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Parashat Vayeishev

December 22, 2016

by Rabbi David Almog

Once upon a ‘Vayehi‘: Listening to the Torah
Parashat Vayeishev

And then 

I always thought the words, and then, were a prelude to something wonderful. Like seeing a ship come in or finding a note in your letterbox, when you weren’t expecting one. That swift, surprising transition from nothing to everything.

And then.

Two little words that hold a world of promise.

And then the light pierced though the dark, forbidding sky, and the rain stopped falling.
And then I met you.
– Lang Leav

For writers, the simple words “and then” are much maligned as redundant. The sequence in the sentence, “I sat down and I read the parashah,” is clear without the word “then”. “And then,” if used repeatedly, can sound unwieldy. “I went to the store, and then I bought groceries, and then I cooked dinner, and then I did the dishes.” Nevertheless, when used effectively, “and then” can be emphatic, clarifying the exact order of events. “I read the parashah first, and then I read Rashi”. In the hands of poets, it can highlight a deeper message. Imagine taking the word “then” out from Agatha Christie’s And Then there were None, or, from the timeless words of Martin Niemoler, “First they came forà.” In these works, the repetitive “then” expresses dreadful inevitability.

Alternatively, as Lang Leav suggests, “and then” can also express amazement. Every event leading up to the climactic “and then” is a prelude to something awe inspiring. “And then” can signify a wondrous unexpected life changing event; “and then our eyes met for the first time.” These “two little words,” can introduce the ineffable.

In Biblical prose, one finds a similar term, “vayehi,” which translates literally as “and it was,” or “and then there was.” It is also commonly used as an introductory stock phrase, much like “Once upon a time.” Like the opening of Megillat Esther, “Vayehi bimei ahashverosh. “And it was in the days of Ahashverosh”.

The term “vayehi“, while common, is rarely repetitive. Within the Pentateuch, if it appears at all, it will usually appear once in a chapter, and almost never more than a couple of times, with two major exceptions. One obvious exception is Genesis 1, where “vayehi” appears 21 times. The second exception is in our parashah, Vayeishev, Genesis chapter 39, where “vayehi” appears 15 times. What is the function of repeating “vayehi” so often, and what impact does it have on the intended audience? I would like to suggest that, like Lang Leav’s “and then,” it tells us of something wondrous. Additionally, as the Torah’s version of “Once upon a time,” it is a verbal cue, playing with the audience’s perception of plot-time and expectations.

In Genesis 1, we read:

Vayomer Elohim yehi or, vayehi or  
God said: Let there be light, and there was light.

This highlights the divine nature of creation, especially of light, and therefore, time, with a “day” defined as the alternating appearance of light and darkness. God is the one she’amar vehayah haolam “who spoke, and the world came into being”. The start of everything is by fiat of God’s spoken decree. The repeated use of “vayehi” for each day emphasizes that each was merely one day, underscoring the miraculous nature of creation.

Turning to chapter 39:2 in our parashah, we read:

Vayehi Adonai et Yosef vayehi ish matzliah vayehi beveit adonav hamitzri 
And God was with Joseph, and he was a successful man, and he was in his Egyptian master’s house

The repetition of “vayehi” three times within one verse is striking, and has been the subject of much commentary. I would like to suggest that, here too, “vayehi” emphasizes, introducing something new, unexpected, and wondrous. God’s involvement in Joseph’s life is dramatic, and it is noticeable, as the very next verse indicates:

Vayar Adonav ki Adonai ito vekhol asher hu oseh Adonai matzliah beyado 
And his master saw that God was with him and that all that he did, God made it succeed by his hand

Midrashim and classical commentaries address how the idolater Potiphar “saw” that God was with Joseph. Some suggest that the light of God was manifestly visible upon Joseph. Others, including the Malbi”m, take the verse at face value. The success of Joseph’s endeavors in the household was so sensational, that one could only conclude it was miraculous.

The use of “vayehi” fits well with this reading. Just as the listener to the parashah experiences the literary cue of the repeated “vayehi“, one can imagine that Potiphar experiences it as well. The sense that something wondrous just happened is embedded in the narration of the story. It portrays Potiphar’s perception of events as nothing short of a miraculous. Is there a message behind “vayehi“? Perhaps these words were meant to highlight the small miracles in our lives, or to tell us something about Joseph, by contrast to the two years he is totally forgotten in jail, with no “vayehi” moments. That is a topic for another time. Still, we often view the Torah as an artifact for extracting legal, philosophical and mystical insights. Nevertheless, if we forget that the Torah was composed to be performed, listened to, and experienced as great story telling, we can all too easily overlook its message.
Rabbi David Almog teaches rabbinic literature at AJR and is completing his PhD at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.