This action-packed portion tells the story of Joseph’s sale and early years in Egypt, before his rise to fame and fortune. Joseph’s dreams and the attention he garners from his father prompt his brothers’ jealousy, and they set out to destroy him. Initially throwing him in a pit, they fish him out, sell him to traders heading towards Egypt, and trick their father into believing Joseph had been killed. Joseph rises to prominence in his master’s household until his spurned mistress gets him jailed. There, he interprets dreams for two other prisoners. Meanwhile, back in Canaan, we read of Judah’s marriage, and the efforts he makes to find a match for his children.
Joseph and his Brothers
The narrative focus of the Torah shifts from Jacob to his sons, and to Joseph in particular. We are told that at age 17, he serves as a shepherd with his brothers, and grows up with the children of the maidservants. Joseph is prone to carrying harsh tales of his brothers’ antics to their father.
Joseph, having been born late in Jacob’s life, is his father’s favorite, and Jacob makes him a coat of many colors. His brothers, understanding Joseph’s special status, grow to hate him.
Joseph is prone to dreams, as well. He tells his brothers of two dreams. In the first, the brothers’ sheaves all rise and bow to Joseph’s, and in the second, the sun, moon and eleven stars all bow before him. The brothers ask, incredulous, whether Joseph really believes they will serve him, and Jacob, too, scorns his dreams.
One day, Jacob sends Joseph to seek his brothers who are tending sheep. When he finally encounters them, having been directed by a stranger on the road, they fall upon him, take his special coat and throw him in a pit. Reuben, however, makes a secret plan to rescue Joseph and bring him back to their father.
Points to Ponder
If the Torah does not include superfluous details, why do you think the story of the stranger redirecting Joseph towards his brothers is included in the Torah?
The Sale of Joseph
While Joseph languishes in his pit, which medieval commentator Rashi explains is filled with snakes and scorpions, the brothers sit a distance away to eat. They notice a caravan of spices heading towards Egypt, and Judah hatches a new plan: rather than kill Joseph, they should sell him into slavery. The brothers agree, and Joseph is retrieved from the pit and sold down to Egypt.
When Reuben returns to rescue Joseph, he discovers that he is gone. To disguise their actions, the brothers dip Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and show it to their father, who immediately concludes Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Jacob is inconsolable.
The Israel Bible compares Reuben’s (failed) plan with Judah’s suggestion. While Reuben’s idea included throwing Joseph into a dangerous pit, one which Jewish law normally considers a death sentence, the Torah praises him. Meanwhile Judah, whose suggestion resulted in saving Joseph from the immediate threat of the pit, is not praised. From this we can learn that being in danger in the Land of Israel is better than seeming safety outside the land.
Points to Ponder
With the many players mentioned in the text and the ambiguous pronouns, this question has troubled Jewish scholars for centuries: who sells Joseph to whom?
Judah and Tamar (The Seeds of the Messiah)
Following Joseph’s sale, Judah parts ways with his brothers and lives instead with an Adullamite named Hirah. He marries the daughter of a merchant named Shua and has three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. When they reach marriageable age, he pairs Er with Tamar. Er, however, did evil in God’s eyes, and He kills him.
Following the tradition of levirate marriage, Judah has Onan marry his brother’s widow. Onan, however, does not want to father a son in his brother’s name, and God kills him, as well. Judah, meanwhile, grows fearful of Tamar, and makes excuses not to marry her to his youngest, Shelah.
As time goes by, Tamar realizes Judah has no intention of allowing her to marry Shelah, yet she cannot marry outside Judah’s family. She decides to take action. Taking advantage of Judah’s grief over the recent loss of his own wife, she disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces him, taking some of his personal effects as collateral for her promised price. When Judah sends his friend Hirah to pay her, though, she is gone.
Time goes by, and Judah hears his daughter-in-law is mysteriously pregnant. He orders her execution for what he presumes was adultery. Tamar, however, brings forth Judah’s personal effects, saying the owner of the staff, signet and cord is the father of her child. Judah acknowledges that they belong to him, and he vindicates Tamar. She gives birth to twins: Peretz and Zerah.
The Israel Bible cites the Sages, who teach a beautiful lesson about the juxtaposition of these stories in the Torah. “While the tribes were busy with the sale of Joseph, and Reuben, Joseph and Jacob were busy with their sackcloth and mourning, and Judah was busy taking a wife, God was busy creating the light of the Messiah.” After all, it is Peretz who is the forebear of the Davidic line. At a time when life seems to be unraveling and Jewish history appears to be at its worst, with brother turning on brother, God is working behind the scenes, ensuring the future redemption.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the union of Tamar and Judah is worthy of producing King David and ultimately the Messiah?
Joseph in Potiphar’s Household
The narrative returns to the story of Joseph, now a servant in the household of Potiphar, a prominent Egyptian. Joseph rises through the ranks in Potiphar’s house, until he is appointed custodian over the whole household.
The Torah relates that Joseph is very attractive, and he catches the attention of Potiphar’s wife. She tries repeatedly to seduce him, but he spurns her efforts. One day, she catches him alone in the house, and grabs at his clothing. He flees her advances, leaving his garment in her hands.
Mrs. Potiphar takes the garment as proof, and runs out to the other servants, claiming that Joseph attacked her and she screamed for help, causing him to flee. She tells her husband a similar lie, and he has Joseph jailed for his supposed betrayal. Like in Potiphar’s house, however, Joseph rises to prominence in jail, as well, and becomes trusted by the warden. Through it all, the Torah tells us, God is with Joseph, helping him succeed and prosper.
Early on, the Torah uses the adjectives “the Egyptian” and “the Ivri” (Hebrew) to describe Potiphar and Joseph respectively, despite the fact that their nationalities by now are well-known. The Israel Bible points out that the Egyptians generally looked down upon the nomadic tribes, such as the Hebrews, yet despite this prejudice, Joseph is very successful, finding favor in the eyes of the Egyptian, Potiphar. This demonstrates the Divine Providence behind Joseph’s success.
Points to Ponder
Do you think Potiphar really believes his wife? Why or why not?
Joseph, Interpreter of Dreams
In prison, Joseph meets two other prisoners, the Pharaoh’s butler and baker. One night, they each have a dream which sets them on edge. Joseph invites them to share their dreams, and, crediting God, offers to help them find their meanings.
The butler says he dreamt of a blossoming vine with three branches, which brought forth grapes. He crushed the grapes into wine and gave them to Pharaoh. Joseph tells him in three days, Pharaoh will pardon him, and he will return to his former job. He asks the butler to remember him favorably and ask for his release when he is freed.
Encouraged by Joseph’s message for the butler, the baker tells of his dream, in which he held three baskets of bread overhead. Birds, however, flew to the topmost basket and ate the bread within. Joseph tells him in three days, he will be executed.
All comes to pass as Joseph predicts, and the baker is executed while the butler is restored to Pharaoh’s service. The butler, however, forgets his promise to Joseph and neglects to mention him or secure his freedom.
The Israel Bible notes Joseph’s description of his experiences to the butler, telling him he was kidnapped from “the Land of the Hebrews”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch picks up on the unusual early reference, saying while the Torah elaborates on the early escapades of the Patriarchs, it makes no mention of the surrounding nations’ reactions to their presence. This verse, however, is an indication that even at this early juncture in history, the Children of Israel have enough of an impact that their dwelling-place is colloquially known as “the Land of the Hebrews”.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the butler forgets to mention Joseph just days after he successfully interpreted the two prisoners’ dreams?