NO SAINTS – Vayeishev –Gen. 37-40, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Like other leaders in other times, the ancestors who made our history were not perfect. The book of Genesis pulls no punches in recounting their story. This week’s reading will describe in vivid detail the actions of some of Jacob’s sons. Particularly significant here are the characters of Judah and Joseph.
Jacob and Leah’s fourth son, Judah, distinguishes himself as a leader. His older brothers get in trouble early, and don’t assert themselves in the family. On his deathbed Jacob will remind them of their faults. Reuben, the firstborn, had sex with one of his father’s other wives. And the next two, Shimon and Levi, led the attack on the defenseless men of Sh’khem in last week’s section. “Weapons of violence are their kinship,” says Jacob. Judah frequently takes the lead among his brothers. He thinks ahead. Midrashic commentary credits Judah with great physical power too. But he’s no saint either.
This week’s reading will describe Judah’s family life. He marries and has three sons. They grow up, and the oldest, named Er, marries a girl named Tamar. Er is some kind of sinner, whose offenses are not listed, but they are serious enough to condemn him to death at the hands of Heaven. So he dies young. Judah promises Tamar that his second son Onan will carry out the ancient duty of marrying his brother’s childless widow, so she waits. But Onan won’t do this Mitzvah because the child he fathers will not be recognized as his. So he also dies, and the third son is still quite young. Tamar is tired of waiting. She disguises herself and goes to a place where Judah will be shearing his sheep. There she poses as a prostitute and seduces him. And she becomes pregnant. But before sharing his bed she took a pledge from him – a very identifiable pledge – that will mark him as the father of her twins. Despite his violation, however, he remains a leader among his brothers. He will also be the ancestor of David, our greatest king. And one of the twins Tamar bears, Peretz, is credited in Jewish lore with starting an ancestry that will one day produce the Messiah.
Sexual violations, we see, were charged against leaders in ancient times as well as modern times. But the only one of Jacob’s sons who went to prison for a sexual violation was Joseph – and he was innocent. In the famous story we will read in this week’s portion, Joseph gets sold into Egypt as a slave, and becomes a major domo in the house of Potiphar, a captain of the guard, whom the Torah describes as a saris, a eunuch. Many of Pharaoh’s officers were in fact castrated, to safeguard the royal harem. But Potiphar is also married. His wife sees a good-looking young fellow working in the house and tries to get something from him that clearly she was not getting from her husband. She’s not subtle about it either. She says “Lie with me!” Joseph turns down her invitation very honorably, but next time around she grabs his coat. He runs out, and she uses the coat as evidence to frame him for “attempted rape.” The Pharaoh promptly imprisons Joseph.
The contrast between these two sons of Jacob is striking. Of course we know that Joseph was not perfect. He was his father’s favorite, and had visions of grandeur as reflected in his dreams. We also don’t know what Potiphar’s wife looked like. But whatever faults Joseph had, he did become the viceroy who was able to bring his father and all the family out of Canaanite starvation to find refuge in Egypt. For now, we still accept Judah and his descendants as past and future leaders. His wisdom and his strength overcome his mistakes. In the coming weeks we will see even more dramatic developments in the lives of the brothers. We have much to learn from the epic of our ancient forefathers.