Vayeshev 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23)


Just as Yaakov was the favored son of his mother, Yaakov’s son Yosef is his own favored son. Yosef’s brothers conspire to throw him in a pit, from which he was sold into slavery. He ends up in Egypt, as the servant of a man called Potiphar. Meanwhile, his brother Yehudah is having problems of his own; his sons die childless, and he refuses to give his daughter-in-law Tamar to his youngest son so she may have children. She entices Yehudah to sleep with her, and is vindicated as righteous. Potiphar’s wife desires Yosef, and when he refuses, he is thrown into prison, where he is protected by God.


“They took him and they cast him into a pit- the pit was empty, no water was in it. ” (Genesis 37:24)


Yosef’s brothers are resentful of his apparently arrogant behavior; they first intend to kill him, but one of the eldest, Ruven, pleads with the others that they must not kill Yosef. Ruven intends to rescue him later, but before he can return, Yosef is sold to a passing caravan. (For more on the relationship between Yosef and his brothers, see last year’s commentary on Vayeshev in our parsha archives.)


If you’ve been following Kolel’s weekly parsha commentaries, you know by now that rabbinic commentaries love to find weird syntax or extra words in the Torah- anything unusual is an opening for imaginative interpretation. A classic example is this week’s verse- if the pit was empty, why does the verse have to say that there was no water in it? Obviously, if something is “empty,” it doesn’t have water or anything else in it!

Rashbam [a descendant of Rashi] interprets “no water was in it” as a subtle hint that Yosef’s brothers didn’t really intend to kill him, because throwing him into a pit of water would have surely caused him to drown. Rashi, following early midrashim, explains “no water was in it” as “water wasn’t in it, but snakes and scorpions were in it.” In other words, telling us that water, specifically, was not in the pit gives Rashi a midrashic opening to say that snakes and scorpions were in the pit. By mentioning water, the commentators assume that the verse is hinting that the pit wasn’t really totally empty.

Now, this might seem like a stretch, because you could just assume that most pits were used as wells or cisterns, and the verse is merely telling us that this particular space was dry at the time. So what would Rashi’s motivation be in telling us about snakes and scorpions? Perhaps this midrash emphasizes the miraculous quality of Yosef’s journey. We learn a bit later on, when Yosef is thrown into prison in Egypt, that “God was with him” even in the dungeon, so by saying that Yosef survived being in a pit full of snakes and scorpions, you could infer that “God was with him” in this pit too. (Cf. Genesis 39:21)

R. Moshe Alshich, who lived in Israel in the 16th century, connects the “snakes and scorpions” to Yosef’s earlier tattling on his brothers. In 37:3, Yosef is described as bringing “bad reports” to his father about his brothers’ behavior in the fields while tending the flocks. Thus, according to Alshich, the brothers’ revenge was kind of a test; by throwing Yosef into a pit with snakes in it, they would find out if he was guilty of speaking lies and slander about them. In other words, if the snakes bit him, he was guilty, and if not, he was innocent. Alshich makes the symbolic connection of snakes and slander because of the snake in the Garden of Eden, who is understood to have spoken deceitfully.

At this point one could say we’re far away from the plain meaning of the text, but actually, I think we’re very close to the spiritual intent of the story. Imagining Yosef as sitting in a dark pit surrounded by snakes- symbolic of the destructive power of speech- is a way of describing his acute and total estrangement from his brothers. He’s “down in the pits,” as it were, and forced to confront his own responsibility for his brother’s ill feelings. He can’t escape the “snakes,” or the wrongful things that he said, which surround him at this terrible, lonely moment.

The good news is that estrangement doesn’t have to last forever. Yosef’s journey is a long one, taking many chapters to play out, but it begins at the moment he confronts his own deeds, which to me is the meaning of our midrash. You might have a time in your life which is “the pits,” but it can also be a new beginning.

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