Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority

December 21, 2011 at 2:19 am | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

A position of power is a slippery thing to hold onto.  It helps to have visible, tangible symbols of your public role to remind everyone of your authority.  Yet those very symbols can seduce you into forgetting the difference between your public identity and your personal, inner self.

The Torah addresses this problem in the first two Torah portions that tell the story of Joseph and his brothers:  Vayeishev (And he settled) and Mikeitz (In the end).

The first example is the story of Judah and Tamar.  In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, most of Joseph’s brothers want to kill him.  One brother, Judah, convinces them to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt instead.  After persuading their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal, Judah moves away from his family and starts a new life.  He marries a Canaanite and they have three sons.  Judah marries his oldest son, Eir, to a Canaanite woman named Tamar.  And Eir dies before they have any children.

At this time yibum, or levirate “marriage”, is the custom of Canaanites and Israelites alike.  It means that when a married man dies without a son, the man’s brother (or closest male relative) should impregnate his widow.  If her baby is a boy, he will become her late husband’s heir, and she will be have economic security and status through her son.

When Eir dies, Judah sends his second son in to Tamar.  But Onan refuses to do his duty, and then he dies, too.  Judah superstitiously delays giving Tamar his youngest son, Shelah.  He uses his authority as the head of his household to return Tamar to her father’s house.  Here she must live as  a widow who cannot remarry as long as the yibum, the levirate business, is pending.

Tamar waits for years as Shelah grows up and Judah’s wife dies.  Finally, after Judah finishes mourning for his wife and heads off to the sheep-shearing, Tamar dresses as a veiled prostitute and sits by the road where Judah will see her.  Not recognizing her, and feeling festive, he propositions her.

When Judah promises her a kid goat in payment for sex, Tamar demands a pledge to keep until the goat is delivered.

And he said:  What is the pledge that I must give to you?  And she said:  Your seal and your cord and the staff that is in your hand.  And he gave them to her, and he entered her, and she conceived.  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:18–Vayeishev)

chotam = a seal.  (A common kind of seal in the Middle East was a carved cylinder worn on a cord around the neck.  To authorize a document written on a damp clay tablet, a man rolled his seal over the clay as a signature.)

matteh = a staff, used both as a walking stick and as the symbol of a tribe or clan

Tamar is asking Judah for the symbols of his public authority—his signature and his corner office! And he loans them to her, as if he were using a credit card to buy sex now and pay later.  It does not occur to him that this veiled woman might use his seal and staff to run a scam or to blackmail him.  He is so accustomed to ruling his extended household, and to judging and sentencing anyone under his control, it does not occur to him that anything could jeopardize his position.

Later, Judah’s best friend and confidant searches for the “prostitute” to give her the kid goat and retrieve the seal and staff.  But she has disappeared.  Then Judah gets nervous about losing status in the community, and he asks his friend to hide the fact that he left his seal and staff with a prostitute.

When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, he knows that his son Shelah is not the father, so he calls her a harlot and sentences her to burning.  As Tamar is taken away, she sends Judah his pledge, with this message:

I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.   Please recognize who owns these, the seal and the cord and the staff.  (Genesis 38:25)

At that point, Judah says:  She is more right than I am (38:26), thus becoming the first person in the Torah to admit he is wrong.  Judah is acknowledging both that he is the father, and that he was wrong to thwart Tamar’s right to get pregnant by a relative of her late husband.

On another level, the episode demonstrates that Judah’s personal desires—to protect his last living son, and to enjoy sex after his own wife is dead—are in conflict with his duty as a clan leader.  But he is so accustomed to his position of power, he does not at first realize there is any difference between his private self and his public role.  By taking away the symbols of his public authority, and then returning them at the crucial moment, Tamar shocks Judah into seeing the difference.  When he takes back his seal and staff, Judah also commits himself to doing the right thing as the man in charge — even if his private wishes are different.  This is a major step forward in ethical development.

Meanwhile, Judah’s little brother Joseph changes in one day from a slave in prison to the viceroy of Egypt, all because the pharaoh (a distant ancestor of the pharaoh in Exodus) is so impressed with Joseph’s divinely inspired interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams and his brilliant proposal to solve the problem of the coming famine.

And Pharoah said to Joseph:  See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt! And Pharaoh removed his ring from upon his hand and he put it on Joseph’s hand, and he clothed him in linen garments, and he put the gold collar on his neck.  And he had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they called out before him Avreikh; thus he appointed him over all the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 41:41-43—Mikeitz)

taba-at = a ring.  (A king’s ring, in both Egypt and Persia, was a signet ring with the king’s seal carved into it.  Like a cylindrical seal, it was pressed on a document as a signature of authorization.)

Avreikh = either an unknown Egyptian word, or “I command kneeling!” in Hebrew

The pharaoh is smart enough to realize that Egyptians will not treat the foreigner and ex-slave Joseph as the viceroy unless he has plenty of visible symbols of his new public identity, including the king’s ring, the gold collar, and the chariot.  Pharoah also gives Joseph an Egyptian name and a high-ranking Egyptian wife.  He achieves his goal; Joseph’s word is taken as law, and he successfully prepares Egypt for the coming famine.

But Joseph loses some of his old personal identity when he gains these symbols of his new public identity.  When his first son is born, Joseph says:  God has made me forget all my hardship and all the household of my father.  (Genesis 41:51)  He retains his religion, but otherwise he speaks and dresses and rules the economy as an Egyptian.  He never writes home to his father.  He is happy to live his role—until his ten older brothers come to him to buy food during the famine.

Joseph recognizes them as they bow down to him, but they do not recognize him.  He speaks Egyptian, dresses as an Egyptian, has an Egyptian name, and wears the gold collar and signet ring of the pharaoh.  His public role hides his private identity completely.

But inside, Joseph bears a personal grudge against the brothers who sold him into slavery, and he cannot forgive them when he does not know whether they have repented or changed.  Joseph could take them aside, drop his mask, and confront them directly.  Or he could stick to being the Egyptian viceroy, and simply sell them food along with all the other purchasers from Canaan.

Instead, Joseph hides his personal identity, yet lets it affect his behavior as a public official.  He invents a charge against his brothers, accusing them of being spies, and throws them in prison for three days.  And that’s only the beginning of a long series of tests he inflicts on them while maintaining the persona of an Egyptian ruler.  The game does not end until Judah confronts him in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he came forward).

He is able to step up to the Egyptian viceroy and speak about ethical behavior because, thanks to Tamar, Judah has already recognized and addressed the conflict between his own personal feelings and public role.  He deserves great credit for admitting he was wrong.  But at least in his case the ethical choice was obvious.

In Joseph’s case, the right choice is not so obvious.  He faces men he knows are guilty of selling their own brother.  Is it right to sell food to criminals and let them go on their way?

Is it right to punish the guilty for a different crime than the one they actually committed?

Is it right, when you finally have power, to make your enemies suffer the way they made you suffer?

How can you be both the person who wears the pharaoh’s seal ring, and a person whose terrible family drama has suddenly reappeared?  How can you integrate a new public identity that you enjoy and an old private identity that you hate?

Is it right to pretend to be someone you are not?

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