Vayeshev is a portion of dreams. As it opens, we meet Joseph, and learn that his father loved him "better than his other sons," and this favoritism engenders deep jealousy. Like his father, Jacob, Joseph is a dreamer, and he is cursed and blessed with the ability to interpret dreams.
After he shares his dreams, his angry brothers throw him into a pit from which they sell him into Egyptian slavery. At the conclusion of the portion, Joseph interprets the dreams of two men with whom he shares an Egyptian cell. In between these bookends are two different stories. one that might be interpreted as a dream fulfilled and one deferred.
The story of Joseph's brother Judah interrupts the Joseph narrative. When Judah's first born son, Er, dies, Judah sends his second son, Onan, to the bed of Er's widow, Tamar, saying, "Unite with her and raise up offspring for your brother!" Onan refuses, and dies. Judah tells Tamar to wait till his third son is old enough to carry on the line. But Judah worries, "lest he too die like his brothers."
The dreams of Jacob, Joseph, Pharoah, the chief cupbearer and baker are recorded; and later, we read the dreams and interpretations of Daniel. No women's dreams are recorded. However, if we follow the text, we see, perhaps, that Tamar had dreams. When it becomes clear that her husband's youngest brother is not going to become her husband, Tamar seduces her father-in-law, Judah. Three months later, Judah confronts Tamar about her pregnancy; she presents him with his own seal, cord and staff.
He concedes: "She is more right than I." In a world where women's dreams were constrained by rigid gender roles and assumptions, Tamar's courage and clarity are powerful reflections of her strength. If her dream is to bear children to carry on the name of her deceased husband, that dream is realized. The chapter ends with Tamar giving birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.
Resisting Her Charms
The next chapter presents another determined woman. Joseph becomes the manager of the home of Potiphar the Egyptian, and Potiphar's wife "set her sights" on him. Joseph resists the woman's charms. Angry at being spurned, she claims that Joseph attempted to assault her, and he is cast into prison.
What were the dreams of the mistress of Potiphar's house? Like Tamar, her world is narrow. Like too many women, her sole opportunity for greater freedom is a connection with a man.
We might imagine that the independence that even Joseph, a male slave enjoys, is greater than a home-bound woman's. So she pursues him. But what she desires is freedom and perhaps appropriate companionship. Her dreams are deferred.
The dreams with which this portion ends reflect the professions of the dreamers: the cupbearer dreams of vines and grapes, and the baker dreams of baskets of bread.
If Tamar and Madam Potiphar were granted dreams, would they dream of self-determination and choice? Or would they dream of beautiful, multicolored birds trapped in gilded cages?
Perhaps Vayeshev can remind us of the importance of encouraging dreams for boys and girls, men and women. In the words of Martin Luther King, dreams deferred are dreams denied.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]