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Parasha Vayishev Bereshit (Gen) 37:1-40:23

This week we begin to to concentrate on a new character, Ya’akov’s beloved son Yosef, the first son born to his beloved Rachael. There is much in Yosef’s life to draw upon, and there are many parallels with the life of Messiah. But what we are going to discuss this week is the nature of good and evil because within this story, it would appear that the two become rather confused. Horrible things happen to Yosef, the result of evil men and evil intentions but ultimately there are good results. What does this tells us?

The usual explanation for the conflict between good and evil is that G-d stands for all that is good and HaSatan represents all that is evil. Evil was not originally part of G-d’s universe but HaSatan, formerly Lucifer, rebelled and introduced the idea of opposing the will of G-d to the created order. These two forces struggle on the earth and within each person for ultimate supremacy. People that do bad things are evil and righteous people are good and the ultimate goal of both G-d and His righteous ones is the ultimate victory over, and eradication of, evil.

I will warn you now, some of what follows may be a bit controversial but the point is to get you to think. First of all, nothing, including evil, exists outside of G-d. G-d encompasses everything. And we could say that evil is a necessary part of creation, because if there were no evil, if there were not something to pull us away from G-d, we would lose our free will and creation would not exist as it does now. If there had been no tree of good and evil, how would G-d have known whether he created a robot or a being who truly wanted a relationship with Him? As Rav Sha’ul said, where there is no law, if there is no choice between good and evil, there is no sin. But there is there is also no righteousness or goodness, moral qualities that depends on choice.

So what we have is a different way of looking at evil. It is not so much that G-d is in one direction and HaSatan is in the other but that G-d is like the light, He is in every direction, and HaSatan, representing evil, is also in every direction, seeking to dim that light, to cloud the truth. So people and events are not inherently evil in this paradigm, but must be evaluated as to the final outcome, do they enhance or hinder the light? For example, many say that money is the root of all evil. Money, however, is neither good or evil, it all depends what we do with it. Evil is no longer a thing but an awareness (or lack thereof) of G-d and His plan and truth.

Let’s get back to our parasha. In the conventional understanding there were a series of evil actions done by several characters, Yosef’s brothers, Potipher's wife, the steward, that were eventually turned around for good when Yosef interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. In this new paradigm, we evaluate each event as to it’s outcome to determine whether or not they were good or evil, whether they drew Yosef closer to G-d or took him father away. If life’s ultimate objective is to become spiritually mature, exhibiting in life those characteristics that make us G-d like, in conformity to our originally created ‘programming’ then each one of these events in Yosef’s life were primarily good because they helped him to develop in that direction, closer to G-d and spiritual maturity.

In reality, we need only to look at the most important event in history, the one that accomplished our redemption, to see the ultimate example of what I am talking about. The crucifixion of Yahushua, the taking of the life of a human being, one not only made in the image of G-d but the One who was a perfect reflection of it, was actually a wondrously ‘good’ event, for it brought countless people to a true ‘awareness’ or relationship with their creator. So as we go through life, let us have the attitude of Yosef and Yahushua, looking at events or people not as good or evil but as whether they are ultimately going to draw us closer to our Father or farther away.

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This week’s parasha concentrates on a new character in our drama of the patriarchs. Yosef, the first son of Ya’akov’s beloved wife Rachel now becomes the central character. The parasha chronicles his dreams, his brother’s treachery and ends with him sitting in prison in an Egyptian jail. It would have been a seamless story except for the events of chapter thirty-eight. It would seem that the story of Y’hudah and Tamar is out of place and rather incidental to the drama of Yosef’s life and the purpose of his roller coaster ride from the top to the bottom to the top again.

The story has several very important qualities, only one of which we are going to concentrate on here. To understand it’s importance, we need to return to the beginning of the parasha. In the events of Yosef’s demise as he meets his brothers at Dothan, only two of the brothers are named. The first is Reuven, who feels responsible for the whole situation. He knows that if something happens to one of his brothers, he will be held accountable. The other is Y’hudah, who is the one who came up with the idea of selling him into slavery. From this point on, for better or worse, Y’hudah moves into the leadership position among his brothers. In this story, it is definitely for the worse.

There are some important parallels between the story of Yosef and that of Y’hudah and Tamar. After the brothers see the reaction of their father when he is presented with the news of his beloved son’s death, they turn against Y’hudah and at the beginning of chapter thirty-eight we see that he goes down from his brothers, he is basically exiled from them. He makes his home among the cannanites in a diaspora imposed by his brothers, just as Yosef lived among the Egyptians. Y’hudah’s exile lasted nearly as long as Yosef’s. The story includes an illicit relationship with a woman who pursued them. Of course the difference is that Y’hudah gave in easily and Yosef resisted the advances of Potipher’s wife. The most important parallel is that they both had the consequences of their actions displayed for all to see. Yosef, in next week’s parasha, is rewarded for his righteousness and sees the messages of his dreams fulfilled when he saves his family from starvation. Y’hudah is another case altogether.

After he sells his brother and is cut off from his family, he has three sons who grow up to be of marrying age. Er marries Tamar but his wickedness leads to his premature death. This points to two things. First, he failed to raise up his children in righteousness, most likely because the example of their father and his reputation for cruelty was their blueprint. The rabbis also point out that the loss of his two sons was punishment for the grief he caused his own father. After the death of Onan he lies to Tamar about his third son and she takes matters into her own hands.

The conclusion of the story is hauntingly familiar. He orders a horrible punishment for Tamar and on the way to her death, before all the people, she pulls out his signet ring and staff and says, “identify this, whose are they?” It was the same words Y’hudah used when he presented Yosef’s coat to his father. As the Torah says, “your sin will find you out”.

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There are two main characters in our parasha-Yosef and Yehudah. They offer a very interesting contrast in the character of men and it’s consequences. We know where Yosef ends up in the next parasha, as ruler of Mitzrayim. The incident with Yehudah and Tamar, however, is often overlooked as an interruption in Yosef’s story. But the Torah exists to teach us how to live and it does this as much by example as it does through teaching and law.

There is apparently a range of dislike for Yosef among the brothers. No doubt some wanted him dead. Others tempered their dislike with their sense of duty and obligation, like Re’uven. The question may be asked, why did they hate him so? The text only states that he had given a bad report and that he shared his dreams with them. Why did this cause such a problem? Because Yosef was using these things as a pretext for usurping their position. Up until this time, the covenant and blessing of Avraham had only been passed down to one son. I’m sure all the brothers were familiar with the way Ya’acov obtained it and there was much distrust among them as they vied for position. Yosef, being the son of the favorite wife, was in a better position than most and his dreams were seen as gloating. Perhaps they were. His bad reports about his brothers were a more destructive way to secure this blessing. Yosef may have been little more than a spoiled brat manipulating his father’s attention to secure his position. This easily explains his brother’s hatred. They were only protecting their own interests against a ‘Johnny come lately’.

Yehudah is much like Yosef and this will become obvious in the next parasha when he takes over the leadership position. At this point in our story, Re'uven's position as next in line is deteriorating because of the incident with Bilhah. This creates a vacuum of leadership. Yehudah and Yosef are the frontrunners here and Yehudah uses his brothers hatred of Yosef to advance his own position. When Re’uven is physically absent, Yehudah take the reins of leadership and sells Yosef with his brother’s consent. Yehudah, however, was not thinking of all the consequences of his actions. He did it to advance his position with his father but his father was much more distraught than he had counted on. With Ya’acov inconsolable, the brother’s turn on Yehudah and he moves away from the family. His plan to get Yosef out of the way backfired. Now he is exiled from the family as well.

The two men, however, take different tacks from here. Yosef has learned that such manipulation is not the right way to develop relationships. He develops a reputation in Mitzraim as an wise and honest man and is blessed in Potipher's household until he is betrayed by the wicked wife, and then he rises again in the prison. Yehudah, however, does not learn as quickly. He marries outside the clan and has three sons. He raises them with his character and the first two die because they followed his wicked example. He then lies to his daughter in law and is manipulated by her. Her deception and his are then paraded before all he knew. He has now been brought to a place of little esteem first by his actions with his brothers and then among the Canaanites.

The two men appear to be in similar positions at the end of our parasha, Yosef is in prison and Yehudah is disgraced among everyone he knows. The difference will become apparent quickly as the story progresses, however. Yosef has developed a character that reflects God and continually is finding himself in positions of trust. Y’shua’s statement that he who can be trusted with little will be trusted with much is about to come true. Yehudah's ascent will take another ten years and he will have to go through much torment within his family before he learns the lessons Yosef did so quickly. Circumstances change all the time and sometimes we control them and sometimes they control us and sometimes we contribute to them unawares. Yehudah continually contributed negative things to his circumstances, and it was a result of his defective character. Yosef began the same way and changed and although his good character got him into trouble for a short time, his circumstances eventually changed in accord with it. We would do well to learn his lesson.