Parashat Vayeshev: The Chapter That We Evade
Shira D. Epstein, Ed.D, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Jewish Theological Seminary. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was cast at the age of thirteen in two different productions of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” This is not surprising. If you study, work in, or support Jewish camps, youth groups, day schools, or retirement homes, chances are that at some point in your lifetime you will play a part or be forced to hold a camcorder for two hours during this telling of one of the most famed Genesis narratives. Quite possibly, you or your loved one will have a coveted solo. Most definitely, you will not be able to get the lyrics out of your head, which may either delight you or annoy you (or both.)
The result of my participation in these two productions (as I performed alongside several notable future Wexner alumni: Amy Amiel, Rabbi Mira Wasserman, and Rafi Rone) was that by the end of eighth grade, I could joyfully recount the key storylines of Parashat Vayashev: Joseph’s brothers’ jealousy and the extreme manifestations of sibling rivalry; Potifar’s wife’s escapades as captured in her single line of dialogue – “come and lie with me, love;” Joseph’s imprisonment and God’s watchful eye; and finally, Joseph’s subsequent interpretation of a dream in which he described birds picking off an impaled baker’s flesh.
What I did not know in eighth grade was that these salacious storylines book-end the tale of Judah and Tamar. However, my ignorance regarding this accounting of attempts to continue a family line through deception and prostitution cannot be attributed to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s omission, alone. I was well into my young adult years before I first encountered this biblical narrative; in my fourteen years of day school and yeshiva education, not one educator introduced me to Genesis, Chapter 38.
Over the past few years, I have been thinking and writing a great deal about the subject areas that we tend to avoid in Jewish education. Texts and curricula related to sexual behavior and decision-making are often deemed inappropriate or off-limits. While I recognize the desire for schools to protect children from material that might be challenging to teach, I am left wondering, how do we decide what “makes the cut” and becomes sanctioned, and what is taboo? Why are we comfortable teaching the graphic telling of deliberations over whether to kill a brother and the breaking of a father’s heart by pretending that very brother was torn to shreds by an animal, and meanwhile, uncomfortable teaching about a man’s refusal to consummate a relationship with his dead brother’s wife? Are the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife acceptable to teach because they serve to support the storyline of our protagonist, while Tamar’s sexual advance toward her father-in-law is unsuitable material because it paints Judah as the type of man who would choose to sleep with a prostitute?
We are constantly making choices about what to include in our teaching – be they topics for sermons, synagogue school curricula, or adult learning classes. As we make these choices, it is important to self-audit: Do we avoid particular subject areas because they are inappropriate for our learners, or rather because they make us uncomfortable? What are the texts that we choose to embrace, as educators, rabbis, and leaders? Are particular texts off-limits because we have never fully sat with them, ourselves?
The stories of Judah and Tamar, Dinah and Shechem, Tamar and Amnon, Vashti and Ahashverosh – these are just a few of the stories that we tend to avoid. As we continue our journey through Bereishit, the weekly reading of haftarot, and the continuous cycle of chaggim (holidays), we can seize the opportunity to reflect upon what we most readily teach, and how we might be trailblazers in teaching the texts that are often evaded, and excluded from study.