Parshat Va-Yayshev Genesis 37:1-40:23                                                    

This week’s portion, Va-yayshev (meaning “and he settled”), tells the story of Joseph’s growth from adolescence to adulthood. At the beginning of Va-yayshev, Jacob is living in Canaan with his twelve sons and one daughter. Born when Jacob was elderly, Joseph is a favored child. The Midrash describes Joseph as an immature, self-centered young boy. He was very concerned with his appearance and used special brushes and pencils to color his eyes. He even put high heels on his shoes to make himself look taller and perhaps, older as well. In Genesis 37:2, we read, “And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.” The Midrash specifies that in addition to tattling on his brothers whenever they misbehaved, he also actually made up lies about his brothers and told them to their father. But Jacob also bears some of the blame for the bad feelings that developed between the brothers. We read in the parasha that he demonstrated his preference by making Joseph a “k’tonet passim” – an “ornamented tunic.” (The word passim means that the coat’s sleeves reached Joseph’s wrists, but it is usually translated as a “coat of many colors.”) The other brothers are jealous of Joseph and what his new coat seems to represent. Indeed, the Torah tells us that they hated him so much that they could not speak a friendly word to him. In addition to his coat, Joseph possessed a great ego. He told his family about his dreams which seemed to suggest that the members of his family would one day bow down to him.

One day, Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers as they tended the flocks in the field. As soon as they saw Joseph approach, the brothers decided to kill him. Reuben the oldest, asked the others not to kill him but, instead, to throw him in a pit in the wilderness. The brothers stripped Joseph of his hated coat, threw him in the pit, and then sat down to eat. Judah convinced his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan of Ishmaelite merchants. Unaware of this development, Reuben later returned to the pit to rescue his younger brother, only to find that he had been taken away. The brothers dipped Joseph’s coat in goat blood, and presented it to Jacob who assumed that Joseph had been eaten by a wild beast. Jacob was inconsolable.

Chapter 39 digresses to the story of Judah and Tamar. When Er his eldest son died, Judah gave Tamar, his daughter-in-law, to his second son Onan as a wife, in order to ensure a descendant for his dead son. Onan did not carry out his obligation to have a child with Tamar, and as divine punishment, he also died. Tamar, now twice widowed, was promised to Judah’s third son, Shelah. But Judah insisted that Shelah was still a lad and needed time to grow up. Tamar waited, but Judah reneged on his promise. So Tamar, the righteous widow, dressed as a harlot and deceived Judah into having a child with her. She bore twins, Peretz and Zerah. (One of Peretz’ descendants would be none other than King David!)

Meanwhile, the merchants took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the highest ranking of Pharoah’s officers. Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his household, which – with God’s help – he managed excellently. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph but he refused to become involved with her. She became angry and lied to her husband saying that Joseph tried to force himself on her. Potiphar had Joseph thrown in prison. Even in jail, Joseph was blessed and he was put in charge of the other prisoners, including two of Pharoah’s former servants. One night both of these men had dreams which, with God’s help, Joseph interpreted. Joseph’s predictions, which were based on these dreams, came true. Pharoah’s former baker was put to death, while the cupbearer returned to his old job. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him so that he, too, could be freed from jail. But the cupbearer quickly forgot Joseph.


  • The Midrash explains that the cupbearer and the baker were in jail because they didn’t do their jobs properly. The cupbearer served Pharoah wine with a fly in it. The baker made bread that contained splinters of wood. The cupbearer was eventually pardoned and allowed to return to his work because Pharoah’s counselors determined that he could not have prevented the fly from landing in the Pharoah’s goblet. The baker, however, was put to death because the splinters could only have gotten into the bread through his own carelessness.

  • When the parasha opens, “Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned.” Jacob, like his father before him, is living with his family in the Land of Canaan. And, like Isaac before him, Jacob has problems with his children. Jacob was raised in a home in which each parent favors one of the children. This favoritism deeply damaged Jacob and Esau’s relationship, eventually forcing Jacob to flee his home. Yet Jacob is repeating the same dangerous behavior with his sons. Jacob “loves Joseph best of all sons,” and every member of the family knows it: Joseph is conscious of his position and constantly reminds his brothers of it. His brothers in turn are deeply resentful of Joseph’s status and the dreams that indicate his future is as bright as his present. How can Jacob be oblivious to these tensions, especially having experienced a similar situation himself? Jacob’s behavior demonstrates how much easier it is to repeat known patterns, even destructive ones, than to create new ones. The Torah teaches us that changing one’s behavior is never easy. Jacob has become Israel, but he remains in many ways the same. Change requires more than rejecting old ways; it requires us to actively search out new ways to behave, ways that create positive relationships with those around us.

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. What hints are there in chapter 37 that the entire process of Joseph being kidnapped and sent to Egypt is God’s plan?

  2. There are numerous references to garments being used for identification in the story. Find them.

  3. Find all connections between the Judah story and the Joseph story.

  4. Dreams were and are important to certain societies. What relevance do dreams have for us? Do you believe that one can predict the future from dreams as in the Joseph story – or should we just treat them as some kind of chemical reaction in the brain? Joseph was a teenager when he had his dreams. What dreams you have about yourself when you grow up. (If you are an adult, how many of your childhood dreams have you been able to accomplish? … how many of them do you still dream?)

  5. Jealousy almost cost Joseph his life. What price did he pay? What price did his brothers pay? What price did Jacob pay? What should we learn from Joseph and from Jacob? How have we learned these lessons in our own family? Think of a time when you were jealous of someone else. What was the cause of your jealousy? Did you act upon it? How did you resolve the situation?

  6. The brothers were angry at Joseph and instead of telling him what was wrong, they bore a grudge and then took revenge. In Leviticus 19:17-18 we read: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart, you must tell him when he has hurt you … You must not bear a grudge against one an- other.” The next time you feel that someone has wronged you, why not try telling them how you feel so that you can work it out. It may take courage to come forth and express how you’re feeling, but it may make you feel better in the end.