Parshat Vayeshev

Parshat Vayeshev

The story of Joseph begins in this parshah.

I’d like to begin by discussing Jewish modes of Torah interpretation.  These have traditionally been described under a mnemonic PARDES, which stands for Peshat, Remez, Derash, and Sod. Peshat is the literal meaning of the text, and Sod is the mystical meaning. In practice, different writers use Remez and Derash inconsistently. Remez refers to the allegorical or homilectic (life-lessons) interpretation of the text. Derash involves a more advanced form of inquiry ranging between comparative, philosophical, or legal interpretations. Sod are mystical interpretations, which can be distant from any literal understanding and may involve aligning the text with different kabbalistic frameworks.

Rashi is famously at the Peshat level, although as we’ve seen he draws heavily from the midrash and the comparative approach. When Rashi translates the text and shows how the words relate to common understandings of his everyday language, which is French, that is an example of Peshat. In contrast, sermons are typically at the Remez level, where the rabbi or speaker attempts to draw out the lessons or the relevancy of the text to current events or our life experiences. Derash is exemplified by the Midrash, where it is common for the rabbinic commentators to draw parallels between different Torah portions or other scriptural texts.  Maimonides will use a philosophical style of Derash — he attempts interpret using a logic and Aristotelian categories. When we studied Avivah Zornberg, she often used psychoanalytical theory as a framework — that too is an example of Derash. Sod, in contrast, will involve using intuitive and highly imaginative methods, sometimes aligning the text with mystical systems like the sefriot.  Last week had several good examples of Sod — for example the description of Rachel as “the beautiful woman with no eyes,” links the Torah text to a mystical story in the Zohar. 

As we seen, especially in the Midrash, the commentators can combine all of these forms of interpretation in very short stretches of text. Not of all of the kabbalistic or hasidic texts in Rabbi Tablck’s book are at the Sod level either.

We’ll take one of Rabbi Tablick’s examples and walk through how different commentators interpret the text using this traditional template.

Bereishit 37:2 (JPS and Tabick translation)

This, then, is the line of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years old .. and he was a young man.

What are the interpretative problems in this snippet of text?

Peshat – Literal

Rashi asks why the verse begins with “this … is the line of Jacob,” and then jumps to describing Joseph as seventeen years old. He provides a literal explanation:

And these are an account of the generations of Jacob … The first cause is found in the narrative, “Joseph being seventeen years old, etc. etc.” it was through this incident that it came about that they went down to Egypt. This is the real [literal] explanation of the text and in it each statement finds its proper setting.

Rashi goes on to say that the Midrash has a different interpretation, one that views all of the Jacob’s progeny as centered on the character of Joseph, who reflects the unsolved problems of Jacob. That interpretation would be an example of Derash or Sod. 

Ibn Ezra interprets “and he was a young man,” as his brothers treating him as a child or lackey and that’s why he told on them to his father.

Rabbi Tabick provides an interpretation by a the Hasidic rebbe, Aharon of Karlin. It provides a great example of Remez, a homilectic and allegorical interpretation, although other modes are present too:

Rabbi Aharon II of Karlin, 19th century

This was because every day he was like a young man [as in the verse] “I was a young man, though now I am old [Psalm 37:25]. You must renew yourself at every moment, as Scripture says: “May your youth be renewed like an eagle’s” [Psalm 103:5]. Therefore, Israel may be compared to the moon, as it is renewed at every moment. And so we say, “it is a crown of beauty in honor of those who were carried by God from the womb.” [referring to the new moon] And what is the meaning of this renewal? that its light is diminished in order that it may be renewed more strongly.

Human service [of God] should be like this. After the day has passed, you think: What was it about and what service have I accomplished? You start your service on the next day anew and begin with new deeds and a renewed struggle against the inclination toward evil, as if you had done nothing before.

During this discourse [by Rabbi Aharon], he told a story of our teacher Sa’adiah Gaon, who was staying with a certain householder, and how each day he would repent of the day that that was before him. [He practice Chesbon ha’Nefesh, accounting of the soul, reviewing the day’s events.]

The Spanish rabbi, Issac ben Arama, provides an example of Remez (allegorical) and Derash, in a philosophical style of interpretation.

Akeidat Yitzchak 28:1:5

Joseph is selected here as the stereotype of a Jew . Jacob’s typical issue is described as “these are the generations of Jacob, Joseph …” (Bereishit 37:2). Many other verses throughout the Bible express the same theme. … By its acceptance of God’s law, Israel, so to speak, brought “evil” reports about other nations who had failed to accept the Torah when it was offered him.

Rabbi Arama uses Joseph’s life as an allegory about the Jewish people. He then goes on to create a concept of what it means to be Jewish and applies that to Jewish history. 

 The Zohar provides an interpretation that is clearly in the Sod mode:

Zohar 1:180a:6 (Sefaria)

“These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph” (Bereishit 37:2). After Joseph settled in Jacob [? translation error], and the sun mated with the moon he began to produce generations. And who is he that brings forth offspring? The scripture continues saying, “Joseph.” For the river that flows and comes out (of Eden is Yesod, which is Joseph). It is he who is the progenitor of the offspring because his waters never cease to flow.

Zohar has some similarities to other the texts, in the sense that it points to Joseph as being the continuation of the central story in Jacob’s line. But it is also trying to solve a different problem too — what is that? And it is making bigger claims — what are those claims?