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Vayeshev — And Jacob Dwelt

Genesis 37:1–40:23

Jacob and His Two Firstborns, Judah and Joseph

There is something reassuringly stable and secure in the notion of “dwelling,” the verb that gives this week’s portion its name. It has an air of permanence, of rootedness, unlike more tentative concepts such as sojourning or abiding. The same is true of the Hebrew original, yeshev; in various permutations it means to sit, settle down or inhabit. Its root letters, y-sh-v, lend their meaning to such essential values as the yeshiva, the place where scholars sit together to study Torah (and where, if you will, the spirit of God dwells among them), and the yishuv, the permanent Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Jacob was surely seeking that sort of permanence and stability in his life when he decided to settle down at last after years of impermanence, instability and upset. But wishing doesn’t make it so: “Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, but the anger of Joseph sprang upon him” (Rashi on Gen. 37:2). Rashi argues that Jacob’s hopes to settle down to a quiet farmer’s life were upset by the feuding between Joseph and his brothers, which ended up wreaking disaster in the family. Rashi adds, “The righteous sought to dwell in tranquility; but the Holy One, praised be he, said: the righteous are not satisfied with what is arranged for them in the world to come, but want to dwell in tranquility in this world?” And thus begins the final chapter in the most un-tranquil life of Jacob.

At the core of the story is the unavoidable comparison between Joseph and Jacob. Comparisons between generations are not unusual in this family. Thus, for example, Rashi begins his commentary on Parashat Toledot:

These are the generations of Isaac. Abraham begot Isaac…. The jokers of that generation used to say that Sarah was made pregnant by Abimelech (the king of Gerar, who “took Sarah” thinking she was Abraham’s sister, Gen. 20:2) since she had lived with Abraham for so many years and not gotten pregnant by him. What did the Holy One, praised be he, do? He made the features of Isaac’s face resemble Abraham’s to attest to all that Abraham begot Isaac. (Rashi on Gen. 25:19)

As opposed to the physical similarity between Abraham and Isaac, the similarity between Jacob and Joseph is drawn from the arena of shared personal destiny:

Three times the text begins “the generations of Jacob” with Joseph, for several reasons: one, that Jacob did not work for Laban for his own sake but for Rachel; and the splendor of Joseph’s appearance resembled him; and everything that happened to Jacob happened to Joseph – both were hated, both had brothers who sought to kill them and much more. (Rashi on Gen. 37:2)

Their mothers, Rebecca and Rachel, were both childless in their early years of marriage. Rebecca gave birth to two boys, Jacob and Esau, and Rachel gave birth to two boys, Joseph and Benjamin. Both had difficult, painful pregnancies. Both Jacob and Joseph grew up in hostile environments, with brothers who hated them. Both had dreams filled with promise of greatness. Both took birthrights that were not theirs by natural right. In both stories, their hard work paid off well economically for their fathers-in-law, Laban and Potiphar. Both died in Egypt, both were embalmed and both were returned after death to the land of Canaan by their families in elaborate royal funeral processions. And above all, they share the similarity of their long, forced separations from their parents’ homes.

Within this remarkable family drama lurks the seed of another story that has yet to germinate, grow and make its presence felt. If you were to stop reading this week’s portion at chapter 38, after the third aliyah (summons to the Torah) of seven, the logical continuity of the Jewish people’s annals would seem clear cut. Abraham was the preferred son of Terah. Isaac inherited the patriarch’s mantle instead of his brother. Jacob, with all his agonizing, continues the tradition this week and chooses Joseph as his heir, even though he isn’t the firstborn. But you already know my view: no biblical story is simple. There’s almost always a far-reaching historical dimension, laden with no small measure of uplifting, didactic critique for the benefit of readers and believers. This week, the twist is the story of Judah, folded in among the annals of Joseph in a manner that is not the least bit coincidental.

Chapter 38 begins this way: “And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her, and went in unto her” (Gen. 38:1–2).

The descent, as I understand it, was geographical: from the high Samarian hill country, along the main highway that winds southward through the Jebusite hills and the city of Salem (later Jerusalem), via Hebron and down into the valley of Beersheba. Eventually Judah went from the Judean hills, which weren’t yet named for him, to the lowlands of Adullam, the Valley of Elah and the Canaanite cities of the Shephelah lowlands approaching the coastal plain.

The rest of the story is familiar. Judah and the Canaanite woman have three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. The eldest marries Tamar and then dies. His brother marries her, and then he too dies. Judah, kindly and loving father that he is, refuses to marry his third son to the black widow. At this point Tamar deceives her father-in-law. She dons a galabia and veil and lures Judah, disguised as a highway prostitute. When the honorable father-in-law learns of her pregnancy he decides to have her killed. “Bring her forth, and let her be burnt” (Gen. 38:24), he orders, but she produces the personal effects that he had given her as payment for his roadside romp. Being an old-school gentleman, he offers public acknowledgement: “She is more righteous than I” (Gen. 38:26). Twins are born to them, Zerah and Peretz. The latter fathers a line of progeny that produces King David. There are so many components in this human tale that shed light on the customs and norms of the era: the place of the prostitute in society, the traditions of levirate marriage and of redeeming a brother’s widow, the laws of execution by burning of an adulterously pregnant woman, and even the price of a night of pleasure among the high and mighty.

Judah’s break with family tradition demands examination. Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to bring back a bride for Isaac from his clan in Haran. Jacob marries a relative, too. Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, sleeps with his father’s concubine. Only Judah breaks the mold and marries one of the local women, against whom his great-grandfather Abraham had pleaded: “‘Thou shalt not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, even for Isaac’” (Gen. 24:3–4). And his grandmother Rebecca had spoken of them, too: “‘If Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these, of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?’” (Gen. 27:46). But Judah strikes out on a new path, which characterizes all his great descendants after him. He deliberately marries one of the daughters of the land, and chooses another one for his sons to marry. Boaz, his grandson’s grandson, marries Ruth the Moabite, and a list of the intermarriages of David and Solomon and their children would require more than the few pages of a weekly portion.

For years I have been asking myself why David succeeded in his young kingship when the much-admired Saul had failed before him? Why is the kingdom of Judah immortal in memory, while the kingdom of Benjamin, the brother of Joseph, nearly forgotten? There is no shortage of commentaries on the question. The tempestuous personality of the red-haired David was stronger than Saul’s manic-depression. Geopolitical circumstances and canny alliances favored David. Politics and statecraft explain a great deal, but it seems to me that more attention should be paid to the marital policies of the house of Judah. While Saul was destroying his sophisticated and experienced allies, the Gibeonites, King David, like Boaz and Judah, was marrying local folk and marrying his sons and daughters to the princes and kings of the region.

From a historical standpoint, the land of Canaan had developed a tradition of monarchic politics that predated by at last five hundred years the conquest of the land by the Israelite desert nomads. A stable economy, trained armies, military technologies, traditions of governance and royal houses had been developed while our ancestors were still wandering around thirsty and hungry in the desert. The children of Judah assimilated this accumulated experience and built on it. Like a choice fruit tree grown from botanical grafting, a well-rooted stock from one strain topped by fruit-bearing foliage from another. The house of Judah was the foliage and fruit, and the daughters of the land with their traditions were the deep roots. Out of this grows the healthy tree about which we still sing, “chai vekayam”, it lives on.

And so the biblical narrator stealthily tucks away the seeds of Judah’s future greatness in the midst of the story of Joseph’s rise to the top. He seems to be telling us that this time, the father’s choice won’t be upheld. Abraham preferred Isaac. Isaac blessed Jacob – unwillingly, perhaps, but he did it. Jacob continued his fathers’ practice and publicly chose Joseph, but the narrator has already let us know his own choice: Judah.


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