Weekly D’var: Vayeshev

by | Dec 15, 2022 | Hillel Ontario, Weekly D'var | 0 comments

This week’s Parsha predominantly features Joseph’s narrative. However, after the first chapter there is a break in the story to tell us a bit about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah, together with his three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah and of course, his daughter-in-law, Tamar.

After Tamar is left widowed twice by Judah’s eldest Er and again by his second son Onan, Judah gives Tamar no timeframe in which she could expect to be betrothed to his third son, Shelah. In fact, Rashi says that Judah had no intent giving Shelah to Tamar in marriage at all. As a result, Tamar decides to take things into her own hands. She disguises herself and artfully seduces Judah. Months later, upon finding out that Tamar has somehow become pregnant, Judah proclaims that Tamar “should be burned” (38:24) for her sins. This is when Tamar finally reveals who she truly is, and Judah realizing what he has done, takes full responsibility for his misdeeds. Judah notes that despite Tamar deceiving him, “she was more righteous, for he had not given her [his] son” (38:26). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l remarks that Judah is actually the first person in Torah to explicitly admit that he was in the wrong. This episode is a pivotal moment for Judah. 

If we investigate the other times the Torah decides to highlight Judah’s actions, we see that this is not the first time Judah steps up to take some form of responsibility.If we recall, at the beginning of this Parsha, Reuven, the firstborn, initially proposes that they throw Judah into a pit rather than kill him. However, Judah objects, and convinces his brothers to sell him into slavery instead, with Sforno commenting that Judah realizes the irrevocable harm caused by leaving their brother to die, or deciding to kill him outright would be done not only to Joseph, but will forever weigh on his brothers too. While Judah’s actions with regard to Joseph are underwhelming and are not to be condoned, it still exemplifies an attribute of Judah that develops considerably over the next few Parshiot. Fast forward to next week’s Parsha and we see that it is none other than Judah who is willing to be jailed so that his youngest brother Benjamin can go free.

While it was not apparent at the time, Judah’s episode with Tamar is a tipping point in his life, with his deeper sense of responsibility melding his legacy. On Jacob’s deathbed, Judah is praised and blessed, while the firstborn Reuven is cursed. From here we can draw a direct correlation between Judah’s actions and his legacy. It is Judah, the fourth child, from which the Davidic line—and in the future, the messiah—originates, specifically through the son he had with Tamar, while also ultimately becoming the namesake of the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Jacob Samson,
Student, Queens University

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023

In their research on listening to survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides, Bronwen E. Low and Emmanuelle Sonntag note listeners’ problematic tendencies towards one of two responses.  On the one hand, they can regard the narratives as so unfamiliar and foreign that they must be pushed away as overwhelming, untouchable, and inaccessible.  On the other, the stories can be seen as familiar, to the point that the listener cannot separate their own experiences and emotional response from what they take in.

But another, preferable response exists: Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert talk about a “chain of testimony” and suggest that listening imposes a duty on the listener.  Listening to personal testimony at the crossroads of memory and history “imposes particular obligations on those called to receive it – obligations imbued with the exigencies of justice, compassion, and hope that define the horizon for a world yet to be realized.”  In this way, bearing witness and listening to testimony demands a number of actions and responses, including that we “transport and translate stories of past injustices beyond their moment of telling by taking these stories to another time and space where they become available to be heard or seen.”

If we take Simon and Eppert’s charge seriously, as I believe we should, those of us who have been privileged to hear the direct testimony of survivors of the Holocaust.  Their words come not just with the specific knowledge they impart or the emotional impact they have on us – sorrow, anger, fear, horror – but with a duty, an obligation of some kind.  

On many of our campuses, this week is Holocaust Education Week, and this Friday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Given the significant number of Holocaust survivors and their descendants in Canada, the scheduled events and programs have a personal resonance for many of our students and their families, but their impact can be deep and meaningful for all of us, regardless of who we are and where we come from.  I encourage each of you to make time to participate in this week’s activities and to consider your place in the chain of testimony: what obligation does listening to narratives from the Holocaust place on you, and how do you carry those stories forward in time?


Weekly D’var: Shemot

Weekly D’var: Shemot

In this week’s parashah we learn the story of Moses, from his birth, through his flight from and eventual return to Egypt, to the acceptance of his role as leader of the Hebrew people.

After fleeing Egypt, for killing an Egyptian slave master, Moses was living rather peacefully as a shepherd in the land of Midian. The Torah describes for us Moses’s first interaction with G-d upon coming across a bush, “burning with a heart of fire [Exodus 3:3]”. G-d calls out to Moses and requests he take the Jewish people out of Egypt and eventually into the land of Israel. However, Moses argues with G-d, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? Who am I that I should take the Jews out of Egypt? [Exodus 3:11]” After initially refusing four times, Moses eventually agrees to G-ds request, and as we know, the rest is history. But why was Moses so unwilling to take up the position of leader, to the extent that he would argue with G-d? And why was G-d so set on having Moses lead the Jewish people? 

Perhaps the answer can be found through the incident that led to his flight from Egypt, years earlier, when Moses, as mentioned above, killed an Egyptian slave master for beating a Hebrew slave. Immediately, he was met with opposition from some of the Hebrew slaves, “who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian? [Exodus 2:14]” Moses felt discouraged and unsure of his ability to lead. However, it seems that G-d saw in Moses, a faithful shepherd, the ability to lead his people from slavery to freedom. Very often in Tanakh, the people that are most worthy to lead are the ones who deny that they are worthy at all. Moses may not appear to be the first choice for a leadership figure, suffering from a speech impediment and lacking charisma; however, Moses possessed certain qualities that made him the ideal leader to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt. We too possess qualities that can lead us to achieve incredible success and realize our full potential. We may often feel unmotivated or unsure of our own capabilities. Instead of feeling discouraged, I believe we can look to Moses who, despite all his doubts, stepped up to the challenge and became the greatest leader in Jewish history. 

Sam Virine
VP of Jewish Life at Hillel Waterloo & Laurier