Parshat Vayeshev

Parchment Cut and Watercolor,, 2010

Artist: Lisa Rauchwerger,  USA

The story of Joseph is filled with extremes: famine and plenty, dreams and reality, honesty and deception, blessing and curse, ruler and slave, favoritism and hatred, to name but a few. In the first part of the story alone, one counts three times when Joseph is at the pinnacle of favor, and three times when he is in the depths, both literally and figuratively. This visual interpretation attempts to symbolically illustrate these extremes. The shepherd’s staff on the far right and the Pharaoh’s crook and whip in the center and left side form three triangles, the center one inverted, creating a graph of the heights and depths of this parasha. The center triangle depicts the story of Judah and Tamar which the parasha places in the middle of Joseph’s story.

Inside the shepherd’s crook, shine the sun, moon and 11 stars of Joseph’s dream, representing Jacob, Rachel and Joseph’s 11 brothers bowing before him. In the field, 11 sheaves of wheat bow before one tall sheaf, representing Joseph. The wheat stalk/Joseph simultaneously stands before his brothers, facing the pointing figure. All the while, deep in the pit, the stalk stands attached to the Hebrew staff that is his shepherd’s beginning. A mysterious figure appears and asks Joseph what he seeks. He points the way towards Joseph’s brothers and sets in motion the entire premise of the Exodus story. The figure stands in a field, the rows of which are composed of the folds of Joseph’s coat, one sleeve falling into the pit, one sleeve pointing towards Egypt.

The center triangle forms a tent, opening to reveal secrets. This tent represents a number of crucial moments of secrecy and seduction, including the story of Judah and Tamar, represented by two pomegranates. The pomegranate with seeds represents Tamar and the twins she bears her father-in- law, Judah. Judah’s staff forms the right side of the tent, and the opening reveals his signet (ring) and cord which he gives Tamar as a gesture of trust (not recognizing who she is). Later, she brings them to him to prove he is the father of the twins. The tent also recalls the deception of Leah and Rachel with Jacob, the deception of the brothers bringing Joseph’s bloody coat back to their aging father, and the secret attempts of Potiphar’s wife to seduce Joseph in Egypt. In each instance, more is hidden than revealed.

Joseph’s life and destiny in Egypt are tied to Pharaoh, and he stands as the sheaf of wheat, shackled in prison, attached to the staff of Pharaoh. Joseph rises above the other prisoners, interpreting the dreams of the butler and baker, represented by Pharaoh’s cup and a sack of flour. Joseph’s sheaf curves toward Pharaoh’s staff and separates the lucky butler, who lives, from the unlucky baker, who is hanged. The sun represents Pharaoh, who eventually shines his favor upon Joseph, yet this parasha ends with Joseph still forgotten. Joseph transforms, in a few verses, from the favored son to the despised brother in the pit, to the head of Potiphar’s house, to a prisoner, and then to the head of all the prisoners. Yet he is ultimately forgotten until the next parasha begins.

I’ve placed the first line of Vayeshev, (Genesis 37:1) at the top right: “And Jacob dwelt in the land in which his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan.” On the left, two lines sum up the second half of the story, (Gen. 39:1, 2): “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt…And God was with Joseph, and he was a successful man…”

About Lisa

Lisa Rauchwerger is a Northern California -based artist, author, illustrator and chef, specializing in Judaic papercut midrash, paper sculpture, ketubot, graphics, calligraphy, and edible fondant sculpture. She is the author and illustrator of the best-selling family cookbook, Chocolate Chip Challah and other Twists on the Jewish Holiday Table.

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