Vayayshev by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Vayayshev (וישב)
Torah: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

Scene: Sheol, the Afterlife. A small metal table, such as one would find in an old-fashioned café in Paris, perhaps, or Greenwich Village. Two uncomfortable-looking but necessary metal chairs with curved metal backs, suitable for two ladies of fashion to sit and chat.


The air is gray, with some bits of ambient light moving through, perhaps supplied by wavering spotlights, but there are gray-black-blue fingers of smoke, as well, to give the impression of this primitive, earliest vision of the Afterlife—not Cherubim and Archangels shouting Hosannahs from cheery, fluffy, white clouds , but a place of utter silence, with nameless spirits flitting about.


Enter Zuleikah, the Wife of Potiphar. She is wearing Egyptian garb from the New Kingdom of the Pharaoh Seti I (1291-1278 BCE), with the addition of a Donna Karan bag, from which she takes out a long cigarette holder, carefully inserts a Virginia Slims, and lights it with a Tiffany lighter. She inhales deeply, and exhales a long plume of smoke. Looking about, she signals for the Waiter, who sighs deeply, comes forward immediately, and bows slightly, deftly taking out pad and pencil as he does so.


Waiter: Good afternoon, Madame. Madame desires—?


Zuleikah: Oui, Jacques. Bring me a Pernod, please, and a glass of water. And, could you empty this ashtray? It’s full to overflowing (with a strong note of disgust). I can’t imagine why Hades stands for conditions down here. He’s such a neat person, I understand.


Waiter: Oui, Madame. Right away, Madame. (He picks up the ashtray, dumps the ashes on the floor at Zuleikah’s feet, and replaces the tray without wiping it out)


Zuleikah: Oh! Be careful, can’t you?


Waiter: Sorry, Madame; after all, Madame, this IS Sheol, not the Trump International.


Zuleikah: Well—well, just go get my drink, will you? (Waiter exits) The nerve of these serving-people….


(Enter Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah the Patriarch, with whom she had an incestuous encounter and became pregnant, after Judah failed to provide her with a suitable husband; both Er and Onan died without leaving her pregnant with male issue. Her face is veiled, and she is hesitant, at first, to approach the table of an Egyptian Noblewoman, and waits in the shadows. Zuleikah impatiently taps her long, red-painted fingernails against the edge of the table, but finally notices the hesitant Judahite woman, and calls to her—they have an appointment, after all)


Oh, Tamar—there you are, my dear! Come here, and join me!


(Tamar, still hesitant, comes forward, and, face still veiled, sits gingerly down on the old metal chair opposite Zuleikah. She smiles nervously, but remains silent.)


Zuleikah: How pleasant to meet you, finally, Dear One! Hades told me yesterday that you had arrived, and that we ought to get together. Horus knows, there is nothing to do in this godforsaken place, and we seem to have so much in common—


Tamar: Excuse me?


Zuleikah: I said, we have so much in common…. (The Waiter comes forward, and leaves the glass on the table. He seems rushed, as if he does not wish to take Tamar’s order. Zuleikah crushes out her cigarette, and immediately inserts and lights another. She, too, is visibly nervous, but trying to hide it.)


Zuleikah: What I meant was, we are both famous seductresses, you and I!


Tamar (with great dignity): I beg to differ. I seduced—though I choose to call it, “called to judgment”—my father-in-law, in order to continue the sacred bloodline of the Judahite Tribe, which was later to become both the largest and the ruling tribe of Israel. Kings David and Solomon themselves were to spring from my loins. While you—you adulterer!—were merely playing with an innocent boy who happened to turn up among your slave-staff. Joseph was pure as could be, and you attempted to corrupt him, and bring him down to your wretched Egyptian ways.


(While Tamar is fulminating, Zuleikah is sitting back, sipping her Pernod, and smoking away, very coolly. Finally, Tamar finishes, breathing heavily, and signals the Waiter. He steps forward, a bit livelier than he did for Zuleikah.)


Waiter: What can I bring you, Madame?


Tamar: I will have—I will have—an ice-cold water, with a slice of fresh lemon.


Waiter: Immediately, Madame (He clicks his heels and bows, while Zuleikah glares at him, which he ignores. He races off, brings her drink; she sips at it, as if dying of thirst.)


Zuleikah: Are you quite finished, Dear? Are you quite, quite—done?


(Tamar nods, cradling the glass in both hands, and touching it to her forehead while sighing with relief)


Zuleikah: …because I don’t think you’re being entirely—fair, shall we say? After all—your precious kings—David and Solomon, did you call them? Are hardly to be the paragons of virtue you make them out to be—I mean, what with all those wives, concubines, extramarital affairs….


Tamar: I—that is, I—


Zuleikah: While I, at least, make no pretense of what I did. And I am here, in this dimly-lit Afterlife, paying the price. Dealing with (she points disgustedly at the cigarette butts on the ground and makes a face) this trash, drinking sub-standard alcohol, dealing with (she nods her head slightly at the Waiter, whose back is turned to them) the likes of him, and being in surroundings altogether foreign and miserable to the way I used to live when I was, well, alive—

But still!


Tamar: Still—what?


Zuleikah: I, too, had my role to play in your little tribal drama. Had it not been for me, your little Joey-boy would have stayed a slavey to a relatively-minor court official under Pharaoh Seti I, instead of rising to a position of power. That is something you choose to ignore. You, and all the various wise men—men, of course—what d’you call them—rabbis?


Tamar: I believe so, though they followed millennia after my time….


Zuleikah: Well, they piled pages and scrolls and volumes of opprobrium on my poor little head, never realizing that, had it not been for me, Little Joey would never have become the Vice-Pharaoh of Egypt. I was not just a seductress; I was a very valuable part of the action, of the story. Indeed, who is to say how many Jewish, Hebrew, Yiddish writers chose later, during your Haskalah, your Jewish Enlightenment Period, and your Yiddish Theatre, to focus on me, as the Forbidden Woman, the One to Avoid, the Dark Side Sweetheart, hmm?


Tamar: I suppose, they did the same to me—


Zuleikah: More than likely. Jacques! Bring me another of these, would you? No; on second thought, make it a martini.


Tamar (resignedly, decisively): Make that two. With two olives.


Zuleikah (ironically): My, my, the little Judahite girl is quite a drinker now, is she not?


(The Waiter brings the drinks; they sip them, contemplatively, and both sit back. Tamar steeples her hands, brings them up to her face, narrows her eyes, and looks pointedly at Zuleikah through them.)


Tamar: Well, you’ve taught me something today, Ms. Zuleikah.


Zuleikah: And what is that?


Tamar: Even when we women were oppressed, beaten down, ignored, left uneducated, called witches, whores, baby-factories, cheap labor, and however else those men chose to insult us—


Zuleikah: We still managed to hold our own.


Tamar: And even, once in a while, get ahead! (Waiter comes with drinks)


Both: To Us! And to All Oppressed Women! (They clink and drink)



Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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