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Parashat VaYeishev

December 11, 2009

By Rabbi Dorit Edut

The test of a person’s
character comes when we are faced with a circumstance to which we must clearly
reply. While we understand that not everything can be seen or judged so
clearly, that often there are many connected factors to consider, yet in the
end the choice we ultimately make will reflect our values.


On this Shabbat, our Torah
portion brings us the contrasting positions of Judah and Joseph each who
respond to a sexual challenge in opposite ways. On the one hand there is Judah,
who, upon seeing the ‘harlot’ (who is really his disguised daughter-in-law
Tamar) cannot refrain from having sex with her and even gives her his seal and
cord as a pledge of payment. On the other hand, there is Joseph, who, when
propositioned by his master Potiphar’s wife, explains why he will NOT have sex
with her and then flees when she tries to physically force him.


Judah only later learns of the consequences of his
actions – that he has been duped into impregnating his daughter-in-law – with
twins!- after he had not fulfilled his promise of having his youngest son marry
her in a levirate marriage. While this transgression may have been transformed
positively by the birth of Judah’s
heirs, Peretz and Zerah, yet Judah is certainly not viewed as a
trustworthy or honorable person for his actions.


The fate of Joseph is more
complex: he initially suffers by being imprisoned after his master’s wife
falsely accuses him of adultery, but while in prison Joseph helps two of
Pharaoh’s servants with dream interpretations that ultimately lead to Joseph’s
own release and dramatic rise in the Egyptian government. Joseph ‘s three-fold
attempt to reason with Potiphar’s wife reveal his strongly ethical stance: he
is a loyal employee and will not misuse the power and trust invested in him, he
will not personally affront another married man, and he will not go against his
own belief in moral law that is divinely based.


Our Torah and Talmud do
NOT say that Joseph was NOT attracted to Potiphar’s wife. In fact our Sages in Midrash
Bereishit Rabba
(87:5) expand Joseph’s talk with her to become a lengthy
dialogue on their differing views of God and her repeated attempts to dissuade
him from his beliefs. Joseph indeed is held up by the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 35) as
the paradigm of the man who struggles with his own sexual desires in the face
of Potiphar’s wife’s daily temptations – and succeeds in controlling his


Jump forward a few
centuries to the Syrian-Greek dominated culture that was everywhere in Israel in the
second century B.C.E. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg describes it in The Jewish Way:

“The brightest and the
best, the richest and the most powerful were increasingly attracted to it.
…There was resistance to the process (of Hellenization) but it came from the
less sophisticated in Jerusalem,
those who were not philosophers. … Like country people who come to the big city
and are horrified by its fleshpots and sinfulness, so the farmer of Judea were
outraged and offended by the nakedness, the ‘bohemian’, avant-garde air of Hellenism.”

When the governor Antiochus with the approval of the High Priest Jason, began enforcing pagan
Greek religious practices, the small group of pious Jews under the leadership
of Mattathias and his son Judah, rebelled. Their clear opposition led to the
Maccabean revolt and the ultimate re-establishment of an independent Jewish
state – something we also remember on this Shabbat Chanukah. Like Joseph, the
Maccabees, took a stand against practices and values that threatened to destroy
the ethical code embodied in the Torah which has guided Jewish life for

With the recent
convictions of Bernard Madoff and Sholom Rubashkin we are reminded that our
moral code is still being challenged, even by Jews. On this Shabbat as we learn
from our heroic ancestors Joseph and Judah Maccabee is that we each will be called
at sometime to respond to a challenging situation. We have been given the moral
guidelines in our Torah – let us respond then clearly and courageously!



Rabbi Dorit Edut is the rabbi of Temple Israel
of Bay City, Michigan and a 2006 AJR ordinee. This D’var
Torah is given in honor of her dear husband Shimon’s 65th birthday
this Shabbat.