Parashat Vayeishev: Jacob’s Sons
[This is part nine in a series of analyses on appearances of the Hebrew word for name, shem, in the weekly Torah portion. Start here.]
As we mentioned two weeks ago in parashat Toldot, the age-old sibling rivalry is destined to play out in each generation. From Cain and Abel in the Garden of Eden to the Patriarchs, and their struggles with legacy and passing the torch — played out in shem’s appearances, or lack thereof, in the Torah text.
Jacob sets a new standard for the dynamics of the Abrahamic legacy. Whereas the previous generations had only a couple children, Jacob marries four women and sires a dozen sons. Jacob is surely aware of the history of sibling rivalries, where only one emerges as humanity’s generational link and in carrying out God’s mission in the world, and must have known this was destined to repeat itself for his own sons. If there was rivalry between two sons surely a dozen begets a dozen more.
Rather than evade the proverbial elephant in the room, Jacob calls attention to it:
אֵ֣לֶּה ׀ תֹּלְד֣וֹת יַעֲקֹ֗ב יוֹסֵ֞ף בֶּן־שְׁבַֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙…וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכׇּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃ וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכׇּל־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם׃
This, then, is the line of Jacob: at seventeen years of age, Joseph…Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. (Genesis 37:2–4)
‘Joseph,’ the first word describing Jacob’s legacy. Even though at seventeen years young Joseph is hardly the man of the house.
Rather, Joseph is Jacob’s eldest son from his most beloved wife, Rachel, whose premature death makes Joseph all the more precious in Jacob’s eyes, but Joseph is actually the second-youngest son overall. Despite his age, Joseph commands the focus of his father’s affection.
In describing the special garment he made for him, the Torah makes it clear that the father doesn’t try hide his preferential feelings from his others sons. Loads of parenting and educational wisdom embedded here, both good and not-so-good.
In one of the most shocking episodes in all of Torah, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. At first they even considered killing him! How could otherwise righteous men — sons of the great Patriarch Jacob — could have stooped so low?
Clearly, the Torah demands the reader to dig deeper. There are various interesting answers, but we will focus our attention to the concept of shem.
Traditionally the firstborn is both entitled and expected to take on the mantle of the next generation. The firstborn son represented parents’ best hope of continuing their legacies.
Now, leading up to the sale of Joseph, the Torah zeroes in on Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son and the presumptive next in line:
וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיַּצִּלֵ֖הוּ מִיָּדָ֑ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א נַכֶּ֖נּוּ נָֽפֶשׁ׃ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֣ם ׀ רְאוּבֵן֮ אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם֒ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ אֹת֗וֹ אֶל־הַבּ֤וֹר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְיָ֖ד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־ב֑וֹ לְמַ֗עַן הַצִּ֤יל אֹתוֹ֙ מִיָּדָ֔ם לַהֲשִׁיב֖וֹ אֶל־אָבִֽיו׃
But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves” — intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. (Gen. 37:21–22)
וַיָּ֤שׇׁב רְאוּבֵן֙ אֶל־הַבּ֔וֹר וְהִנֵּ֥ה אֵין־יוֹסֵ֖ף בַּבּ֑וֹר וַיִּקְרַ֖ע אֶת־בְּגָדָֽיו׃ וַיָּ֥שׇׁב אֶל־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַיֶּ֣לֶד אֵינֶ֔נּוּ וַאֲנִ֖י אָ֥נָה אֲנִי־בָֽא׃
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?” (Gen. 37:29–30)
Commenting on this, the Midrash (Rut Rabba 5:6) writes: “If Reuben would have known that the Torah will write concerning him, “And Reuben heard, and he rescued him from their hand,” he would have carried him [Joseph] on his shoulders and returned him to his father.”
“If Reuben would have known that the Torah will write concerning him…” — i.e. Reuben understood the tremendous merit of being praised in the Torah.
This is a fascinating concept: the anachronism of Torah before Mount Sinai. It touches on questions like, what was the ‘Torah’ of the forefathers and the generations of Jews prior to the Torah? Did they follow the precepts and commandments we know today? The Torah was written down a few hundred years later — what did they know of what would be written? Were they aware what events, if any, from their own life would be recorded?
As we’ve argued time and again in these analyses of shem, legacy is humans’ great motivation. What greater legacy is there than being immortalized in the Torah text?
And then the double bonuses of both being featured in the Torah’s stories as a positive role model — like Abraham whose name is mentioned 37 times in parashat Chayei Sarah even though his actual character is absent from most of it — and of having their name explicitly attached to shem (see, in contrast, the many more names in Genesis without shem), which is the source of ‘name’ by definition.
After the sale of Joseph the Torah turns its attention to Judah. He is Jacob’s fourth eldest son but, following the explosive behavior of brothers #2 and #3 in the previous parasha, Judah is next in line after Reuben’s shortcomings.
Judah’s legacy unfolds:
וַֽיְהִי֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֥רֶד יְהוּדָ֖ה מֵאֵ֣ת אֶחָ֑יו וַיֵּ֛ט עַד־אִ֥ישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִ֖י וּשְׁמ֥וֹ חִירָֽה׃ וַיַּרְא־שָׁ֧ם יְהוּדָ֛ה בַּת־אִ֥ישׁ כְּנַעֲנִ֖י וּשְׁמ֣וֹ שׁ֑וּעַ וַיִּקָּחֶ֖הָ וַיָּבֹ֥א אֵלֶֽיהָ׃ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ עֵֽר׃ וַתַּ֥הַר ע֖וֹד וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אוֹנָֽן׃ וַתֹּ֤סֶף עוֹד֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁלָ֑ה וְהָיָ֥ה בִכְזִ֖יב בְּלִדְתָּ֥הּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ וַיִּקַּ֧ח יְהוּדָ֛ה אִשָּׁ֖ה לְעֵ֣ר בְּכוֹר֑וֹ וּשְׁמָ֖הּ תָּמָֽר׃
About that time Judah left his brothers and camped near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite and his name was Shua, and he married her and cohabited with her. She conceived and bore a son, and he named him Er. She conceived again and bore a son, and she named him Onan. Once again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah; he was at Chezib when she bore him. Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar. (Gen. 38:1–6)
- shem appears once in each of six consecutive verses.
- who are these acquaintance of Judah’s — Hirah and Shua — why do they merit shem?
- Judah’s own wife is unnamed while his son’s wife is named and with shem.
Things unravel from there for Judah. His two eldest sons anger God and both die. Judah’s legacy looks in doubt.
He seeks to guard his third son and last remaining hope, but in doing so acts callously against the now-twice widowed Tamar. As fate would have it, Judah impregnates her and is put to the test. He is presented with a scenario where honesty would mean risking his own honor, which he could against guard against by acting selfishly.
This time, he chooses well. Judah’s new legacy is Tamar’s twin boys:
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כְּמֵשִׁ֣יב יָד֗וֹ וְהִנֵּה֙ יָצָ֣א אָחִ֔יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר מַה־פָּרַ֖צְתָּ עָלֶ֣יךָ פָּ֑רֶץ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ פָּֽרֶץ׃ וְאַחַר֙ יָצָ֣א אָחִ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־יָד֖וֹ הַשָּׁנִ֑י וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ זָֽרַח׃
But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.
Two new sons to replace his lost ones. In fact, as tradition teaches us, Perez is the ancestor of the Messiah.
Parashat Vayeishev picks up on the joint themes of sibling rivalry and passing the legacy from father to son, something that has played out again and again in the Torah’s first book.
How is Jacob to choose which of his children should be torchbearer? Must it remain just one son? Surely, like any father, Jacob wanted all his children to follow in his footsteps. But his overt favoritism of Joseph made it hard for his other sons to have faith in him. Instead, they took matters into their own hands and did away with Joseph.
And so the Torah takes us through the line of succession — Reuben proves unworthy, then Judah initially falters but recovers.
The story then shifts back to Joseph, where even in captivity he shines. In the next parasha, his star shines even brighter.