This week's parsha includes Genesis chapters 37 through 40, the first part of the Joseph cycle.
We begin by seeing how Jacob, whose own parents showed such obvious and destructive favoritism between their children, continues the tradition, making Joseph his favorite and showing this in various ways. Joseph adds to the problem by telling dreams in which he pictures himself ruling over his brothers and even his parents. So when he goes out to find them to report to their father, they see him coming and plan first to kill him and then at Judah's intervention selling him to a passing caravan heading to Egypt.
At this point the parsha moves to the story of Judah and Tamar, and the eventual birth of their twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Tamar had been married to Judah's oldest son who died without children, and then to his second son, who refused to have a Levirite child (who would be considered his brother's child). Judah doen't give his third son to her when he is old enough to wed, and Tamar takes matters into her own hands and tricks Judah into having sex with her, thinking her a prostitute. In the end, he acknowledges his wrong to her, and claims the children as his own.
Then we are back in Egypt where Joseph is now a slave of Potiphar, and the story of his time there as he is given more and more responsibility as time passes. Eventually, Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph, who refuses her advances. She then accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her, and Potiphar sends him to prison. He rises in prison as well. The parsha closes with Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh's baker and wine-steward, which interpretations come to pass.
The story so far provides for future events. First, the move of the Israelites to Egypt is made possible by Joseph being enslaved there. Second, the importance of the tribes of Joseph's sons and of Judah is presaged in this parsha, and the relationships between the men and the tribes. And, Judah and Tamar's son Perez becomes the ancestor of King David and the Davidic line, including the Messiah.
There is a symmetry to this parsha which makes it unusual, and unconsciously satisfying to us. We begin with two dreams, and Joseph put by his brothers into a pit, from which they sell him to the traders. Then comes the story of Tamar. The story of Joseph in slavery begins with the events leading to his time in prison - and the same Hebrew word is used for pit and prison, making the connection clearer. Therefore, there is a form which in music would be A (2 dreams), B (the pit), C (Judah and Tamar), B (the prison/pit) and A (the 2 dreams he interprets).
But today I want to focus on the difference between appearances and reality, between the outer and inner person as illustrated in this parsha.
Clothing is mentioned frequently here, which is unusual this far in Torah. Other than Jacob dressing to impersonate Esau, I can't think of an instance of clothing having any importance thus far. And that is telling, since clothing in this parsha is also used to deceive. First there is the special coat that Jacob gives to Joseph to show him favor. After Joseph has been sold to the traders, the brothers take this, stain it with animal blood and show it to Jacob as evidence that Joseph has been killed by wild beasts.
The next example is in the Tamar story. Tamar is back in her father's house, and realizes that Judah's youngest son is old enough to marry, and has not become her husband, she dresses as a prostitute, and Judah is so far deceived as to have sex with her. Ironically, when Judah sends the kid he promised in payment, his friend is told that no prostitute has been there, which happens to be true. It seems only Judah was deceived.
Then, when Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph, she rips off his shirt as he is leaving, and shows the shirt to Potiphar to show how she fought him off, using it to get her revenge on Joseph.
So what do we make of this? Appearances cannot be trusted, for one thing. Clothes do not make the man - clothing can be put on and taken off for many purposes, not the least of which is deceit. Clothing separated from the wearer tells nothing for certain. And a person can assume any clothing to assume a false role. Yet we continue to make assumptions about people based on how they look. The greatest deception comes later in the story, when Joseph's brothers are dazzled by the robes of the grand vizier and cannot see their brother underneath.
But real, deep change can happen. Throughout this parsha, Joseph is always seen to be special, and both in Potiphar's household and in prison, he earns for himself positions of responsibility based on his merits. When the baker and wine-steward are released and Joseph's interpretations prove true, he is expecting to be released as well. But the steward forgot him. When he realizes that he will not be freed, I think he begins an inner transformation, and perhaps learns humility.