Parashat Vayeshev brings a series of controversial stories. First, Jacob, the father, shows favoritism for one of his children, Joseph. Jacob does this in front of the others! And as a result, the brothers hate Joseph, instead of confronting Jacob for his unjust behavior.
Joseph, disregarding the humiliation he was causing to his brothers, tells his dreams about how they will one day prostrate in front of him.
Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave and he ends up in Egypt. His brothers deceive Jacob by soaking in blood the colorful dress his father gave him. They let Jacob grieve for Joseph’s death knowing he was still alive!
In the meantime, two sons of Judah were killed by God. Er, his firstborn for misconduct; the second, Onan, for refusing to procreate with his brother’s childless widow, Tamar, to build his deceased’s brother’s house and name. Judah didn’t want to give her his third son, fearing that she is a “black widow” or bad luck. Tamar takes a risk for the Law to be fulfilled and dresses like a harlot and gets Judah (who saw her in the middle of the road and didn’t recognize she was his daughter-in-law) to impregnate her.
Judah left some items with her as security for payment. When Tamar is discovered to be pregnant, Judah orders that she be killed by fire. She shows him the items he left with her as security and he acknowledges his wrongdoings while praising her for her rightness.
Joseph, now at the house of a high-ranked officer of the kingdom, is accused of sexual misconduct towards the lady of the house and ends up in jail were he learns the value of humility and the danger of arrogance.
After this brief introduction to the stories of our Torah portion, I can only say: “What a family! Are these my ancestors? And is there anything positive to learn from this parasha?”
The Torah is not a book of history. It is a book about life according to a set of values and regulations, with the intention of building a just and moral society. The stories in our parasha teach us the good and the bad: how to behave justly and how to avoid behavior that is wrong.
Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph initiated a chain of events ending with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. We learn that hate and jealousy can lead to murder, torture, and the violation of human rights.
On the other hand , Tamar’s righteousness and love for justice initiated the family that later (and thanks to another great woman, Ruth) became King David’s dynasty, bringing the Mashiach to the world.
And Judah, accepting the responsibility of his actions and praising Tamar for her bravery, becomes the father of one of the tribes that will pass his name to the entire Hebrew nation: Jews (JUD’os in Spanish). It’s no wonder that the Jews were and will be the first ones to support every cause that fights for human rights around the world.
When we understand that the Torah doesn’t have saints and that our ancestors were human beings, with their flaws and grandeur, we can enjoy the stories that shape us, and through us the culture of the Western World in the pursuit to build a just and better society every day.