Parashat Vayeshev

(And he dwelt): Genesis (Bereshit) 37:1- 40:23

Why we are Yehudim

In this portion history is moving on, the spotlight now falls increasingly on Ya’akov’s sons, the same ones who had brought disgrace on the family in Shechem. However others are now brought to the fore too: Y’hudah and Yosef.

The G-d of Israel, the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, is not just the G-d of the Jewish people, He is not just our G-d in a parochial, selfish kind of way. He is the ruler and director of nations and empires. All history is ultimately His story. As Rav Shaul would later put it ‘Is G-d not also the G-d of the nations?’ Every human being carries with him/her the image of G-d, and each human being can call out to Him and know the living G-d of Israel for themselves. He rules over the affairs of men and nations to bring about His sovereign will, and we see it in the lives of these two sons and in Israel.

It is often said that Yosef could not have risen so high in Egypt, yet a closer look shows that he arrived at a time (probably between 1700 and 1550 BCE) when the Hyksos were the ruling dynasty there. It is important because they were of Semitic descent having taken over during the weak Middle Kingdom years in Egypt. It would certainly help to explain why Potiphar is described as ‘The Egyptian’ in Gen 39:5, it was unusual to have someone ‘local’ or native in such a high position. It would also explain somewhat the rise to such a position for Yosef, as being one whom they, the Hyksos, recognised. Yet the final explanation for his rise to fame and prominence is also given in the Torah in Gen 39:2: G-d was with him, despite being exiled out the Land and rejected by the other brothers. For such a time as this, Egypt had been prepared to receive him, to shelter him and hold him securely until the time when the unfolding will of G-d brought him out again to prominence. This pattern of Egypt’s place in the will of G-d globally was of course once more reflected in the first century CE with Mashiach Yeshua’s own family fleeing to Egypt to survive until later to be revealed to prominence.

But it wasn’t just in Yosef’s life that we see the hand of G-d work. Y’hudah is an interesting example of the whole spectrum of the acts and works of HaShem, the big picture if you like.

Chapter 38 in Bereshit seems to be an interruption in the flow of narration, but this is not so. In contrast to Yosef, Y’hudah at this point is not very savoury at all. He loses his first 2 sons, one due to wickedness and the other due to not fulfilling the duty of raising up heirs, Y’hudah then marries a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua, fails in his pledge to Tamar and then goes into her, assuming she was a harlot.  If we remember last week’s portion, we see that Y’hudah carries on with the pattern of learnt behaviour he had absorbed from the earlier assimilation. Later he is shamed as his staff and signet ring return with the same words Y’hudah had used when showing Yosef’s tunic to his father: ‘Identify if you please’.

The Stone Edition of the Chumash records the words of Rav Yochanan that Y’hudah’s grief was double the pain he had caused his father, here 2 sons were lost, where Ya’akov had lost 1. Yet in all this, the loss of his sons and the shame and humiliation brought about not just from is sleeping with a supposed harlot but in reality his failure to give Tamar to his 3rdson, G-d was disciplining Y’hudah and showing him that his choices had consequences in the life of calling and promise, of faith.

And then in all this apparent chaos of raw humanity, a remarkable thing happens. Through this union the Messianic line leading to David and then to Mashiach Yeshua is taken a step forward: through Perez Yeshua would come. We’re faced again with another difficult birth in the line of promise, Perez coming out breach too.

Y’hudah made all kind of mistakes and was disciplined by G-d, but like all the patriarchs before him, once G-d had dealt with him he would go on to become great. Ya’akov prophesied that through Y’hudah the sceptre of Kingship would rule. He finally was humble enough to want to lay down his own life for the sake of his brother, as we read in Gen 44:30-34. This act of contrition more than anything else was his final hallmark of a faith filled and genuinely righteous life. Rav Shaul, Moshe and of course Mashiach Yeshua all had that same hallmark: let me die and my people live. Only Yeshua ever had to fully commit, His life being taken as a ransom and atonement, but it’s that heart of self sacrifice that makes you available to G-d to fulfil His calling on your life.

That is why we hear that Mashiach Yeshua was the Lion of Y’hudah, why Y’hudah went out first in the Wilderness some 400 years later and we all now bear his name: Yehudim. Yosef showed G-d’s ability to forgive, but Y’hudah was finally willing to die, even after all his wayward ways. What this reminds us of is the central truth found in the Torah, that people are chosen and called by G-d not on the basis of their ability to obey, on the level of perfection or on whether they’ve arrived spiritually, but on His sovereign choice and will. It is more of a case of, ‘will G-d achieve His purposes through you, will He have you ready for His work at the right time’ than ‘I’m ready now Lord!’ Y’hudah was praised and used of G-d because of his yielded-ness and humble submission finally to the will of G-d. Despite what other non-Messianic forms of Judaism have taught about the merits of the Fathers, the righteousness of their works, it was not on the basis of any merit achieved that G-d used and chose these people, but solely on whether G-d could and would use them, would they be teachable and malleable? It’s not what they were, but what they would become once G-d took hold of them that mattered. Given the track record of Y’hudah, no other conclusion is possible.

What counts is the call and purpose of G-d, manifested in our lives. Read Jer 9:23-24 and the letter to the Jewish community in Ephesus (Eph 2:8-9). Our boasting is in Him and what He has done in us for His own glory. And what is that which He has done?

Let me answer that and leave you with the bigger picture. Both Yosef and Y’hudah had lives rocked by events and situations sometimes out of their own control and other events they brought upon themselves, but neither of them had it easy. We have seen though that the line of promise and faith dominates these early years and generations of our people and we are meant to learn from them. The question for us then is this: do we let events and circumstances dominate our lives to the point where we think everything is pointless, or do we rather see in them the larger plan and picture of G-d who has called us? What drives you, circumstances or faith? Your own life, or your submitted to G-d life? His will or yours?

What is His will? None other than redemption, salvation, freedom, deliverance, release, renewal and restoration. All these things are the bigger plan of G-d for us as His people, and not just for us but for the world, the nations too. These things are the motif and theme behind everything in His will, His choice and His election of us. Every act in our lives points to His ability to perform all of the above, just look at Ya’akov and Y’hudah! Ultimately through Yeshua our Mashiach we see the very goal of these things come to fruition.

So, do you see yourself tossed about on the waves of life, or do you see your life being redeemed day by day, changing more to the purposes of G-d in deliverance and freedom to serve? Ultimately you choose. It’s time for Y’hudim everywhere to stand on our calling.