Today’s d’var Torah for Vayeshev

Today we have read aloud the very beginning of the Joseph novella, the narrative of Joseph, son of Jacob a.k.a. Israel. The coat of many colors. His father’s favoritism. The dreams he recounted to his brothers, apparently heedless of how this recounting would wound and anger them. His father sending him to go and see to the peace of his brothers and the peace of the flocks.

That’s where the portion we read aloud came to its close. I’d like to remind you of the rest of the story. On the way, he meets a mysterious stranger who points him in the right direction. His brothers, angry, scheme to kill him; but Reuven talks them into a lesser fate, and they cast him into a pit. Judah comes up with the plan of selling Joseph to a caravan of traveling Ishmaelites, and that caravan brings Joseph down into Egypt, where he is sold to Potiphar.

So far, Joseph’s story is one of descent. But then Joseph rises in the household of Potiphar, to become his chief servant. Then Potiphar’s wife — who is named, in later Jewish tradition and in the Muslim tradition which shares this story, as Zuleikha — tries to seduce him, and he refuses. Zuleikha, spurned and angry, tells Potiphar that Joseph tried to seduce her. And down Joseph goes once more, into Egyptian prison.

(Thank God that these were the Egyptian prisons of that Pharaoh’s day, and not the Egyptian prisons of today. Joseph languishes, but is not mistreated.)

God, Torah tells us, was with Joseph. And as a result, Joseph rises up in the prison hierarchy; the warden puts the other prisoners into Joseph’s care. And there, in prison, he interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants. He tells the cupbearer that in three days, Pharaoh will lift him out of prison; he tells the baker that in three days, Pharaoh will have him killed.

And it comes to pass exactly as Joseph interpreted. But the cupbearer, who survives, forgets the man who interpreted his dream in prison; and our parsha ends with Joseph, forgotten and imprisoned in a foreign land.

What can we make of this tale? For me the most potent message of the Joseph story is the motif of yeridah and aliyah, descent and ascent. Time and again, Joseph goes down — only to be lifted even higher up. This week’s story ends with Joseph in darkness once more…but I believe that the story calls us, as it calls Joseph, to trust that better things are coming. That if we are mindful of God’s presence, of God-with-us even in our darkest hour, the darkness will always give way to light.

Here’s another way to phrase all of that…in poetry. First, a poem by Rabbi Brant Rosen (originally published on his blog); then a poem by me.


and jacob said go see
to the peace of
your brothers take off your
coat peel off your
outer skin and fling yourself down
the rabbit hole down
straight down into the darkest of
prisons into the narrowest of
places you’ll be free when
they carry out your barest bones will
you do this for us
and joseph said i am


The mysterious unnamed man
is always a messenger
sent to keep our story moving
in the right direction.

The appropriate answer
is always hineni, here I am
ready for whatever pitch
is up God’s sleeve.

Into the pit, out of the pit
from slavery into service:
descent always contains
the seeds of ascent.

He had to be enslaved
in order to be accused
had to be accused
in order to be imprisoned

had to be imprisoned
in order to hear the dreams
of the cupbearer and the baker
which “surely God can interpret”

had to interpret dreams
in order to sire Freud
a few hundred generations
down the ancestral line.

But the cupbearer forgets
leaving Joseph in the dark
as the longest night of the year
threatens to swallow us whole.

(This poem can be found in 70 faces, Reb Rachel’s collection of Torah poems.)


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