Vayeishev: After the Wrestling, the wrestling

At the beginning of last week’s parasha, Jacob was given a new name – Israel; the name that would also come to be the name of our people; the name that signified strength in having struggled with beings both human and divine. We learn from this passage that struggling is in our very nature, and that struggling can lead to blessings. Which is a good thing, because after that, it all seems to go downhill for Jacob and his family. By the time that parasha concludes, Jacob’s daughter Dinah has been raped by the local prince and his favourite wife Rachel has died in childbirth, at the side of the road, where he is forced to bury her – separate from where all the rest of our patriarchs and matriarchs are buried.  

And then in this week’s parasha, the struggles continue as Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers where he is sexually harassed, falsely accused of rape, and thrown into prison. Meanwhile his brother Judah’s daughter-in-law has no choice but to trick Judah into sleeping with her in order to get him to give her what is rightfully hers (a new husband and hope of children).

So, it’s fortunate that we have been told that struggling with God is a good thing, because these are passages of Torah with which we must, indeed, struggle. What to make of how Dinah and Tamar are treated by the men, and by the text? How to feel about brothers who will avenge their sister’s honour with mass-murder and then turn around and attempt to commit fratricide? This is our family history! This is our Torah! And so, struggle with it we must. Over the centuries, rabbis and Jewish thinkers and Jewish writers have helped us to consider different interpretations of these narratives and to wrestle meaning out of what might otherwise seem a hopeless legacy or, even worse, a meaningless one. 

But just when it seems that the world of our ancestors has gone dark, as we read about Joseph in the prisons of Egypt and all seems lost, the Torah itself tells us (Gen. 39:21 and 23), “But God was with Joseph and showed him kindness. . .and all that he did, God made is prosperous.” This is the biblical equivalent of the “It Gets Better” movement or, if you’re a fan of the movie Finding Nemo, Dori’s song to “just keep swimming”. Sometimes, the world seems dark and the struggle is hard and it feels like all hope is lost. But just as the woes of our ancestors are preempted with the lesson of the importance of struggle, so too are they concluded with the reminder that even in the darkest, scariest places on Earth, God is with us, and hope is not lost.

And after that, indeed, it starts to get better. Joseph’s skills at interpreting dreams leads not only to his own freedom from prison, but to the eventual saving of his family from starvation during the famine and to the set up that ultimately concludes in our people’s redemption from Egypt and our being able to receive Torah, God’s greatest gift, at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

The important legacy we have inherited is not the one of familial violence and strife. It is the one of strength in the face of struggle. Knowing that even when we are struggling with our own history, identity and sacred text, never mind the ever-darkening world around us, we can find blessing in the struggle and assurance that God is with us, and that better times are surely just ahead.

Kein Yehi Ratzon, May it Be God’s Will.


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