Parshat Vayeshev: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: A Sex-Positive Take on Genesis

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Richard McBee:

For more about Rabbanit Aliza Sperling:

Richard McBee, "The Song of Eve"

Piece Description: “The Song of Eve” explores the role of women as drivers of the biblical narrative through their sexuality and acute sensitivity of their creative destinies. The painting focuses on two foundational narratives found in this week’s portion: Mrs. Potiphar’s lust for Joseph leading to the Jewish people’s salvation in Egypt, Exodus and receiving the Torah; and Tamar whose determination to have a child in Judah’s family would eventually lead to King David and the Mashiach.

Discussion Questions:
1. Identify all the different women in this piece. Does Eve’s role in the Garden of Eden provide a framework for these other women in their own respective stories?

2. There is a rabbinic debate regarding which fruit the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil bore. In “The Song of Eve” one of these opinions is depicted with Eve offering Adam a fig. What is the significance of this artistic decision and how does this affect the rest of this piece?

3. Richard McBee depicts the Midrash that states that Ms. Potiphar had a vision of Joseph’s progeny among her own descendants. In what way does this or doesn’t this recontextualize her role in the narrative for you?

4. The foresight of these women describes a dynamic of transgression at the expense of stasis. What are other examples in your life or in our broader world where this tension plays itself out?

The Image of His Mother, Rabbanit Aliza Sperling

What makes Yosef change his mind at the very moment that he is about to succumb to Potiphar’s wife’s advances? A famous midrash, recounted in BT Sotah 36b, explains that Yosef looked up and saw the image of his father, Yaakov:At that moment his father’s image came and appeared to him through the window and said:

‘Yosef, thy brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and thine amongst theirs; is it thy wish to have thy name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?’

In this telling, Yaakov’s image symbolizes Yosef’s inner battle: does he want to hold onto the slim prospect that he might one day be reinstated among the Children of Israel, or is he willing to become an Egyptian and turn his back on his father and brothers? Yosef makes the difficult decision to remove himself from temptation, and remain loyal to his father and their way of life, and flees the arms of Zuleikha, Potiphar’s wife.

However, there is another telling of this midrash. One in which Yosef sees an image of a different close relative who convinces him to resist temptation. Yalkut Shimoni 146:3 presents the opinions of Rav Hiyya and Rav Huna in the name of Rav about what Yosef saw that stopped him from sinning with Potiphar’s wife. Rav Hiyya, like BT Sotah, states that Yosef saw the image of his father. However, Rav Huna in the name of Rav teaches: “He saw his mother’s image and his blood ran cold.”

While I was well-acquainted with the midrash that Yosef saw the image of his father, I had never before heard the midrash that Yosef saw his mother’s image. I wondered: what would it mean for Yosef to see the image of Rachel? What would her image symbolize for him, and how would the thoughts and emotions she evoked lead to a different experience than seeing Yaakov’s image? The following is my imagining of the thoughts that ran through Yosef’s head when he saw his mother’s image:

Mother! I can’t believe it’s really you. Ever since you died, I have been praying to see you again (Bereishit Rabbah 84:11) and now here you are . . . at this most inopportune time. I can’t believe it. I have waited so long to be with you.

Mother, the years since you died have been so hard for me. Why did you leave me so early? I blame you for dying — if not for your crazy obsession with having more children, you would have been content with me and never would have died giving birth to Binyamin. When I was born, you should have held me and laughed as Sarah laughed when she gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:6). But when I was born, you didn’t laugh and praise G-d. As soon as you saw me, you wanted another. I wasn’t enough for you. You called me Yosef, saying Yosef Hashem li ben Acher, may G-d add (yosef) another son for me (Genesis 30:24). Anyone who hears my name knows immediately that I was not enough for you.

Mother, in contrast to you – who saw me and wanted another — this woman here sees me and wants me. Only me. And even though I know it is wrong to betray my benefactor Potiphar, and I have resisted her for so long, she is the first person in my life who wants me for who I am. Not you – who saw me and wanted another. Not my father Yaakov, who looks at me and sees your face. Not my brothers – who looked at me, and saw their mothers’ shame in being unloved. Zuleikha wants me.

I was so angry at you and father for so long. Everyone knew that you were obsessed with having children. You said to Father before I was born, “Give me children, and if not, I will die! (Genesis 30:1)” Didn’t you know that Lavan would suspect you when you stole his terafim, fertility gods (Genesis 31:19)? Didn’t you know he would come after you? And yet your own husband was so sure that no one in his household had taken the gods that he condemned whoever took them to death (Genesis 31:32). Didn’t Father know you? How could he have said such a thing? Didn’t he know that you lived and breathed to have another child? Was Father’s vow the reason you died?

Look at what has happened to me because of your actions! My brothers threw me in a pit and sold me to slavery. I am all alone, cast aside by my family. If only you would have stayed alive, to fight for me like Sarah fought for Yitzchak when she sent Yishmael away, and like Rivka fought to make sure that Yaakov would receive the blessing. No one was there to fight for me.

Mother, I am so angry at you. And yet during this time in Egypt I have begun to understand you a little more. I can understand that you wanted to turn your back on your past — to forget about your father Lavan, who treated you like a piece of property, who didn’t allow you to marry my father Yaakov and gave him Leah instead. I understand that you felt alone and helpless, and you wanted to have children – many children! – so you could create a new future, where your children would experience a world where you showered them with love, where you could escape your father and join the covenant of Avraham. I have felt so alone too — I want to forget my father, and my brothers, the feeling of their hands lifting my coat off of me, throwing me into the pit. I want to forget how I felt when Bilhah — as kind as she was — hugged Dan and Naftali a little longer than she hugged me. But seeing you here now, Mother, makes me realize that as hard as I try I will never really forget. And if forgetting will not relieve me of my pain, then I will need to do the hard work of coming to terms with it.

Mother, seeing your face now makes me realize that we have more in common than I wanted to believe. Like you, I stubbornly cling to my dreams long past the time when anyone else would have given up. You dreamed of children, and you didn’t give up until your last breath. I have always dreamed of being part of the covenant promised to grandfather Avraham; to tell you the truth, I dream of leading my siblings in this sacred covenant. And like you, I am determined not to give up! So, Mother, I will not remain here with Zuleikha. I will hold out for a different future, even though in the short term I know that Zuleikha may exact terrible revenge on me, and even though I know that it would take a miracle to somehow be reunited with my brothers and once again be included in the Children of Israel. But in the end Mother, I am your child. Inspired by your example, I will hold on to my dreams, come what may.