Parashat Vayeishev - Descent for the Sake of Ascent

Timnah, in southern Israel

While not a conscious or premeditated aspect of the human experience, recognizing life as a series of ascents and descents is certainly a useful lens through which to gauge our personal character and spiritual development. Most days, we simply do our best to put one foot in front of the other. We may be cognizant of whether or not we are working on particular goals or projects which we have created for ourselves, but a majority of our activities simply involve moving through the days and taking care of what needs to be taken care of (or not).

Certainly there are moments in our lives when we feel on top of the world, and others, of course, where we wonder how we can bear the weight of the world. However, for most people most of the time, we just do our best to meet our needs. But other than randomness, hormones, astrology (for those who go that way), or any number of subtle influences, what makes us able to tackle the challenges and uncertainties in front of us? Simply put, our ability to implement our natural character.

Does that mean when we feel overwhelmed we are unable to implement our natural character? Of course not. But it does mean that those moments of overwhelm, the times when we feel ourselves buckling under the weight of the world, become moments of opportunity with which to learn and grow. When we are able to confront the moments of challenge, as opposed to hide from them, then we have the opportunity to exercise our natural character so that those muscles are better attuned to be flexed in the future.

I am under the opinion that there aren't very many figures in Torah who exhibit actual character development; meaning, most of the characters in the stories that make up Torah act the same throughout their narratives. The most notable exception to this is Yaakov who, arguably, is the main character of the book of Genesis and exhibits dramatic change throughout the course of his story. Interestingly, Parashat Vayeishev is not really about Yaakov at all - his role is minor, as opposed to his sons. And within Parashat Vayeishev, there is the story of Yehudah and his daughter-in-law turned spouse, Tamar, which could be removed in its entirety and the rest of the narrative of Genesis would be unchanged. It is a vignette unto itself, and one largely devoted to exploring and setting up the incredible growth and development exhibited by Yehudah.

The story of Yehudah begins with the verse (Gen. 38:1):

וַֽיְהִי֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֥רֶד יְהוּדָ֖ה מֵאֵ֣ת אֶחָ֑יו וַיֵּ֛ט עַד־אִ֥ישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִ֖י וּשְׁמ֥וֹ חִירָֽה׃
Around that time Yehudah descended from his brothers; he pitched-a-tent near an Adullamite man whose name was Hirah.

On the surface, this is just opening the story and tells us that Yehudah left his brothers. The last we knew of them, they were near Dotan which is in the northern part of the country and so it seems as though the text is telling us Yehudah traveled south. However, one traditional interpretation of this verse is that Yehudah's descent is not (just) geographic, but is also a statement of his character. What transpires is a bitter-sweet tale of Yehudah mistaking his daughter-in-law, Tamar, for a prostitute and hiring her for her services. There is nothing immoral in Yehudah being intimate with a prostitute. Rather, his immorality in the story is expressed through his lying to his daughter-in-law, having promised to marry her off after her husbands, his sons, die.

The climax of the story comes when Tamar takes matters into her own hands, dresses in the costume of a prostitute, and seeks to head off Yehudah on his way to Timnah to participate in the sheering of his flock. Now, we do not know the precise geographic location of Yehudah when he leaves for Timnah. What we do know is that Timnah is far in the south of the land of Israel in the Negev desert, and we know that the place from which Yehudah "descended" was in the north. When the Torah tells us that Yehudah went to Timnah, it uses this language:

וַיִּרְבּוּ֙ הַיָּמִ֔ים וַתָּ֖מׇת בַּת־שׁ֣וּעַ אֵֽשֶׁת־יְהוּדָ֑ה וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיַּ֜עַל עַל־גֹּֽזְזֵ֤י צֹאנוֹ֙ ה֗וּא וְחִירָ֛ה רֵעֵ֥הוּ הָעֲדֻלָּמִ֖י תִּמְנָֽתָה׃
The days increased and the daughter of Shua, the wife of Yehudah, died; Yehudah was comforted and he ascended for the shearing of his flock - he and Hirah, his companion the Adullamite, toward Timnah.

It is hard to imagine that Yehudah would be stationed south of Timnah, considering how far south that location is. And while it is a mountainous terrain and may be referring to his need to gain elevation on his trip, we can also read it in light of the traditional interpretation mentioned above, that this is not a question of geography, but of his own character.

As the story unfolds, Tamar tricks Yehudah into impregnating her, and when Yehudah seeks to pay the prostitute he met for her services, she is nowhere to be found. He does all he can to make good on his pledge, but to no avail. Finally, when the ruse is revealed he not only acknowledges that he was, in fact, the one who impregnated Tamar, he also exclaims her own innocence and righteousness; most certainly a positive development from his role in participating in the physical and emotional violence done to his brother Yosef earlier in the Torah portion. And with this development, we see that Yehudah's moral descent is not meaningless, but rather is fundamental to understanding his own development later in the Torah. Just as Yehudah was instrumental in harming his brother Yosef, he will also become instrumental in healing the rift between Yosef and his brothers by acknowledging the wrong he committed years prior. That positive character development is made possible by his own acknowledgment of wrong in this week's Torah portion.

So while the Torah may be referencing geography in Yehudah descending and ascending, the language also strikes a familiar tone with a fundamental concept in Hasidic Judaism - Descent for the Sake of Ascent. The basic premise of this notion of spiritual development is that there are times in our life that in order to elevate ourselves to meet the challenge before us, we first must accept that there will be times when we experience struggle that gets the best of us. It is in those very moments of discomfort that we learn lessons necessary to grow and evolve. Evolutionary biologists have long noted that no species evolves in a place of comfort. Rather, it is the moments of discomfort which help us learn the skills necessary to help ourselves. In pursuit of comfort, we often seek to avoid struggle or challenge, but it is precisely the moments of discomfort which will help us find new strength in confronting future challenges.

This is not to say we should seek out discomfort or challenge, but we should not shy away from it when we are in the midst of it. It is important to cultivate the courage and perseverance necessary to embrace the discomfort, and to accept the challenge, so that we may find the strength to overcome those moments. In the mythic narrative in this week's Torah portion, Tamar gives birth to twins. During the birth, an arm emerges but then retreats. The other baby is then born in full, and the one who had first put forth his hand is born afterwards. That child is named Peretz - Breakthrough. It is from the line of Peretz that King David will eventually be born, and therefore the Messiah. The implicit lesson being that it is the challenges which we overcome which will ultimately bring us to new heights of redemption.

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