Parashat Vayeshev / פרשת וישב
Torah Portion: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

A New York Times article profiling 40-year old media mogul Ryan Seacrest depicts an ordinary, nice guy with no obvious talent who, nonetheless, has become one of the most ubiquitous media personalities in America and has amassed millions through his production company and myriad other business ventures. As a chubby, insecure, bespeckled 10-year-old, Seacrest was a longshot for “most likely to succeed,” but succeed he has thanks to his vision and extraordinary drive. It just goes to show people are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.

Of course, Seacrest’s story is hardly unique. History is full of unlikely success stories. Take, for example, Joseph and Tamar, two of biblical heroes who star in this week’s reading. Joseph is well-known to most people familiar with the bible and/or the Broadway musical his story inspired. From his position as the loathed, obnoxious, spoiled little brother, he arose to become the second most powerful figure in Egypt. Like Seacrest, Joseph was blessed with vision, though his rise appears more as a matter of chance than tenacity.

Joseph had this dream thing going on. He didn’t have the maturity as a teenager to refrain from flaunting that gift, but as he grew, he was able to invoke it at opportune moments. Without his impeccable timing, perhaps he never would have made it out of Pharaoh’s prison. It just goes to show people are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.

Then there’s this character Tamar, who is less known than Joseph but who plays an outsized role in Jewish history. She is the mother of Perez, from whose line King David and the future messiah would be born. Tamar was a hapless young woman who suffered the death of two husbands. The much younger brother of her husbands was promised to her by her father-in-law, Judah, but when the boy grew up, Judah failed to deliver. So that she could perpetuate her husband’s family names and retain rights to their property, Tamar needed to give birth to a male child, but circumstances kept getting in her way. A shrewd woman with a mission, Tamar ends up disguising herself as a harlot, seduces the unwitting Judah, and through him becomes the mother of the future king of Israel and the savior of humankind! Read all about it in Genesis, chapter 38. You’ll be reminded that people are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.

Today’s news is full of stories of hero wannabes, from presidential candidates, to pop stars, to terrorists. Some of them will achieve the status they seek, for better or for worse, while some of them will fade away, and others will go down in disgrace and notoriety. But what’s for certain is that the future awaits great people who have yet to distinguish themselves in heroic fashion. Any one of us or the people we take for granted could become one of those success stories. Maybe it’ll take the lucky breaks of a Joseph. Or the smarts and perseverance of a Tamar. Or the vision and tenacity of a Ryan Seacrest. Who knows?

One thing’s for sure. People are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

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