Campfire Torah: Vayeishev
The Rising of a New Generation
Shalom, friend! Welcome back for more of Moshe’s family stories. These tales around the campfire are really getting to be a habit, aren’t they? I have been noticing that Moshe raced through the earlier stories, jumping over large periods of time between each story. But now, he has begun to focus on the family of Avraham, and his children, Yitzchak, Ya’akov (he was renamed ‘Israel’, as we heard last week), and now we are moving on to the next generation.
Last week, we heard that Ya’akov settled in the Land promised to his family by Hashem. And, like his father, he lived as a foreigner, among the other tribes who were already there. He had returned from his stay with Lavan, now possessing great wealth, in terms of both his material goods and a sizeable family. Our patriarchs had been born, and everything seemed good.
Except for one thing…
Yosef, the First Gen-X’er
“Ya’akov never let go of his first love, Rachel. And the special place in his heart for her was transferred to her children. So, out of the twelve, he always regarded Yosef as his favorite. This was great for Yosef—for awhile. But by the time he got well into his teens, his older brothers all began to resent both the special treatment he got, and the attitude he displayed. This went beyond normal sibling rivalry. Those young men seriously wanted to hurt the boy!
“To top it all off, he started claiming to have dreams given to him from Hashem. First, he said he had dreamed that all his brothers were going to bow down to him. Imagine that! Then, he had the nerve to go to his father, describing a dream that showed his own parents honoring him as their king! That was too much for even the doting father to handle, and he let his son know it!
“Still, Ya’akov continued to show Yosef the same favoritism. He gave him all the cushy jobs around the place, like supervising his brothers, and running messages between the fields and the home. Ya’kov even gave Yosef a special coat that distinguished him from the others. Everybody could see that he got more respect than they did, even though they did the lion’s share of the work.
“The annoyance continued to build. You could cut the tension in the home with a knife. Then, it all came to a head one day….
They Meant It for Evil
“Ya’akov’s sons were all out in the fields with the sheep. All, that is, except for Yosef. Ya’akov wanted to check on their status, so he naturally sent the one son who was still around the tent. Yosef had to ask around a bit, to find his brothers, but eventually he got within sight of their camp. That was when everything started to break down.
“They saw him coming, and got ideas in their heads about killing him. Nobody remembers exactly who it was who made the suggestion. Some think it was either Levi or Shim’on—Remember them? They were the two who got so upset about the rape of Dinah that they killed everybody in Sh’khem! If anybody was going to get angry, they were the two main candidates!
“Anyway, the brothers spotted Yosef coming over the sand dunes, and plotted to kill him. They figured the could always blame his death on a wild animal. Fortunately, Re’uven overheard the plan, and moderated it somewhat. He suggested they just throw Yosef into an empty water cistern. That way, he said, they wouldn’t directly have blood on their hands. He didn’t say so, but he planned to come back later and rescue Yosef from the cistern. He was a good man, that Re’uven.
“They threw Yosef into the cistern, alright. They stripped off that annoying robe that was such a badge of honor to him, and tossed him down into the hole. But while they were eating, a new factor came into play. A band of Yishma’eli merchants came by, on their way down to the region of Mitzrayim (some call that land ‘Egypt’). Y’hudah, not knowing Re’uven’s plan to rescue Yosef later, suggested they sell the boy to the Yishma’elis. That way, they not only didn’t have to commit murder, but they could make a little profit on the side! He thought he was so clever, that one.
“Meanwhile, Re’uven, who had been out checking on the flocks, doubled back to the cistern, expecting to find his brother. But he was gone! He hurried back to the group, and yelled at them angrily, explaining that he fully expected to save their brother, and return him safely home.
“‘He deserved a good scare. He didn’t deserve to be killed for his foolishness! Oh… not killed? You sold him?!?!?! To whom? Yishma’eli merchants? Where did they take him? To Mitzrayim? You’ve got to be kidding me! How can I recover him now? He’s lost for good!’
“That was when they went back to the original plan. Since Yosef was as good as dead, they took the robe they had taken off of him, and dipped it in some goat’s blood, to make it look like Yosef had been attacked and dragged off by a wild animal.
“And so it happened that, just as Ya’akov had long ago deceived his father into thinking he was Esav, now his own sons tricked him with the story of accidental death. They gave Ya’akov the coat, and he recognized the gift he had given his favorite son. He burst out, crying, “It’s my son’s robe! Some wild animal has torn Yosef in pieces and eaten him!”
“He was inconsolable. He didn’t want to even eat or take care of himself. His sons were certain he was going to die. They had no idea he would take the story of Yosef’s death so hard.
Down in Mitzrayim
“Funny thing, though—while Ya’akov was mourning the loss of his son, Yosef was doing alright for himself down in Mitzrayim. He got sold to a captain of Pharaoh’s guard, a fellow named Potiphar. Oh, you have got to hear this story! You’ll never imagine what happened next!
“Potiphar put Yosef to work in his home, where he distinguished himself in everything he did. Eventually, Potiphar put Yosef in charge of his whole household, as his chief of operations. Yosef, the despised little brother, ended up being in charge of everything, and everybody, in the household!
“There was just one fly in the ointment. Potiphar’s wife had her eye on Yosef. She wanted him to have sex with her. But Yosef knew Hashem would not approve of such a thing, and he told her so. She kept insisting, though, day after day. Finally, the day came that she got really insistent, and started pulling at his clothes! The young man got so flustered, he just ran right out of the house… naked! Potiphar’s wife wouldn’t let go of his clothes, so he left her standing there with his robe in her hand.
“You’d think that would be the end of things, but women don’t like to be rejected—especially this wealthy and powerful woman! She screamed out, attracting the attention of everybody in the house. When all the servants arrived, she made up a story about how Yosef had tried to force himself on her! And she held out the robe as supposed “proof” of Yosef’s crime. She was truly wicked!
“She saved the robe, and told the same lie to her husband when he got home. Potiphar was furious! He felt betrayed by the Hebrew servant he had trusted so completely! As a result, he threw Yosef into prison. But not the nasty, dark sort of prison that we usually think of when we hear that word. This was a prison for political prisoners.
“Even in prison, Yosef continued to be Yosef. He looked for every opportunity to help out, and developed a reputation for being a model prisoner. Just as had happened in Potiphar’s home, it wasn’t too long before Yosef was put in charge of all the other prisoners. The warden trusted Yosef completely. He knew that whatever he asked Yosef to do, it would get done. Hashem blessed everything Yosef touched.
“One day, a couple new prisoners came into the jail. One was the king’s cupbearer. It was his job to taste test everything served to the king, to make sure nobody tried to poison the king. The other was the king’s chief baker.
“Nobody knows for sure what these guys did to offend the king. Perhaps he heard them talking against his leadership. Maybe they were plotting to kill the king, themselves! But whatever their crime, they came into the jail, and Yosef was put in charge of them.
“One morning, Yosef came in to feed these men, and see to their needs. Neither one looked very happy. It seems they both had experienced dreams the night before, and had been left feeling upset by what they saw.
“Yosef asked them to tell him the dreams. He was sure Hashem could give the interpretation.
“As each man told his dream, Yosef did give the interpretation. Basically, the cupbearer would be restored to his position serving the king. The baker would not be so fortunate—he would be executed.
“Yosef saw an opportunity to get himself out of the prison. After all, even with a good job there, he was still unable to move about freely, and he wanted to get out, if possible. So, he asked the cupbearer to mention him to the king when he got out.
“Sure enough, things worked out exactly as Yosef had said. And the cupbearer? Well, he forgot all about his promise to Yosef.
“Now, we’ve been focusing on the life of Yosef because he is the one who ended up bringing our family into Mitzrayim. If it hadn’t been for Yosef, we would have never ended up in the situation where we needed to be rescured by Hashem! For good, or for ill, he really defines who we are as a people. We’ll be spending even more time on his story the next time we gather together.
“But we probably ought to also mention something about Y’hudah. While his little brother was off “having adventures” in Mitzrayim, the sons of Israel were all busy living their own lives. Most were pretty uneventful. They grew up, got married, had children, and took care of their families. But Y’hudah had an adventure of his own.
“Y’hudah ended up marrying a woman with whom he was never really happy. Why, we don’t even remember her name, anymore! They ended up having three kids, named Er, Onan, and Shelah. Then their mother passed away.
“Trying to be a good father, Y’hudah arranged a marriage for his eldest son. Soon, Er died. He must have done something truly evil, for Hashem to take him so early!
“Now, you know our family practices something called ‘levirate marriage’. That’s where, when a man dies before having children, his brother marries the wife, and the first child born to that marriage is designated the inheritor of the first brother’s name and legacy.
“So, Y’hudah gave his next son, Onan, to Er’s wife, Tamar. Onan was expected to raise up a son to carry on Er’s name. But, while we suppose Er was wicked, we know for a fact Onan was vile! He refused to do the duty of a husband to Tamar. Hashem ended up also taking Onan early.
“Everybody involved was at a loss. Tamar began to wonder what she had done to deserve so much misery. Y’hudah started to wonder if Tamar wasn’t killing off his children!
“Tamar asked her father-in-law what she should do. He told her to come stay in his home, and wait for the last son, Shelah, to grow old enough to marry. But he didn’t really want to marry Shelah to her, because he was afraid he would lose all three of his sons to this “black widow” woman. After awhile, it became evident to Tamar that Y’hudah was not going to give her Shelah as a husband. So, she got clever.
“The woman came up with a plan. She actually went and tricked Y’hudah into having relations with her. She covered her face and pretended to be a prostitute. As payment for her services, he gave her the special badges of office that identified him as the leader of his family. When Tamar turned up pregnant, she produced the items, proving that her child’s father was Y’hudah.
“How messed up was that?!?!? Tamar was about to produce children for her father-in-law!
“As it turns out, Tamar gave birth to twins, named ‘Peretz’ (‘breaking out’) and ‘Zerach’ (‘scarlet’). Amminadab, right over here, is one of the leaders of the tribe of Y’hudah right now! He is descended from Peretz.
“So, we close out tonight knowing about how the tribe of Y’hudah grew to its present position and size. On top of that, we have followed the story of Yosef traveling into Mitzrayim. Next time we get together, we will talk about how he ended up bringing the rest of the family to be with him. Was that really wise? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!
“See you again, soon!”