband’s line, manipulates the way she is perceived by presenting herself as a harlot.

Potiphar’s wife, in Genesis 39, takes Judah and Tamar’s art of manipulation to a new level. She no longer is presenting half-truths; she is lying, plain and simple. When Joseph refuses to sleep with her, she makes up a rape story, which she tells twice, once to the workers of the house and once to her husband. In keeping with her character, she manipulates the details in each telling, changing parts so as to elicit maximum sympathy.

There is another example in this week’s parashah of how to disclose information, namely Reuben. In Genesis 37:22, Reuben pushes back against his brothers’ plan to kill Joseph. He says to his murderous brothers, “Do not spill blood! Let us cast him into this pit here in the desert, and not cast a hand against him.” The narrator adds, “So that he might rescue him from their hands to return him to his father.” Here, Reuben successfully pursues his own agenda without lying to or disregarding the people to whom he speaks. However, although Reuben is successful in saving Joseph’s life, he does not manage to implement the second, unspoken part of his plan.

As we read this parashah in an era of consistently bad news, take a moment to reflect on your style of disclosing information. Which of this week’s models speaks to you? Is there perhaps a better way to do it?


Parashat Vayeshev
Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
December 1, 2018 | 23 Kislev 5779

Annual | Genesis 37:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim p. 226-245; Hertz p. 141-151)

Triennial Genesis 39:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim p. 237-245; Hertz p. 147-151)
Haftarah Amos 2:6-3:8 (Etz Hayim p. 246-249; Hertz p. 152-154)

D’var Torah: Bad News & Fake News

Bex Stern Rosenblatt, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

There is no universal right way to tell someone bad news (at least that I know of; if you do, please share). However, this week’s parashah, Parashat Vayeshev can be read as a case study of different models for how to disclose unpleasant information.

On one extreme, we find Joseph, the truth-teller. Joseph tells it like it is, with no concern for the listener’s sensibilities. Important to him is the communication of information. Unprompted, Joseph goes out of his way to let people know what he knows. We see this both times that Joseph discusses dreams.

In the first set of dreams, in Genesis 37, Joseph dreams and then immediately shares his dreams with his brothers and then with his father. At this point, it is unclear if Joseph understands the information he is sharing, if he knows that he is telling his family that, according to his dreams, they will be subservient to him. Nonetheless, his family quickly interprets the dreams as insulting to them. Joseph had been so committed to the idea of sharing the information that he either did not consider what effect the information might have on his family or he chose to ignore it.



D’var Haftarah: Privilege or Responsibility

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Amos, the earliest of the literary prophets, opens his prophetic message with prophecies concerning the nations along with similar prophecies about Israel and Judea. In chapter 3, his prophetic message changes directions. His earlier “universalism” turns particularistic when he focuses on Israel’s “chosenness” and his role as a prophet for the “chosen people.” Amos’ idea of chosenness is not what one might expect: “Hear this word, O people of Israel, that the Lord has spoken concerning you, concerning the whole family that I have brought out of Egypt: You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth, that is why I call you to account for all of your iniquities.” (3:1-2)

This prophecy deserves unpacking. How was one to understand the significance of the redemption from Egypt? Was this defining moment a merit which foreshadowed a future redemption for a beloved people, or did it creat a debt owed to God? Amos’ answer is clear. He argued against the presumption that the redemption from Egypt conferred privilege. Rather, according to Amos, the larger lesson of chosenness invokes both responsibility and liability. (S. Paul, Amos, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 56)

The medieval commentators examine the exact nature of this association. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain 11th century) see this as an issue of gratitude: “I (God) saved you from your troubles and you betrayed Me. It is the way of the king to be angry with those who stand before him more than with others.” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) attributes the prophet’s painful association between the redemption and accountability to the people’s failure to have a sense of wonder at the miraculous: “You (the children of Israel) saw and discerned My (God’s) signs and wonders that I did for you and made good for you, therefore it is only just that I hold you accountable for your sins.

Underlying both of these interpretations is the idea that chosenness is presumed to imply preferred treatment. If so, what went wrong? What poisoned the relationship between the people and God that this equation changed, prompting Amos to link it instead with accountability? For both, the answer boils down to a sense that privilege and special treatment sometimes lead people to become blind to the obligations that come along with privilege. Amos sought to remind his fellows to remember where they came from and who brought them to the blessings they now enjoyed and to live their lives accordingly.


Parashat Vayeshev Self-Study

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

The Joseph story! Joseph’s roller-coaster of a life takes off in this parashah, along with the story of his brother Judah. Joseph starts out young and grows slowly (and painfully) through the parashah. Let’s follow both brothers.

1) Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, is hated by his brothers. He tells his brothers dreams that he dreams (37:6-10). In the first dream, all of them harvesting in the field, and then their bundles bow to his bundle. However, the brothers seem to be professional shepherds, not farmers. Why do you think that the dream was not set in a setting directly from their lives?

2) Joseph is sent to his brothers. When they see him from afar they plan to kill him, but Reuben, the first-born, suggests to throw him in a pit rather than murder him. We are told that his intention is to save Joseph later (37:21-22). Why do you think that Reuben did not tell his brothers that it is wrong to kill Joseph?

3) In the middle of the Joseph story, we have a Judah story (chapter 38). While at his friend’s place, Judah sees a woman and marries her. How does this differ from the marriages of his father Yaakov and his grandfather Yitzhak? What might this change tell us about the changes taking place in the family?

4) After being taken from the Land of Canaan, Joseph is sold to a high-ranking Egyptian, Potifar. Joseph is very successful in all that he does, as the LORD is with him. His Egyptian master realizes that the LORD is with him, and leaves the entire household in Joseph’s hands (39:2-6). What do you think that Potifar noticed, and why was this reason enough not to question Joseph about anything?

5) After Joseph has a run-in with Potifar’s wife, he is moved to the prison in which the king’s servants are held. Pharaoh’s baker and butler arrive there and dream two dreams which Joseph interprets for them (chapter 40). After telling the butler that his dreams mean he is about to be set free, Joseph asks him to return the favor and ask Pharaoh to free him (Joseph) as well. But when he is returned to his previous position in the court, the butler “did not remember Joseph… and forgot him.” Why do you think the butler acted in this manner?


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