Vayashev – on siblings, on sex, and on self-determination

In this Torah portion the main narrative is the beginning of the Joseph story. We also have an interruption of that narrative to tell the story of Tamar and how she is able to become the mother to the Davidic line. While the two stories appear to have little in common, it is useful to ask why they are juxtaposed and what we can learn from that juxtaposition. In the Joseph story we learn that because he is Jacob's favourite son, and because his dreams indicate that he expects to be superior to his brothers, the other brothers try to get rid of him. This highlights the power of sibling rivalry and the huge impact it can have on family dynamics. The text is unclear about whether Joseph himself believes he is/will be superior to his brothers – he merely relates his dreams (one is that seven wheat sheaves bow to him, the other that eleven stars bow to him). The text and many of its interpreters imply that Joseph did not realize how upsetting this would be to his brothers. One has to wonder, though, whether Joseph's gloating means that he is partly responsible for his unpopularity amongst the brethren. Either way, the brothers plot to get rid of him. They discuss killing him and throw him into a pit. Ultimately, they sell him to traders and he ends up in Egypt. This is where the break in the story comes in and we hear of Tamar.Tamar has been widowed twice and, through the practice of “levirate marriage” (if a man dies childless his brother marries his widow to continue his line) is entitled to marry Judah's son Shelah. Sensing Judah's reluctance to follow through, she dresses as a “harlot” and seduces him. She later reveals that he is the father of her twins and therefore finds her way into his family and his patriarchal line. Because this is along the lines of the law, Tamar's act is one of justice. She knows what is right and bends the rules a bit to make sure it happens. In this part of the narrative we also learn that the first of the twins to emerge gets a red cord tied around his wrist (to signify being the first born) but the other twin is able to usurp his brother's position and is born first. This reminds us of Esau and Jacob and the rules of primogeniture.

One reason the story of Tamar interrupts the Joseph narrative is because when we meet Joseph again he is now an adult living in Egypt. The narrative interruption makes the passage of time more smooth. Another reason, however, is that there are similarities in the stories. Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar's wife but he refuses her. For this he winds up in jail where he would almost surely rot except for his ability to interpret dreams. The Torah portion ends with this prophetic ability being proven. Both Tamar and Joseph become entangled in complicated sexual situations. While Tamar acts as a harlot in order to secure her position in Judah's house, Joseph risks his position in the Pharoah's house in order to maintain his ideals. Tamar's sexual act is in accordance with the law, while Joseph's would be an adulterous contravention of it. Both, therefore, are righteous.

Rules such as levirate marriage do not leave women with much choice (neither, of course, do most marriage and sexual rites of the time). It is interesting in this portion that we get a sense of the practice of a cult prostitute, or temple priestess, that many of the areas' cultures would use in order to fulfill the rites of prayer. It seems that Judah, mistaking Tamar for one of these priestesses (the name for which comes from the same word as Kodesh/Kadosh – holy) suggests that some women held powerful positions related to sexuality. It also suggests that prostitution was not wholly and uniquely seen as a negative act. This is something contemporary sex workers point to as proof that a condemnation of their profession is not “natural” but constructed.

Tamar uses her sexuality to secure her rightful position. Joseph relies instead on his prophetic power. From a Humanistic point of view we do not typically believe that dreams are prophetic. With the rise of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis we know that dreams are much more an expression of our repressed pasts than a foretelling of our future. Still, though, Joseph's ability to interpret dreams can be used as evidence that he was, if not prophetic, perceptive. The abilities to make connections between the events of the past and the future, as well as to understand the motivations of people from a psychological point of view, are really what create prophets and prophecy. Like Tamar, Joseph will free himself from his low position – from a pit to a prison to a palace – by using his skills. Both Joseph and Tamar prove that they have been underestimated and will attain success in the end. Both, then, are a reminder of the human power to decide our own fate. We have to work within the circumstances we have (both Tamar and Joseph find themselves in most unpleasant circumstances), yet we do have some power in how to navigate through.

Nachmanides points out that the reason Joseph refers to Potiphar's wife as “my master's wife” while refusing her is that he is making clear that he is choosing to obey his God rather than his master. While we may not believe in his God, we can applaud the willingness to follow one's own convictions and moral decision making, even when being told/ordered to do otherwise. This is something Jews have understood for a long time. Many of us have chosen to break unjust laws. Many of us have chosen to disregard those in authority in order to practice our culture/religion. Many of us have followed an ethical code that is more true to our values than to our society's. Joseph and Tamar show us that making choices according to our ethics, even when others judge those choices as immoral, is part of our Jewish heritage.