So much of the story of our ancestors focuses on power dynamics. The dynamic between God and people, the dynamic between spouses, the dynamics assumed (and then overturned) by birth order, the dynamics between genders, tribes, and societal positions – each of these has its place in our Torah. Even now, as we dive into the last major narrative of Genesis – the story of Joseph and his brothers – power dynamics are deeply present and influence a major part of the story.
Our parasha, Vayeshev, opens with the dynamics between Jacob, Joseph, and the rest of the family. Jacob loves Joseph, the son of Rachel, and shows preference to him over his other children. Joseph, in his youthful naiveite, takes advantage of this love and uses his privilege to anger his brothers. The brothers, strong in number and distain, sell Joseph as a slave, in theory never to be seen or heard of again.
As Joseph travels to Egypt, and Jacob mourns his son, we are given two anecdotes with themes not usually highlighted in our communal narratives. Fair warning, these stories are rated PG-13 at least.
First is the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. Er died before he and Tamar could conceive and, as was the custom, Tamar was given to Judah’s second son, Onan. Onan, not wanting to have a child in his brother’s name with his brother’s wife spilled his seed on the ground, angered God, and also died. Fearing for his third son’s, Shelah, life, Judah sent Tamar back to her parents’ house to wait for Shelah to grow up. Tamar waited and waited but was stuck in widow-limbo. She knew that to break out, she must conceive a child through Judah’s line and so disguised herself as a prostitute, seduced Judah himself, and finally bore a child.
Immediately following this story, we are reunited with Joseph, who is now a servant in Potiphar’s house. Potiphar trusted Joseph and put him in charge of the entire household. Joseph worked hard, was focused and honest, and strove to live up to the expectations set by his master. However, Potiphar’s wife became attracted to Joseph and encouraged him to have sex with her. Joseph refused on multiple occasions. Eventually, Mrs. Potiphar came on to Joseph so strongly that he had to forcefully remove himself from her grip, leaving behind a piece of clothing in order to escape. Mrs. Potiphar used this as evidence for a concocted story how Joseph attempted to rape her, which led to Joseph being thrown in jail.
Both of these stories, graphic and disturbing, how power can all too easily lead to abuse. The power of sex, the power of economics, the power of societal expectations around vulnerability and “polite conversation” – all of these can be used to put one person at a disadvantage. And when we talk only about the success stories, of Joseph’s ascension to power and reunion with his brothers and father we take even more power away from the disadvantaged.
To me, these stories are reminders that our community is not immune to the dark vices present in the rest of the world. The Jewish community is not immune to emotional, economic, physical, or sexual abuse. The Jewish community is flawed, our heroes are imperfect, and too often we accept the assumptions made by the status quo. We take advantage of one another, of the vulnerable, or the fearful. As individuals and as a community we are flawed and skipping over that part of our story will only perpetuate unhealthy norms and painful practices.
So instead, let’s stay with these stories. Let each of us read Genesis 38 and 39 with painful honesty. Let us acknowledge that these, too, are our stories. Let’s give the microphone to someone who hasn’t yet spoken up or out, and simply listen – not listen to respond, just listen to understand and sympathize. We cannot learn to use our power for good and healing without the stories that we’d rather stay hidden in some dark corner. Stories that we know exist but cannot bring ourselves say aloud. So, let’s stay with the stories, and simply listen before we overlook them again.