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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Vayeishev

Parashat Vayeishev

Kislev 23, 5980 – December 21, 2019

Torah Reading: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vayeishev, which means “and he settled.” In this Torah portion, we read of how Jacob – after a long exile and series of struggles – finally settles in Hebron (Canaan) with his twelve sons. We are told that, of all his sons, Jacob is most partial to his seventeen-year old son Joseph, which the Zohar describes as a function of Joseph’s spiritual and intellectual superiority over his brothers.[1] Jacob’s preferential treatment of Joseph leads to a rift with his other 11 brothers, which – when coupled with the embroidered tunic made for him by his father and the grandiose dreams Joseph has about his greatness – intensifies this hatred. This leads to the near killing of Joseph after he is sent to inquire about the condition of his brothers’ flock, and Joseph is sold into slavery. The brothers, then, dip Joseph’s tunic in goat’s blood to demonstrate to Jacob that he is dead, rather than missing – which prompts a long period of mourning for Jacob. This story of Joseph’s life is then punctuated with a narrative regarding Judah, his wife, and their three sons.[2] The parashah picks up again with the story of Joseph after he had been sold to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharoah, and Chamberlain (minister) of the Butchers. Potiphar’s wife makes advances on Joseph, and after rejecting her approaches, a plot was fabricated to have Joseph imprisoned. In prison, Joseph meets two of Pharoah’s courtiers – the chief butler and chief baker – who both have dreams that Joseph interprets. The parashah concludes with the release of the butler, who – once released – was meant to advocate for Joseph to Pharaoh, as this was a sequence of events predicted by Joseph. In the end, the butler forgets all about him – and, oh yeah, the baker is hanged!

The ecological message for this week will be stringing together four principle concepts: (1) Joseph’s beauty, (2) Joseph’s dreams, (3) the physical and metaphorical significance of clothing, and (4) the theme of slavery. I thought it might be helpful if we walk through these concepts individually, and consider their traditional (Rabbinic) interpretations first, before bringing them all together and applying them to principles of ecology. So, let’s break it down.

(1) Joseph’s beauty: This detail is first introduced in the beginning of the parashah (37:3) where it says: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age.” While Jacob was 108 while Joseph was 17 years of age, which is reason enough for the phrase child of his old age (בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים), the Midrash has a more esoteric explanation for this description. The word זְקֻנִ֥ים is said to be a contraction of the word ziv ikunim, or facial features, “meaning that Jacob favored Joseph because they resembled one another.”[3] Additionally, the Kabbalists explain Joseph’s beauty through – what is known as – the Doctrine of Gilgul, or reincarnation. Joseph is said to be a reincarnation of Enoch, who possessed a very large portion of Adam’s soul.[4] Adam is considered as somewhat of an archetype of beauty, one of the most beautiful people who ever lived, and so we find in Joseph’s soul a significant piece of the lineage of Adam – which, is demonstrated in Joseph’s physical features as well (the physical being a representation of the spiritual, and vice versa). Perhaps this is alluded to in the description of Jacob’s love for Joseph, as the name Israel is used, which points to a higher, spiritual purpose. In previous audio essays, I have discussed how Jacob was a reincarnation of Adam – and with respect to this parashah, it is important to note – that the Talmud relays that Jacob had the beauty of Adam,[5] which is echoed in the facial features of Joseph.

On the flip side, Joseph’s beauty resurfaces again in another context, with respect to the story of how he gets entangled with Potiphar’s wife. In (39:6) we read that “Joseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance.” It is said that Joseph “used to curl his hair and he used to beautify himself.”[6] In essence, Joseph was preoccupied with the externalities of life – too preoccupied, in fact – because this is what leads to the encounter with Potiphar’s wife. Joseph was an attractive man, assigned to work in the house of Potiphar, and it is no wonder that Potiphar’s wife approached him. In fact, “the Jewish sages relate that Joseph was even tempted to succumb to her [Potiphar’s wife],”[7] until he saw the image of his father’s face and was reminded of his spiritual purpose.

(2) Joseph’s dreams: – In short, there are two places within the narrative of Joseph’s life when he is either having dreams or interpreting them. The first set of dreams are Joseph’s own, and they occur in the opening of the parashah, before he is sold into slavery by his brothers. These dreams are framed by descriptions of him as a “youth,” who acts immaturely,[8] and who tattles on his brothers – here, the Torah says that “Joseph would bring evil reports about them to their father.” (37:2) The two dreams, regarding sheaves of grain and an arrangement of celestial bodies, are each understood to be visions which indicate that his father, mother, and eleven brothers would be subservient to him. At this point in Joseph’s life – and when placed within the framework of his immature behavior – one can only question the validity of the dreams, something that is expounded upon in the Talmud (Berachot 55a). It is therefore quite reasonable that these dreams would intensify the hatred that the brothers had for Joseph, as they were felt to be grandiose and inflammatory.

The second set of dreams occur whilst Joseph is imprisoned, and they are dreams that he interprets. The Talmud states that “all dreams follow the mouth.” (Berachot 55b) In other words, “it’s a dream’s interpretation that actually causes it to be fulfilled.”[9] The significance of dreams is an important concept in Judaism, and for this reason there many practices that exist to either combat negative dreams or work with positive dreams.[10] The point to emphasize here, at this stage in Joseph’s life (in prison), is that he has been stripped of his family comforts and even his privileged role in Potiphar’s house, and this leads to a transformed Joseph whose interpretations are deriving from a different place. The significance of dreams has much to do with how they are interpreted, and the context within which they are interpreted, and this has a material effect. The context of our life relates to the purpose of our life, and we see this in the differing effects that the interpretations of dreams have in Joseph’s life – even though they are all messages from G-d.

(3) The physical and metaphorical significance of clothing: – in (39:11)[11] we read of the actual encounter between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, where she tries to entice him and Joseph sees his father’s face,[12] and Joseph flees – leaving his clothing in her hand. So, this begs the question: what are clothes?

Kabbalistically, “all human activity is expressed in one of the following three modes: thought, speech, and deed. These faculties are known as the ‘garments of the soul.’”[13] These garments, these clothes, (metaphorically) represent the externalities of life and enwrap the core of your soul – to either protect it, or make it vulnerable. To take this even further, one must remember the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. After partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, we are told that Adam and Eve realized that they were naked (3:7). Given that their only mitzvah was to refrain from the eating of the fruit of this tree, once they partook, they lost their purpose. Without varieties of thought, speech, and deed that are in alignment with our purpose, then we are considered naked. The idea of nakedness correlates with a lack of spiritual purpose, and this is what is occurring when Joseph leaves his clothes in the hand of Potiphar’s wife. While he does leave his very literal clothes, Joseph must also leave his previous preoccupations with externalities, with beauty, and with dreams that incite hatred from his brothers – he must leave those ‘clothes’ behind to take a new direction and transform himself. And this leads us to his time in prison.

(4) The theme of slavery: This is a massively important theme that will surely be touched on in future parashot. In short, Joseph’s descent into Egypt was the “prelude to the exile foretold to Abraham at the Covenant Between the Parts (15:13).”[14] Interestingly enough, galut (exile) is referred to as a dream (see Psalms 126:1), because – despite the spiritual stasis and metaphorical descent that occurs during an exile – this is what provides the context for the subsequent ascent in holiness.[15] In this same respect, dreams (usually) occur during sleep, when we are exiled from our body and the physical vessel that can exercise the ritual technology of mitzvot which tethers us to G-d. Joseph’s dreams are what lead to him being sold into slavery by his brothers, which then leads to his exile and his eventual imprisonment. Joseph’s imprisonment is a catalyst for the transformation of his character, and his “conduct [even] inspired trust and won him honor.”[16] Joseph’s conduct in prison is a what initiates his eventual elevation to position of viceroy and affects his capacity to help his family in the next parashah when they are struck by a famine. What I’d like to emphasize here is that slavery can also accentuate a person’s nakedness, and a lack of spiritual purpose. Joseph had dreams in the beginning of the parashah, and almost no one want to listen to him – he has a lack of purpose in his family. Joseph is then sold into slavery and is forced to dive head first into this transformation, and to take off his clothes. People like Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela have famously recounted how being imprisoned for long periods of time can strip you naked of who you thought you were and give you true, spiritual purpose. Joseph also gains purpose within the context of his imprisonment, and it is this purpose that – then – takes him out of slavery.

So, let us revisit how these four principle concepts – (1) beauty, (2) dreams, (3) clothing, and (4) slavery – all fit together in relation to ecology. This project, Torah for the Earth, is founded on the premise that our detachment from the natural environment is stripping us of our spiritual purpose, and that this limits a certain variety of freedom. Oftentimes, there are many aspects of modern life that seem disproportionately influenced by activities that are not important, and it can be easy to get swept away by the fake, superficialities of life. But, this is an abiding human dilemma that was problematic in Joseph’s time and still problematic now. The preeminent difference, though – now – is the preoccupation with beauty (i.e. the superficialities of life) in coaction with a capitalist and materialist system. The one caveat is that, to maintain our preoccupation with beauty, we have had to enslave the earth, which has made this infinitely more problematic. But, no matter how hard it may seem to change, no matter how bleak the condition of our physical and spiritual environments may seem, that should never discourage us from clothing ourselves with the proper varieties of thought, speech, and deed that are in harmony with the earth. Take Jacob, who – when he was told that Joseph was dead – had thought that he had somehow failed in his spiritual service to G-d. It is during these moments – when we think our spiritual purpose has died, when we are rendered naked, when we somehow find ourselves within a system that seems impossible to change (or escape) – that we find our true spiritual purpose, and solutions to the most dire of challenges. The Sages teach us that “especially in the throes of seemingly insuperable oppressions...[we must] never surrender to the inevitable.”[17] Despite the increasingly depressing news we read declaring the state of our planet, like Joseph, we need to trust our dreams and enact a new vision for the earth that brings into balance the rhythms of nature and varieties of work that bring joy into our lives.

Thank you all for listening. That's all for now and I'll catch you next week.

Topics Include: beauty and the superficialities of life, dreams in relation to exile, the physical and metaphorical significance of clothing, and the theme of slavery


Citron, Aryeh. “Dreams in Judaism: Parashat Mikeitz.” Accessed December 13, 2019

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Additional Readings

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.199 – In this sentence, where we are told of Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph, the name Israel is used (which refers to Jacob’s higher spiritual nature) to associate the spiritual heritage of Israel with the greatness of Joseph.

[2] After the eldest son, named Er, meets an untimely death, his wife Tamar is given in levirate marriage to the second son, Onan, whom also dies prematurely. Judah is reluctant to have Tamar marry his third, and youngest son, and this results in a situation whereby Tamar and Judah sleep together. From this union, Peretz and Zerach are born, which is significant because, from the line of Peretz, comes the lineage of the Messiah and the Davidic dynasty (Israelite Monarchy). The mitzvah of Yibbum, or levirate marriage, is a practice that occurs when a woman, whom is widowed without any children, marries her dead husband’s brother (usually the eldest). See Deuteronomy 25:5-6

[3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.199

[4] Miller, Torah in Ten: Vayeishev (3:53)

[5] Miller, Torah in Ten: Vayeishev (5:35)

[6] Miller, Torah in Ten: Vayeishev (7:38)

[7] Miller, Torah in Ten: Vayeishev (4:53)

[8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.199

[9] Citron, “Dreams in Judaism: Parashat Mikeitz”

[10] Regarding negative dreams, there is the ceremony of Hatavat Chalom (lit. “making a dream good”), you can fast, or speak with your Rabbi. Regarding positive dreams, they can be fulfilled within a timeframe of 22 years, which we learn from Joseph – whose dreams were fulfilled 22 years after he saw them. (Citron, “Dreams in Judaism: Parashat Mikeitz”)

[11] “Then there was an opportune day when he [Joseph] entered the house [the house of Potiphar] to do his work – no man of the household staff being there in the house – that she [Potiphar’s wife] caught hold of him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand, and he fled, and went outside.”

[12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.215

[13] Leiter, “Putting on Soul Garments”

[14] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.213

[15] As found in Citron, “Dreams in Judaism: Parashat Mikeitz.” This particular point is expounded upon by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (also known as the Alter Rebbe) in Torah Ohr 28c.

[16] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.217 regarding the commentary of Rabbi Munk

[17] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.198

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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