Parashat VaYeshev

Divine and Human ‘Nudging’ on the Path of One’s Destiny
By Jill Minkoff

Va-Yeshev is primarily the story of Joseph’s descent into Egypt. It is a necessary precursor to the birth of the Jewish people and the subsequent story of redemption and journey to freedom. It is a story of seemingly bad luck that eventually turns out for the best.

We are introduced to Joseph at age seventeen. He is his father Jacob’s favorite son. He reports to his father the wrongdoings of his brothers. And, he tells his family of dreams he has had, in which they become subservient to him. It is no wonder that Joseph’s brothers are jealous and angry. Although Jacob is keenly aware of this matter, he chooses to send Joseph on an errand to observe the brothers in the pasture and report back on how they and the flocks are doing. As Joseph journeys to find his brothers, a nameless man appears and inquires of Joseph’s mission. When Joseph responds that he is looking for his brothers, the man points him in the right direction.

Perhaps Joseph would not have found his brothers without this chance interaction. Perhaps then, Joseph’s brothers would not have sold him into slavery. He would not have descended into Egypt. He would not have been imprisoned when his master’s wife wrongly accused him of trying to be familiar with her. He would not have met and correctly interpreted dreams for incarcerated former attendants to the king. And in the next parashah, he would not have been asked to interpret the king’s dreams. And he would not have been positioned to eventually help his own family relocate successfully to Egypt during a time of great famine. Had Jacob and his sons not gone into Egypt, there would not have been the eventual enslavement of their descendants nor their redemption as the Jewish people through God’s miracles and the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Within this parashah is also the story of Judah and his childless daughter-in-law, Tamar. Tamar had outlived two of Judah’s sons. Through the obligation of levirate marriage, Judah has promised his youngest son to Tamar once that son grows to an appropriate age. Over time, Judah appears to have forgotten his obligation. Upon hearing of her father-in-law’s visit to the town where she lives (after his wife had died and his time of mourning was completed), Tamar changes out of her widow’s clothing, veils her face, and sits along the roadside. Judah, taking her for a harlot, sleeps with her and fathers twins. Unbeknownst to him, his obligation to her has been accomplished. And, Tamar is rewarded with birthing an ancestor of King David.
There are many questions that arise from within this parashah. The ones that surface most strongly for me are those that have to do with destiny. Humans have free will. Yet, it appears that Divine and human interventions are sometimes needed to nudge one along the path of a destiny. Here are two stories that, when juxtaposed in this parashah, seem to point to this periodic need for intercession. Joseph has had dreams of a destiny in which his family will be subservient to him. Tamar has the right to a destiny in which she bears a child for her husband who has died and left her childless.

Joseph and Judah, left to their own decisions and actions, might not have moved along the paths of their destinies. Helping Joseph are his father, who, although knowing of his sons’ feeling toward their brother Joseph, sends Joseph to further observe and report on their doings, and the mysterious man who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and points Joseph in the correct direction to find his brothers. This man, according to Maimonides, is an angel ‘sent to make sure that Joseph would not give up on his mission when he could not find his brothers immediately’ (Etz Hayim, 229). Helping Judah is his daughter-in-law, Tamar, whose actions ensure that he fulfills the obligation to help her bear children (even though it was meant to be through his youngest son and not through him personally). And, in turn, Tamar’s destiny of bearing a predecessor to King David is accomplished.

As the story of the Jewish people continues to current times, you may want to pay more attention to your own actions and encounters. Perhaps you are giving or receiving some Divine or human nudges to move you and others along the paths of your respective destinies. And, as the consequences of this prodding unfold, may it be for the shalom of all creation.