“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the entire earth is filled with his glory” (Isaiah 6:30).
If Isaiah is correct, with every step we take, with every breath we draw, we cannot help but encounter God’s glory. And yet who among us is constantly aware of this fact, this daily miracle?
Lack of awareness of the divine is a unique human flaw. It is both a curse and a blessing — a curse, because we are constantly missing holiness, blind to its astounding beauty; and a blessing, because perpetual awareness would render us speechless and paralyzed.
Parshat Vayeshev challenges us to examine our own flawed awareness of holiness through Joseph’s journey and through the words and deeds of Jacob and his sons, who find themselves at the turning point of their lives. Through them all, we find ourselves at the axis of our history as a people.
At the very onset of Vayeshev, Joseph takes over the narrative from his father, Jacob. The second verse of the parasha states: “Eleh toldot Yaakov Yossef ben Sh’va essre Shanna” (This is the story of Jacob: Joseph was 17 years old”) (Genesis 37:2). There is no break between Jacob and Joseph, as though Jacob flows into and becomes Joseph; as though Joseph is the essence of Jacob; his raison d’etre. We are to understand that the resolution of our story depends on Joseph.
Vayeshev challenges the blindness of the unaware: the blindness of those who will not see the hope and beauty of the future shining through the mundane veil that is their present reality. The blindness of Jacob, who did not see his own father, was not blind when he stole the blessing intended for his brother, Esau; Jacob, who does not see the beauty and the depth in the soft eyes of his first wife, Leah; Jacob, who, in spite of repeated divine visions and promises, does not see that God will always protect him.
This is the parasha of the older brothers who are blind to the gift of their younger brother, choosing instead to see only the annoying, spoiled brat before them, recognizing not a hint of his future greatness.
Vayeshev stands in total opposition to its title. “Vayeshev Yaakov” (“And Jacob sat”), so begins our parasha; Jacob settled. But there is no settling, no sitting, no rest in this parasha; it is a parasha of constant movement. This is the parasha of yerida l’tzorech aliya (descending for the sake of ascending). Joseph descends three times — once, when his brothers throw him into the pit; once when the Ishmaelites take him down to Egypt; and, finally, in Egypt, when he is thrown into the jail pit through no fault of his own. Each time, however, he is raised up again a better Joseph, destined for a better life.
Judah, Joseph’s older brother, descends three times, both spiritually and physically, when he travels to the Dead Sea, taking for himself a Canaanite wife; then, again, when he wrongs his daughter-in-law, Tamar, banishing her to her father’s house and denying her offspring because he believes her to have caused his sons’ deaths; and, finally, when he sleeps with Tamar, assuming her to be a prostitute. Judah is finally redeemed through Tamar, who reveals her true identity, awakening Judah to his own blindness.
Vayeshev is the parasha of the birth of hope amid despair: the despair of Jacob, who believes his beloved Joseph to have been devoured by a beast; and the despair of Judah, who loses two sons.
We have all been in dark places, whether physical, financial, spiritual, mental or even existential; places in which it is exceedingly hard to be aware of anything divine, holy or beautiful. We can all relate to Jacob’s darkest moment; we can relate to Judah’s misplaced fear for his last surviving son; we can certainly relate to the jealousy and irritation the brothers feel toward Joseph. But Vayeshev offers us redemption, showing us the birth of light and hope at the very darkest hour.
Vayeshev offers us hope by correcting our vision. Vayeshev helps us to become aware of God’s glory through Joseph’s tormented journey toward greatness — Joseph, who will eventually save the children of Israel by bringing them down to the safety and bounty of Egypt. Vayeshev takes us along Jacob’s journey from depression toward elation when he will finally meet his Joseph again. Finally, Vayeshev shows us that even our lowest moment can eventually lead to redemption, for King David — our greatest king, from whose house Mashiach will come — is the offspring of that dark liaison between Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah.
Indeed, God’s glory does fill the entire earth, but sometimes we need a dreamer like Joseph to help us become aware of it.
Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.
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