Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with Jacob/Israel and his family settling in Hebron. Joseph is his most beloved son, so he makes Joseph a special multi-colored coat, which sparks jealousy in the other brothers. Joseph then tells his brothers of his dreams which foretell that he is destined to rule over them, increasing their envy and hatred toward him even more. Shimon and Levi plot to kill him, but Reuben suggests that they throw him into a pit instead, intending to come back later and save him. The brothers strip Joseph of his special coat and throw him into the pit. Later, Judah convinces the other brothers to sell him to a band of passing Ishmaelites. The brothers then smear Joseph’s special coat with the blood of a goat and show it to their father, misleading him to believe that his most beloved son was devoured by a wild beast.
The text then shifts to Judah, who marries and has three sons. The eldest, Er, marries a woman named Tamar, but then he dies. So, Tamar then marries the second son, Onan, but Onan also dies. Judah is reluctant for his third son to marry Tamar, so she disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces Judah instead. Judah hears that his daughter-in-law has become pregnant and accuses her of harlotry, but when Tamar produces the personal objects he left with her as a pledge for payment, he publicly admits that he is the father. Tamar gives birth to twin sons, Peretz (an ancestor of King David) and Zerach.
Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, the minister in charge of Pharaoh’s slaughterhouses. God blesses everything Joseph does, and soon he is made overseer of all his master’s property. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, and when Joseph rejects her advances, she tells her husband that the Hebrew slave tried to force himself upon her, and has him thrown Into prison. Joseph gains the trust and admiration of his jailers, who appoint him to a position of authority over the other prisoners.
During this time, Joseph meets Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker, who were both imprisoned for some offense. They tell Joseph about some disturbing dreams they have been having, which Joseph interprets: in three days, he tells them, the butler will be released and the baker hanged. Joseph asks the butler to intercede on his behalf with Pharaoh. When the predictions are fulfilled, the butler forgets all about Joseph and does nothing for him.
Torah of Awakening
יוֹסֵ֞ף בֶּן־שְׁבַֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ הָיָ֨ה רֹעֶ֤ה אֶת־אֶחָיו֙ בַּצֹּ֔אן וְה֣וּא נַ֗עַר אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י בִלְהָ֛ה וְאֶת־בְּנֵ֥י זִלְפָּ֖ה נְשֵׁ֣י אָבִ֑יו וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־דִּבָּתָ֥ם רָעָ֖ה אֶל־אֲבִיהֶֽם׃
Joseph was seventeen years old, a shepherd with his brothers of the flocks, and he was a youth with the sons of Bilha and Zilpah, the wives of his father, and Joseph brought evil reports of them to their father …
- Bereisheet (Genesis) 37:2, Parshat Vayeishev
A disciple asked Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk, “When the Children of Israel stood at Mt. Sinai, they said to Moses:
דַּבֵּר־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְנִשְׁמָ֑עָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּ֛נוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים פֶּן־נָמֽוּת׃ – ‘'You speak to us and we will listen; but let God not speak to us, lest we die!’”
“Moses then answered, אַל־תִּירָ֒אוּ֒ ‘Do not be afraid,’ but then he goes on to say that God had come so that תִּהְיֶ֧ה יִרְאָת֛וֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶ֖ם ‘the fear of God be upon you.’ This makes no sense – they should have no fear because they should have fear?
Rabbi Mendel answered, “The first fear, אַל־תִּירָ֒אוּ֒ do not be afraid, means that they should not be afraid of death. Rather, they should “fear” God only – meaning, they should have יִראָה yirah – reverence, respect, and awe – so that they don’t come to think that the wisdom they are receiving is their own creation, thereby separating themselves from God.
This teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe is a reminder about right relationship with wisdom. True wisdom is “death” to the ego, but the ego fears death. In order to avoid receiving the true message of wisdom, the ego wants to claim it for itself, to see oneself as a “wise person.” When this happens, the content of the “wisdom” might be good and true, but the teacher has become corrupted. The teacher feels superior, above their students; the “shepherd” has become “evil.”
הָיָ֨ה רֹעֶ֤ה... וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־דִּבָּתָ֥ם רָעָ֖ה – he was a shepherd… and Joseph brought evil reports…
The words רֹעֶה ro’eh, “shepherd,” and רָעָה “evil,” have exactly the same letters; they are just voweled a little differently, hinting at a connection between his shepherding the sheep and bringing “evil reports.” This is also reflected in the wording. It doesn’t literally say that he was a shepherd with his brothers, which would be “hayah ro’eh im akhav” – but rather “hayah ro’eh et akhav” – as if to say that he’s being a shepherd at his brothers: judging them, criticizing them. This hints at two different levels of meaning. On the surface, Joseph and his brothers are out shepherding the sheep. But at the same time, Joseph sees himself as shepherding his own brothers. He feels that he is above them, judging them and tattling on them to their father.
וְה֣וּא נַ֗עַר – and he was a youth… His vision of himself as “above” the rest of his family is, of course, prophetic – he eventually becomes an actual ruler with Pharaoh in Egypt. But at this point in the story, his leadership is immature. This dynamic of being “above” things, on one hand, but also becoming corrupted, on the other, is something we can find within our experience. There is a level of our being that really is above everything, in the sense that it sees the fullness of whatever arises in our experience, but remains free from it, unencumbered by whatever our situation is. That level of our being is spacious awareness. Another name for it is חָכמָה hokhmah, wisdom, because from that place of awareness, wisdom naturally flows and can guide us in our actions. These qualities of חָכמָה hokhmah are also those of a רֹעֶ֤ה ro’eh – a shepherd; the shepherd guides the flock, but is not itself a sheep.
The thinking mind, however, loves to claim the wisdom of awareness for itself in order to feed the ego. The ego thinks, this is my wisdom, and then gets gratification from believing itself to be “above” others. That is Joseph as the נַעַר na’ar – the youth – who brings evil reports. As long as the immature mind coopts the wisdom of awareness, the ro’eh becomes ra’ah – an evil shepherd.
What is the remedy?
The remedy is hidden within the letters. The words ro’eh and ra’ah, “shepherd” and “evil,” are ר–ע–ה reish-ayin-hei. The middle letter, ע ayin, literally means “eye,” hinting at awareness as the deepest identity of the shepherd. The ר reish literally means “head,” hinting that as long as the “head” is ruling the “eye” – as long as the thinking mind claims awareness for itself, the “shepherd” is “evil.”
But if you change the ע ayin to an א alef, the letter of Oneness, then the word becomes רְאֵה re’eh, “see.” Hinting: when you simply see, not in the literal visual sense but in the sense of direct perception, the thinking mind that divides the world into “me” as superior to “them” is subdued and collected into the Oneness of that simple awareness. This happens in meditation, and from this can eventually come mature leadership, where the wisdom that pours into the mind is not coopted or claimed, but is humbly received as a responsibility. This sense of reverence, respect and responsibility, stemming from the recognition of receiving wisdom, is represented by the letter ר reish.
So in this week Parshat Vayeyshev, the Sabbath of Dwelling, may we practice dwelling in the simple Presence of receptivity, receiving the gift of guidance from the Good Shepherd with reverence and respect for That which is beyond us. May we be guided by this inner wisdom on a path of love, renewal and healing, and may these higher human potentials become manifest swiftly in our species, freeing us all from the plagues of war and violence.
Read past teachings on Vayeishev HERE.
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