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12/13/2011 10:42 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2012

Parshat Vayeshev: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. At press time, God could not be reached for comment. Read the full text of Parshat Vayeshev with interlinear Hebrew/English.

Jacob settles in the land of his father: Canaan.

At least, he tries. There's no rest for the righteous.

Joseph, 17, the favored son of Jacob, pastures sheep with his brothers. He often brings home clandestine reports of his siblings' misdeeds to Jacob.

Israel loves Joseph more than all his other sons, so he weaves for him a robe of fine wool. This and the spying don't help Joseph's case with his brothers. They hate him. They can't even talk to him without oozing contempt.

Dream Reaper

Joseph tells his brothers about a dream: "We were in a field binding sheaves, when my sheaf stood up. Your sheaves gathered 'round my sheaf and bowed down."

Oozing contempt: "So you do wish to rule over us!"

Joseph has another dream, and can't resist telling his brothers about it: "The sun, the moon and 11 stars flung themselves before me."

The contempt is pouring at this point.

But Joseph doesn't really get it. He tells his father of the dream while his brothers are hanging around, and Jacob rebukes him: "How could we throw ourselves before you? Your mother is already gone." The brothers, with Jacob clearly on their side, continue their envious, hateful sulking.

"Aren't your brothers in Shechem," Jacob later asks Joseph. "Go. Join them. Bring me back the news."

"I'm ready, " Joseph says and goes.

On his way, a man -- the angel Gabriel? -- finds Joseph lost in a field. "What do you want?" the angel in disguise asks.

"I'm looking for my brothers. They're off pasturing. Do you know where?"

"They're not here. I heard them say, 'Let's go to Dothan.'"

So Joseph goes to Dothan and sees his brothers from afar. They see Joseph approaching and quickly plot his murder: "We'll throw him in a pit and say a wild animal devoured him."

(God watches all this and says out loud, to no one in particular, "We'll see about those dreams of his now!")

Reuben doesn't want to kill Joseph: "Throw him in a hole, fine. But don't kill him," he says, and thinks to himself: "I'll come back later and pull him from the pit."

When Joseph reaches them, his brothers strip him naked and throw him in the empty, waterless pit. Then, they sit to eat a meal. And lo! a caravan approaches on its way down to Egypt.

Judah says, "A dead Joseph is worth less than a live Joseph." And his brothers seem to agree, because next thing Joseph knows, he's being pulled out and chained and led to a narrow place.

Later, Reuben returns to the pit and finds it empty. He tears his clothes in mourning and fear, wondering what he'll say to his father.

The other brothers rend Joseph's coat and dip into blood. They send it via some messengers to their father, who is asked to identify the tragic tatters: "My son! He's been ripped apart! Again and again!"

Jacob's sons and daughters try to console him, but the old man is an endless pit of grief. Isaac weeps over his son's pain.

And Joseph, the torn-apart dreamer, is sold to the home of Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh.

At the Entrance of the Eyes

His brothers blame him for allowing the plan to come to fruition, so Judah leaves home to start a business with an Adullamite man. In his business dealings, he finds himself a wife, who then conceives three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Later, Judah gives his oldest, Er, a wife. Her name is Tamar.

But Er is evil, and God kills him. So Judah talks to Onan, his second-born, and says, "Marry her and raise her children in Er's name."

But Onan can't follow through, knowing the children won't really be his, and pulls away, wasting his seed, not giving Tamar or his dead brother children. God thinks this, too, is evil, and he strikes down Onan.

"Tamar, go back to your father's house as a widow," Judah says. "When Shelah is grown, I'll send for you." But Judah fears for Shelah and does not send for Tamar.

Time passes. Judah's wife dies. Someone tells Tamar that Judah and his business partner have left for Timnah to oversee their business there. So Tamar races to the crossroads on the way to Timnah and, covering her head and face, sits there. And waits. She knows Shelah is grown. She knows Judah has not, will not, send for her.

Judah walks along the road to Timnah and sees a woman sitting at the crossroads. "A harlot," he thinks and turns from the road to request her services.

"What will you give me?" she asks.

A young goat, he says.

"OK, but I'll need some collateral."

"Name it."

"Your ring, cloak and staff," she says.

"Deal," he says. Later, after she leaves and he returns to business, she conceives. And Judah sends the young goat with his partner to retrieve his things. The partner returns. He can't find the alleged harlot. The people of the town know of no woman who sits at the crossroads at night.

"Forget it," Judah says. "We'll be put to shame if everyone finds out about this. We did everything we could."

Months pass and someone reports to Judah that his daughter-in-law has conceived a child by sinful means.

"Burn her!" Judah exclaims.

"Burn her!" the people of the town repeat, and take her out of her home. But Tamar sends a message to Judah: "I am pregnant, yes, but whose are these?"

Judah now sees clearly what's occurred. He ends the hunt. And Judah and Tamar may have lived happily ever after. It's hard to say.

Tamar goes into labor, and strange things occur. First, it become clear there are twins. Then, a little arm reaches out and the midwife ties it with a crimson thread. But the arm retracts, and a baby emerges with no thread. And then the other emerges with thread. And these are Perez and Zerah.

Parade of Dreams

Even as a slave, Joseph is blessed. In Potiphar's house, he is quite successful. Potiphar only ever hears the name of God from Joseph's lips and the blessings of God from his hands. Potiphar gives everything to Joseph, putting him in charge of his whole house. Potiphar worries about nothing but the food on his plate. Everything is in good hands. The best hands.

Joseph lets luxury get to him. He begins to pamper himself. And God presents the blessed, beautiful saint with a challenge: Potiphar's wife.

"Sleep with me!" she demands. But Joseph refuses. Day after day, advance after advance, Joseph refuses. Once, Joseph comes to the house during an Egyptian holiday. Potiphar's wife is the only one there. "Sleep with me!" she screams. Joseph runs from the house, but Potiphar's wife tears his clothes of his back and keeps them. Now, she runs outside with the clothes, screaming: "He tried to lie with me and ran off when I screamed." Again and again, she tells the story, until she tells Potiphar, who is enraged, and throws Joseph into the king's dankest cage.

God does not stop blessing Joseph. In prison, the warden leaves him in charge everything. And even there, Joseph is successful.

All of Egypt takes a break from this bit of royal gossip when Pharaoh's baker and butler transgress, igniting the Egyptian ruler's wrath. He throws both in prison. Both men have dreams in the cell with Joseph. On the same night. Both men see their future in those dreams, and in the morning they are depressed. Joseph asks why.

"We've had dreams, but no one to interpret them."

"Such interpretations come from God. Tell me your dreams," Joseph says.

"Fine," the butler says, "in my dream there was a vine with three blossoms. Grapes grew before my eyes. I had the cup of Pharaoh, so I squeezed the juice into the cup and gave it to him."

"In three days, Pharaoh will reinstate you and you will give him his cup as before, as in the dream," Joseph says. "Do me a favor: When you get out, put in a good word for me with Pharaoh. I've done nothing wrong. I'm a Hebrew. I shouldn't be here."

"Very good," the baker says, "in my dream there were three baskets on my head. In the top-most basket was Pharaoh's food, which was being eaten by birds."

"In three days," Joseph says, "Pharaoh will hang you on the gallows and birds will eat your flesh."

Three days pass. It's Pharaoh's birthday. He invites everyone to a banquet, including the baker and the butler. The butler places the cup in Pharaoh's hand.

The baker is hanged.

The butler forgets Joseph that day. He forgets him later, too.

Questions for Reflection

Why does Jacob love Joseph more than his other sons?

Why is Jacob sometimes called Israel and other times Jacob?

Why does Joseph repeatedly tell his dreams to his brothers, knowing that they despise him?

How could supposedly pious people, like Jacob's sons, plot to kill someone, let alone their own brother?

Why doesn't God reveal to Jacob that Joseph is still alive, allowing him to suffer as he does?

How does Isaac cry for Jacob when he clearly dies in last weeks' parsha, Vayislach?

What is the significance of Joseph's ability to interpret dreams?

Why does the butler forget Joseph?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: