Parashat Vayeishev introduces the Joseph saga. When it begins, Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph, is a 17-year-old shepherd working in the fields alongside his older brothers. The text’s description of him as a “youth,” na-ar, is apt, both biologically and emotionally. As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes: “Joseph behaves with the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others” (Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire [Philadelphia: JPS,1995], p. 253). He consciously tells Jacob malicious tales about the brothers and by wearing the beautiful, multicolored coat (or ornamental tunic) that Jacob has given him, flaunts the fact that he is the favorite son. It is thus not surprising that when Joseph’s brothers see that their father loves him more than they, they come to hate Joseph (Genesis 37:4).
Many years ago, I taught an adult education class on biblical heroes. Among those we studied was Joseph. We focused on Parashat Mikeitz and discussed Joseph’s contentious relationship with his older brothers and their later reconciliation.
As Parashat Vayigash begins, Joseph still has not revealed his identity to his brothers. With Joseph having framed his younger brother Benjamin for stealing his divining goblet, and consequently declaring that as punishment, Benjamin will be enslaved in Egypt, his brother, Judah, now beseeches Joseph to enslave him instead (Genesis 44:33). His plea comes after Judah reminds Joseph that he has an elderly father and describes in detail, why Benjamin did not initially go down to Egypt with the brothers and why, should he not return to Canaan, their father literally would die (Genesis 44:31).
As the Torah continues the Israelites’ dramatic, people-building saga, Parashat T’rumah approaches the story from a new angle. Instead of developing the literary adventures of a no-longer-nascent people or focusing on the striking events at Mt. Sinai, this week’s Torah portion is about the details. And these details are not the specifics of community-building or daily life. Rather, they concern, in painstaking minutiae, the construction of the Tabernacle. This is a parashah about holiness, and in the case of Parashat T’rumah, the holiness is in the details.
We find the initial reference to the ner tamid in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat T’tzaveh. The parashah opens with the instructions for creating and maintaining the ner tamid. “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of the Pact], [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages” (Exodus 27:20-21).
In Parashat Ki Tisa, the Israelites wait for Moses to return from the mountaintop. Feeling insecure with a lack of leadership, they tell Aaron to create a Golden Calf.
Parashat Vayak’heil/P’kudei is a double Torah portion that concludes the Book of Exodus. The paired Torah portions describe the building of the Tabernacle and the anointing of the priests. The parashiyot are primarily contain many verses of detailed plans and descriptions of rituals, some of which are hard to visualize sitting in such a different world today.
The dramas of political power and legal authority are mesmerizing. From the creation of the first civil society to today, there is no shortage of debate about how an ideal society should function. Parashat Shof'tim outlines a mulit-tiered system for the Israelites' political system that includes judges, kings, priests, and prophets.