|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my paternal grandfather Moshe Ben Yosef A”H, uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-MY BROTHER: MENACHEM MENDEL SHLOMO BEN CHAYA ROCHEL
-HaRav Gedalia Dov Ben Perel
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-Yechiel Baruch HaLevi Ben Liba Gittel
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah
-Amitai Dovid Ben Rivka Shprintze
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
וַיֵּשֶׁב ● Vayeishev
● What are we supposed to learn from the parallel “seduction” stories in Vayeishev? ●
“A Tale of Two Heroes”
In Parshas Vayeishev we’re told the story of a man who had been rejected by his brothers and suffered unimaginable, family-related trauma. This man was ultimately seduced by a woman who actually held his laundry as hostage to serve as evidence that he had been intimate with her out of wedlock. However, this man, through his effort and toil, would ultimately rise to the occasion, surpass his trials, and create a royal legacy.
Let’s spend a few minutes to talk about this man. Who is this man? That’s a trick question because the above description really fits two people in Parshas Vayeishev; Yehudah and Yosef.1
Two “Seduction Stories”
Indeed, if one pays close attention and looks closely at the two “seduction stories,” especially back-to-back as the Torah presented them, one simply cannot ignore the many obvious parallels they share.
- Yehudah and Tamar
The simplest summary of the Yehudah story is that after two of Yehudah’s sons died amidst their respective marriages to his daughter-in-law Tamar, Yehudah indefinitely put off the levirate marriage between his remaining son Sheilah and Tamar. In response, Tamar, with the intentions of fulfilling her levirate marriage through Yehudah, disguised herself as a harlot to entice, cohabit with, and ultimately bear seed through him to perpetuate the name of Yehudah’s own firstborn son, her first husband. When Yehudah later found out that Tamar had illegitimately become pregnant and sentenced her to death, Tamar would reveal Yehudah’s signet, cloak, and staff which he left with her as collateral to clarify to Yehudah, what only he would realize, that he was the culprit who impregnated her.
- Yosef and Eishes Potifar
As for the Yosef story, after being kidnapped from his family, when Yosef was living as a slave in the house of Potifar in Egypt, Potifar’s wife, “Eishes Potifar,” attempted to seduce Yosef and later accused him of making advances toward her, using the garments she grabbed from him as her evidence. Yosef was ultimately shamed and thrown into prison, but he maintained his morality in G-d’s eyes, and G-d would continue to make Yosef successful even while he was in jail.
While many of the themes of the two narratives obviously line up, the parallels between them are manifest even further through many noteworthy textual cues as well.
After the infamous Mechiras Yosef, or Sale of Yosef2, the Torah tells us, “…Vayeired Yehudah Mei’eis Echav…”-“…and Yehudah went down from his brothers…”3 which Chazal understand as a reference to the fact his brothers demoted him since he was the one who initiated Yosef’s sale that brought so much pain to their father, Yaakov Avinu.4
In any event, if one looks at the beginning of the Yosef story, the text there also employs this expression of going down, as the Torah writes, “V’Yosef Hurad Mitzrayimah…”-“And Yosef was brought down to Egypt…”5
And of course, Yosef was brought down to Egypt as a result of his being banished by his brothers, similar to Yehudah who had been demoted by his brothers.
Furthermore, the text uses an uncommon word, “Vayeit,” [וַיֵּט] literally, “and he inclined (pitched)” or “and he turned,” in both stories.
In the Yehudah story it says; “…Vayeit Ad Ish Adulami…”-“…and he turned [inclines] towards an Adulami man…,”3 and, “Vayeit Eileha El HaDerech…”-“And he [Yehudah] turned to her [Tamar], to the road…”6
Strangely enough, in the Yosef story, when Yosef was thrown into prison after being accused, the Torah writes, “Vayehi Hashem Es Yosef Vayeit Eilav Chessed…”-“And Hashem was with Yosef and He turned (inclined) to him kindness…”7 And one has to admit that the term of inclining, “Vayeit,” is an odd expression in Yosef’s context, considering that the Torah could have said more simply that Hashem “did/performed” [עשה] kindness for Yosef as it does typically.8 Thus, this expression would seemingly serve as another textual basis for comparing the narratives.
- “Many days”/“Day by day”
Additionally, the major seduction scene, in both stories, is a result of many days of waiting for something to happen that just wasn’t happening. For Yehudah’s seduction, the Torah writes, “Vayirbu Yamim…”-“And the days increased…”9 yet, Yehudah had not given his son Sheilah to Tamar for levirate marriage10, so she took matter into her own hands.
Similarly, in the Yosef story, the Torah states, “Vayehi K’Dabrah El Yosef Yom Yom V’Lo Shamah Eilehah L’Shkav Etzlah…”-“And it was, as [much as] she would speak to Yosef day by day, yet he did not listen to her to [such as] lie next to her…”11 She would thus attempt to physically coerce him, grabbing hold of his clothing when no one else was home.
There are undeniable connections between the two stories. The question is what these connections mean. Indeed, both individuals were seduced and left clothing with the woman which would later be used as evidence against them. Yes, there are literary and thematic links between the two stories, but what is the Torah ultimately trying to tell us? What are the implications? What does the Divine Narrator want us to glean from the relationship between the two stories?
Whenever there is a seemingly underlying relationship between two stories in the Torah, we might suggest that one is probably supposed to understand the stories in light of one another, noting not only what they have in common, but where they differ as well. Once all of these factors are highlighted, we can properly weave the two passages together to learn the implicit lessons from them.
The Big Difference: “The Deed”
Although the Yehudah story and the Yosef story have a lot in common as they experience similar seeming challenges, they obviously have their differences. Indeed, for the purposes of our discussion, there is a major difference, a disturbing difference between the two stories. This difference is the basis behind the popular decision by educators of Jewish youth to gloss over the Yehudah story when teaching Parshas Vayeishev. Many children grow up not being taught the Yehudah story because, unlike Yosef who ultimately refused to “marry” Potifar’s wife (as children are taught), according to the straight read of the Chumash, Yehudah actually “did the deed” and engaged in a conjugal relationship with a woman whom, to his knowledge, was a harlot whom he had to pay a wage.12 Aside from the “adult” content of this story, another reason why this narrative is hard to digest is that Yehudah is supposedly one of our righteous heroes and as such, this “union” he shared with Tamar is not too flattering or inspiring.
On the other hand, Yosef utterly refused to do the deed. Even according to the opinion in Chazal that Yosef was prepared to give in to the wife of Potifar, Yosef would dominate his inclination and remove himself from the situation.13 Comparatively, Yosef looks like the pure angel. Yehudah emerges looking tainted.
Yosef vs. Yehudah, Success vs. Failure?
Now, the question is what we’re supposed to take away from this difference between the two seduction stories in Vayeishev. Is the point that Yosef was the hero of the day, and that Yehudah just couldn’t quite make the mark?
Before we draw any conclusions, we have to understand that everything we’ve mentioned above was just a surface evaluation. If we’re patient, we’ll see that so much more lies beneath the surface. We need to take a closer look at these two stories, and give more of a background check.
Yehudah made a mistake, yes. And indeed, it was not his first mistake; he initiated the sale of Yosef. But Yehudah wasn’t just an impulsive sinner. Mechiras Yosef was the culmination of years of insult which Leah Imeinu and her children had felt. Yaakov Avinu wasn’t wrong for feeling extra favor for the wife he worked tirelessly for, Rochel Imeinu, but Leah and her sons were Yaakov’s family no less and they all had feelings which were hurt by Yaakov’s actions of favoritism. When Yosef would give Leah’s children reasons to be jealous, although their actions in response were not justified, their feelings certainly were. They were all troubled. Accordingly, when Yehudah created a “solution,” albeit painful to Yaakov, he didn’t expect the rest of his family to banish him. This was certainly a discouraging Yeridah or descent for Yehudah as the Torah suggests.
And when Yehudah tried to raise a family with moral support from nobody, he watched its demise firsthand, as his first two sons died after sinning during their respective, back-to-back marriages to Tamar. Yehudah lost two sons, and then, to top it all off, Yehudah’s wife died as well. His life was falling apart. Everything went wrong for him. Finally, at perhaps at his lowest point in our story, Yehudah was forced to transfer his own signet, cloak and staff as collateral for his union with a supposed harlot. His only hope at the time—to parphrase Yehudah’s own words—was that he would not become a laughingstock and be disgraced any further. The event certainly does not reflect well on Yehudah, though we’re certainly not ones to judge. But again, is that the takeaway of the story—that Yehudah was going through a rough, tragic period in his life?
A Tale of Two Heroes
Undoubtedly, Yosef succeeded in his trial. He fought off Potifar’s wife and maintained his righteousness even at his own expense, not only denying his desires, but by leaving his evidence at the scene of the fabricated crime out of his fear of succumbing to sin. He was humiliated and imprisoned, but with G-d as his witness, he really won this one. G-d would continue to be with him as a result. One cannot take away from Yosef’s accomplishments.
However, one has to be aware that even though the Torah tells us that Yosef was experiencing his own Yeridah, it testifies as well that Hashem was with him the whole time making him successful in all of his endeavors.14 Yosef was “pampered,” in a sense, not only at home, but even during his exile. Everything Yosef touched turned to gold. Yosef himself wasn’t flawless, but he earned a certain degree of divine protection. Yosef could have earned it because of his manifest righteousness. And again, none of this means that Yosef hadn’t exerted himself to fend off his desires. He did. But perhaps he would be judged on some higher standard, perhaps according to his spiritual capabilities and situation.
But, looking back at Yehudah, although he ultimately “did the deed,” it seems that in his story, unlike in the Yosef story, the seduction scene does not appear to be the climax. And perhaps it was not the primary trial Yehudah was expected to overcome. The crucial moment for Yehudah seems to have taken place months later when Tamar was noticeably pregnant, being accused of having engaged in harlotry. Tamar had the evidence she needed to pass off the blame to where it was just as much due, to Yehudah, but she concealed Yehudah’s name and left the ball in his court.
And what would happen next? Yehudah would ultimately own up to his responsibilities and confess his wrongdoing. Yehudah would become a pillar of true Teshuvah, repentance, for his display, and it was perhaps that single moment that made all the difference. This moment was the moment of truth that G-d would judge Yehudah for more than anything else. No kidding, giving into one’s temptations is bad. But true Teshuvah—confessing, owning up, and abandoning the sin—is often more difficult and more powerful a statement than not doing the sin to begin with. Teshuvah brings out a true sense of character.
Was Yehudah perfect? No, and G-d did not expect him to be, given his situation. Yehudah was certainly imperfect, like most people, but he was undoubtedly an inspirational hero who most people actually could relate to. At the end of this story, although Yehudah, like Yosef, would endure some indignity, he too would still maintain his morality. Indeed, Yehudah would regain a sense of righteousness in the eyes of his family.
The “Tzaddik Gamur” and the “Ba’al Teshuvah”
These two stories, back to back, evoke the famous dichotomy presented in the Gemara between the “Tzaddik Gamur,” the perfect or complete righteous one, and the “Ba’al Teshuvah,” one who engages in repentance.15 Yosef HaTzaddik clearly represents the Tzaddik Gamur and Yehudah is obviously the Ba’al Teshuvah. The Gemara actually states that where the Ba’al Teshuvah stands, even the Tzaddik Gamur doesn’t stand. Now, this does not necessarily mean that either individual is “better” or greater. They each stand on their own unique, spiritual pedestals. G-d views everyone differently based on their situation and capabilities, and He is the Sole Judge. It could be though that G-d does have a particularly special place in His heart for the Ba’al Teshuvah because the Ba’al Teshuvah could have given up, because he messed up and tasted sin, and yet, he fought back.
In fact, some might argue that Adam HaRishon’s expulsion from Gan Eden was not merely because of the sin, but because he failed to do proper Teshuvah when G-d provided the opportunity. Why else did G-d give them the opening? Once the sin happened, it apparently wasn’t necessarily over. Had he owned up to his sin, perhaps he would have been forgiven and not expelled. However, he and Chavah both shirked responsibility, and they were banished. Perhaps it was the Teshuvah factor that really made the difference. It certainly did for Yehudah. One seriously can’t fathom the level that even a sinner can still reach.
And yet, at the end, both Yosef and Yehudah are righteous in G-d’s eyes. Both have passed their respective tests. As a result, both Yosef and Yehudah are prominently praised by their father on his deathbed. Both Yosef and Yehudah merit kingship. And of course, Jewish tradition believes in both a Moshiach Ben Yosef as well as a Moshiach Ben Dovid who is ultimately a descendent of Yehudah and Tamar.
What the Torah ultimately shows us in these two intimately connected stories is how differing spiritual personalities can so differently handle a situation and both succeed in their own way. Yosef demonstrates the power of purity and spiritual restraint—the ability to pound the Evil Inclination into the dust. Yehudah demonstrates the perhaps more unforeseen power to own up to responsibility even after he has been overtaken by that Evil Inclination and ultimately rise from the dust.
Anyone can potentially succeed. Even if one has slipped and tainted his spiritual records, it’s not the end. One does not have to necessarily be a Yosef to be vindicated in G-d’s eyes. Yehudah shows us that it’s never too late. Although both Yosef and Yehudah were undoubtedly challenged by a major Yeridah, in the end, both were heroes and ultimately rose to the occasion.
May we all be Zocheh to triumph in our battles against the Evil Inclination in all situations—whether he has already overtaken us before or not—maintain and regain our highest spiritual levels, ultimately be redeemed and vindicated in Hashem’s eyes, and we should be graced with the coming of both the Moshiach Ben Yosef and the Moshiach Ben Dovid, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Mevarchim Teiveis!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Bereishis 38 and 39
- Bereishis 37
- Ibid. 38:1
- Rashi citing Tanchuma, Vayeishev 8
- Bereishis 39:1
- Ibid. 38:16
- Ibid. 39:21
- As in Bereishis 24:14, 32:11, 40:14, etc.
- Bereishis 38:12
- Note that according to one opinion suggested by Mizrachi, Yehudah intended to affect a transaction of Kiddushin through his marital relations with the “woman” though Maharsha [to Sotah 10A] raises difficulties with this suggestion. Additionally, Mizrachi cites Bereishis Rabbah [85:8] which implies that in fact, the relations would be regarded as a “Ma’aseh Z’nus” (act of harlotry) and that Yehudah had intended to desist from the woman until an angel forced him upon her. See also Pardeis Rimonim who comments in the name of R’ Eliezer M’Mitz that Tamar intended that Yehudah should marry her through the union; however, see also Chavos Da’as [Yoreh Dei’ah 192:1] and Tiferes L’Moshe who argue that the union was actually one of Z’nus.
- Rashi to 39:11 citing Sotah 36B
- Bereishis 39:2-3, 5, 21-23
- Brachos 34B