Parshat Vayeshev

by | Nov 18, 2021 | Jewish Life at UofT | 0 comments

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

Hillel Ontario Welcomes University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group

Hillel Ontario Welcomes University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group

Hillel Ontario welcomes University of Toronto’s recent launch of a new Anti-Semitism Working Group. The Working Group will review programming, activities, processes, and practices in place at the University of Toronto’s three campuses and develop recommendations to support the University’s response to antisemitism.

“The establishment of a working group focused on antisemitism is a much-needed measure for the University of Toronto,” said Rob Nagus, Senior Director, Hillel UofT. “Too often, Jewish students who have faced antisemitism on campus have felt that their serious concerns around anti-Jewish hate were dismissed. Given the positive impact of recent anti-racism initiatives on the campus community, it is incumbent on our institutions to also address the unique challenges inherent to combating antisemitism.”

“Across the nine campuses we serve, Hillel Ontario is committed to working with all university administrations to champion the voices of Jewish students,” said Marc Newburgh, CEO, Hillel Ontario. “We look forward to supporting the work of the University of Toronto by ensuring these voices are heard and acknowledged. Doing so will help the Working Group better understand how contemporary antisemitism manifests on campus.”

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

I love the holiday of Sukkot and look forward to it every year. While often overshadowed by the High Holy Days, I find that it offers us a chance to relax after the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For a week, we are invited to enjoy the outdoors, to celebrate abundance, and to express gratitude (going back to the holiday’s roots as a celebration of a successful harvest season). 

Yet, accessing the joy, the gratitude, and the togetherness of Sukkot seemed almost impossible given the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the fact that we as a Hillel community remain scattered across the GTA (and beyond!), spending most of our days connecting only virtually. 

At the same time, perhaps the most important word of our season has been “wellness.” We, students and staff, have been particularly attuned to the need to care for our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. To state the obvious, it’s a tough time. As a Hillel community, we knew we had to try to meet the moment. 

Students from York, Ryerson and UofT gathered to brainstorm together: What did they need most right now? What did their friends, classmates, and peers need? How could we find a way to both celebrate Sukkot and care for ourselves across virtual time and space? 

What emerged was Sukkot Wellness Week, a menu of experiences that spanned the week of Sukkot, offering multiple ways to mindfully care for ourselves and each other.

First, there was a daily instagram prompt, alternating between thoughtful and silly questions about Sukkot, inviting students to think about their favourite fall comfort foods, Sukkah decorations, and what special guests they would welcome into their metaphorical (or actual) Sukkah. 

Second, we offered a different experience each day, focused on a different area of wellness.

  • Spiritual: on Tuesday, students joined me in learning Jewish texts related to the deep connections between Sukkot and wellness.
  • Mental: on Wednesday, students hosted a Wellness Wednesday check-in, a preview of what we hope will be a regular fixture in our Hillel calendar. 
  • Physical: On Thursday, a student prepared a meditation to offer us a chance to breathe and to pay attention to how we were feeling in our bodies. 
  • Emotional: On Friday, a student led trivia and other games as a way to destress from the week. Much laughter ensued.

By design, there was something for everyone. More importantly, Sukkot Wellness Week set the stage for an ongoing conversation about how we care for our full selves, and how this is deeply grounded in what it means to live Jewishly. Our work is far from over, and while Sukkot only lasts a week, it’s themes can help power us through the year ahead. 

Rabbi Ariella Rosen, Senior Jewish Educator

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