In this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, Jacob’s familial conflicts continue in future generations with the stories of Joseph and Tamar. For Joseph, this is a sequence of seemingly disastrous events through which G-d’s favor continues to protect him. Of Jacob’s thirteen children, Joseph was his most cherished, and he makes this quite clear to his other sons. Between this and Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams that seem to show him ruling over his brothers, they grow increasingly jealous and wary of him, eventually leading to them selling him for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph continues to be favored by G-d in Egypt and is successful both in the household where he works and even after being thrown into prison, falsely accused by his master’s wife after he rejects her advances. In prison, he continues interpreting dreams including that of the Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer, and asks him to speak favorably to the Pharaoh after being freed from prison. While Joseph faces continued struggles in this parsha from both his family and community, his hard work and service to those around him is rewarded by G-d even as he is met with ongoing injustices.
The secondary narrative of Vayeshev is of Tamar, Jacob’s grand-daughter in law, who also receives a series of familial catastrophes. Tamar is the wife of Er, son of Judah, son of Jacob. When Er dies, and leaves Tamar childless, the proper protocol of yibbum, where a brother-in-law is meant to marry the wife of his deceased brother, is not carried out by Judah’s son Onan. Therefore G-d kills Onan as well. Fearing the death of his third son, Shelah, Judah delays the possibility of Tamar’s marriage to him, and she is left in limbo for years. Without anyone to marry Tamar and provide her with the expected familial and socioeconomic support she should be entitled to, she is stuck as a childless widow and unable to move on. With this in mind, she takes action by carrying out a deception of Judah to become pregnant by him, posing as a sex worker and disguising herself with a veil. When it becomes clear she is pregnant, the townspeople, including Judah, label her a harlot and call for her death until she proves that Judah was the father and that he refused her the proper marriage to Shelah. Tamar’s endeavors lead to her birthing twins, successfully reasserting her lineage and status, and her deception is praised, both outspokenly by Judah and implicitly by the text, when it is revealed that she is “righteous” and not a “harlot”.
This week’s parsha is centered around justice and accountability. In a world where women have little agency and recourse over their socioeconomic status or family status, where men can be legally enslaved and imprisoned without trial, where the voices of the powerful are taken more seriously than the words of the oppressed, Tamar and Joseph act resourcefully and with G-d’s favor are able to seek a better outcome for themselves despite the extremely difficult situations that they find themselves in. We too can be inspired by Tamar and Joseph’s courage in our daily lives as we face systems of oppression or work as allies – for women’s rights, anti-carceral justice, anti-poverty work, an end to family violence and more. And we can also learn from Judah’s ability to admit when he was wrong, recanting his callous words against her and praising Tamar for her righteousness, as a tzaddikah. The ability to do better, to learn and grow, and to support our communities is always available to us, no matter what point we are coming from. Parsha Vayeshev may show some of the worst traits of familial rivalry and letdowns, but it also provides us with exceptionally courageous figures we can look to.
Written by Nelson Morgan