Drashot on Parashat Vayeshev 2017

Drashot on Parashat Vayeshev

Due a scheduling error, two drashot were submitted this week ... so a real "double portion" can be enjoyed, with the two submissions below from Max Jared Einsohn and Reverend Sam Zwarenstein.

Max Jared Einsohn
Director of Education and Engagement
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria

This week’s parasha made me consider what is most important to me in life. In many ways, I hope that our engagement with our ancient texts regularly forces these introspective thoughts, encouraging us to reevaluate our place in the world, what we do, and who we are. That is one of the many reasons we are called to busy ourselves with the study of Torah- so it moves us.

That said, reading parashat Vayeshev caused me to feel quite stuck. Even though parashat Vayeshev is my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion, rediscovering the concepts present in the text as an adult has been a challenging experience. The text itself did not change, but I surely have over the last 17 years, and I noticed something that my 13 year old self certainly glanced over.

After Joseph’s brothers tossed him into a pit to leave him to die, they quickly reconsidered their decision. But not for the better. In Genesis 37:36, Judah asks “what can we gain from killing our brother and covering it [the blood] up?” The text then cleverly continues to describe the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites (via Midianite middlemen) for twenty silver pieces, and subsequent taking of Joseph to Egypt. Rashi comments to clarify that Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the pit to sell him to the Midianites (who then sold him to the Ishmaelites), confirming their direct involvement in the exchange, and acknowledging the financial gain they received for enslaving their brother (Tanchuma Buber, Vayeshev 13 and Midrash Asarah Harugei Malchuth).

Twenty pieces of silver. Twenty pieces of silver was all that Joseph was worth to his brothers. It is possible that at that time, it was a lot of many. I’ve always wondered what Joseph brother’s spent the money on. Was it worth it? It seems that even in the days of our biblical ancestors, we desired money to an unhealthy extent.

The Haftorah for parashat Vayeshev chooses to focus on this matter as well, through the prophet Amos’ opening line “...for selling an innocent man for money” (Amos 2:6). The rest of the Haftorah continues with a series of cause and effect examples of how God will punish the people of Israel for having their priorities out of whack.

As I reflect on why this section of Torah stands out to me, I wonder too about my own relationship with money. Maybe it is because I am now planning my wedding, a full-time working professional, with a future that seems longer and more real than ever before, that I focused on how money played a role in Joseph’s brother’s decision making. Reading that they valued money over their own family made me feel awful- they clearly valued “making a buck”, and had no problem doing the wrong thing if it made them richer. This week’s Torah portion reminds me that people can do horrible things and live quite contently today.

Unfortunately in today’s complex and fear-full world, this happens often. Wall Street, cigarette companies and gambling are just a few examples of how our desire to make money causes us to do horrible things at the expense of another.

The reality is that we have to spend money as a function of living in 2017. Our challenge today, the same challenge presented to Joseph’s brothers, is making and spending money in a way that is not at the expense of others. We need to consider the impact on the world and on those around you when we consider how to make and spend money.

We may take the words of parashat Vayeshev as teachings of what not to do- how not to emulate our ancestors. What may have happened if Joseph’s brothers had not sold him into slavery for a quick buck? How can our lives change if we stopped to consider the impact of the things we do to make money?

Reading this week’s parasha reminds me to value family over money, and more importantly, to spend the truest form of currency, time, with those I love. With my mother in town from The States it is even more clear the teaching of parashat Vayeshev: instead of sacrificing time and relationships with family for more money (by overworking, etc…) we should be spending our money to get closer to family. And this, is another gift of Shabbat. Shabbat affords us the opportunity to put money aside, and focus on the ones we love. May this be a Shabbat rich with family.


Reverend Sam Zwarenstein
Emanuel Synagogue
Woollahra, NSW

In this week’s parasha, we find the origin of a custom practised by mourners, usually carried out just before the funeral of their loved one commences. At this time, the clergy officiating takes a sharp blade and cuts the cloth of each of the direct mourners (child, sibling, spouse, parent), allowing the mourning to expand that cut into a noticeable tear. The mourners then read out the prayer for learning unfortunate or bad news (Baruch Ata … . Dayan Ha’emet - Blessed is God, the true Judge). This process is known as “k’riah” (tearing).

The first mention of this custom takes place after Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him. Reuben instructs them not to harm him or kill him, so they throw him into a pit and later sell him to some Ishmaelites. Reuben returns to the pit where Joseph is supposed to be, and finds that he is not there. He tears his clothes, and when he returns to his brothers, he says; “The boy is gone! Now what am I to do?”.

A little later, we find the more infamous mention of this custom, when the brothers take Joseph’s coat, they dip it in the blood of a kid goat that they slaughter, and then they present it to Jacob, who recognises the coat as Joseph’s, and he tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and begins to mourn the loss of his son.

Reuben’s actions seem to driven by a fear of what could be, perhaps of uncertainty - he is looking for answers. Jacob’s actions are a direct response to hearing the terrible news, that his son has been killed. He feels a deep sense of loss, he isn’t looking for answers. His physical actions are a direct expression of the grief he feels, and they allow him to release some of the agony and heartbreak he experiences.

The halachic and historical requirement is to tear enough to expose one’s heart. In doing so, the physical centre of our existence is exposed, in addition to the emotional pain we feel in our heart. We feel vulnerable, perhaps even defenseless. An integral part of our life has been removed, and we are hurting.

When dealing with grief, we typically go through different stages in processing that grief. One of the defined early stages is anger, which is what Jacob intensely demonstrates when his sons report to him what has happened to Joseph. He aggressively tears his clothes, he expresses his grief through this physical action, to help him process what has happened.

Some psychoanalysts say that anger is a component of all mourning, and that one of the key functions of the mourning process is to work through and dissipate the anger, which historically was expressed through the symbolic, and often aggressive act of tearing one’s cloth.

However, humans don’t always follow the pre-defined order of events. Anger is listed as an early stage of mourning, but some people may not feel the anger, or want to express it when told to do so. Therefore, the mourner may not want to engage in a public (or other) expression of anger at the time we perform the k’riah. They may only enter that stage later in the mourning process.

And even though k’riah was how our biblical ancestors expressed the anger of their loss, it is not necessarily the chosen method for today’s society. It is, however, a reminder that the process of mourning contains a number of fixed rituals that represent tradition and emotion, community and observance, grief and support.

It is not solely about following that which has been prescribed for the sake of adhering to a process or ritual, but rather about a much wider acknowledgement that grieving is a process that is made up of several rituals and responses. It is not a single moment in time, but a multitude of different experiences and emotions.

Emphasising the importance of our ritual practices, whilst allowing mourners to process their grief in a way and at a time that they feel is appropriate, is essential to the continuation of both, as well as the impact of their relevance in our society.



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