This week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, is somewhat of an incomplete story.
It begins by telling of Joseph being Jacob’s favorite son and how his jealous brothers sell him to the Egyptians and tell their father that Joseph was killed.
Next, the portion then focuses on one of the brothers, Judah, and his family. Judah marries and has three boys. The oldest, Er, marries Tamar, but he dies before the couple have a child, so she marries his brother, Onan.
But Onan dies without a child also, and Judah tells Tamar not to marry the third son, but to instead return to her home as a widow. Subsequently, when Judah’s wife dies, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces him, becomes pregnant and gives birth to twins.
Then, the parsha returns to the story of Joseph, explaining that Pharoah’s chamberlain, Potiphar, had purchased Joseph and appointed him over his house. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, and when he spurns her efforts, she tells her husband that Joseph tried to lay with her.
As a result, Joseph is put in prison, where he interprets the dreams of two other prisoners: the Pharoah’s baker and cupbearer. Joseph tells the cupbearer that Pharaoh will retrieve him from prison in three days and will be restored to his position. Joseph asks the cupbearer to mention him and his abilities to Pharaoh.
Finally, the parsha ends with the cupbearer being released, but forgetting about Joseph.
Questions and a Puzzling Mitzvah
So, this week we are left with many unanswered questions: Will Jacob ever discover that Joseph is alive? Will the brothers be punished? Will Joseph be let out of prison? How will Judah reconcile raising the children of his daughter-in-law?
Until next week, when those questions may be answered, I would like to focus on the mitzvah of the Levirate Marriage.
When Er dies childless, Tamar marries his brother. This was done by instruction, though; Judah said to Onan, “Come to your brother’s wife and perform the rite of the levirate, and raise up progeny for your brother” (Genesis 38:8).
Notice the careful phrasing, saying to raise the offspring for your brother, meaning that the children would not truly be his, but Er’s. The mitzvah is not officially detailed until Deuteronomy, where it is described thusly:
“If brothers reside together, and one of them dies childless, the dead man’s wife shall not marry an outsider. Her husband’s brother must come to her, taking her as his wife in a levirate marriage. The firstborn son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).
If either of them do not wish to marry, they must undergo a chalitzah, or separation.
To me – and, I assume, to many others – this idea seems, well, strange. It doesn’t seem appropriate for a brother to marry his widowed sister-in-law. Yet, it is a commandment of G-d.
An Eye-Opening Orthodox Shabbat
This past Friday afternoon, three friends and I left campus to have Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox Jewish family here in St. Louis. We arrived at the Yari household in the late afternoon, and already the home smelled of food, had a Shabbat table fixed for 25 people and echoed the soothing sound of a Jewish New York mother saying, “good shabbos” and welcoming us into her home.
One daughter led us downstairs to put our bags away, and the other followed promptly with kugel and cholent (a sort of Jewish chili). My friends and I sat downstairs, ate and were then asked to come upstairs for candle lighting.
We stood around a gorgeous two-foot candleholder made of sterling silver. I was puzzled by the number of candles, though, so I asked Mrs. Yari why there were eight out for Shabbat instead of two.
She explained that some people choose to light just two, but others light two for every one of their children in the house.
And so the learning began.
Throughout the weekend, I was introduced to new laws surrounding Shabbat: Shabbat candles are to be lit by the woman before reciting the blessing. The wine poured for Kiddush should overflow to symbolize an excess of joy on Shabbas. Once Kiddush is said, one cannot speak until taking a sip of wine (same goes for the blessing over the Challah).
You wash your hands by tipping a jar of water twice over your right hand and then twice over your left hand and reciting a blessing. You dip Challah in salt before eating it because salt never spoils and therefore signifies our everlasting covenant with G-d.
You cannot “carry” any object outside unless your community has an eruv, a string put into place by a recognized rabbi that surrounds the entire area. Although you cannot make a fire on Shabbat, you can keep food warm on a gas flame that was lit before Shabbat as long as the flame is covered.
While I understand that Shabbat is a day of rest, some of these mitzvot, like the Levirate Marriage, are troubling. Growing up a reform Jew, these rituals are practically foreign to me. But living among them for Shabbas certainly opened my eyes.
What Can I Say?
Like the parshah this week, I have no answers or words of wisdom. I’m still caught up in my own reflection. There’s no doubt that the Yaris believed they were following the word of G-d in all of their Shabbas preparation and celebration. And there is no doubt that I do not follow the word of G-d in a similar way when the sun sets each Friday night.
I say that because I am a reform Jew, those laws are not what we emphasize, but is that a cop-out?
If black is not observing Judaism and white is being Orthodox, what does gray look like? And is gray a structured set of beliefs, or a way for us to reconcile the fact that we are not willing to change our daily lives in accordance with the Torah?
Right now, I have no conclusion. I can only question and hope that, like that of Vayeishev, my story will play out in a meaningful way and I will come to a fuller understanding of Torah – and life.
BY RACHEL LaVICTOIRE / AJT Columnist
Rachel LaVictoire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.