Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father

December 12, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | 3 Comments

To name your infant, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is usually to tell a piece of your own life story.  Eve begins this convention when she names her firstborn son Kayin (Cain in English) and declares:

Kaniti a man with [the help of] God!  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:1)

Kaniti (קָנִיתִי) = I have acquired, produced, created.  (A form of the verb kanah, קָנָה.  The name Kayin, קַיִן, is probably derived not from kanah but from the same root as kiynah, קִינָה = dirge.  Eve’s explanation of the name is a folk etymology.)

Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel name all twelve of their natural and adopted sons to express their sentiments about their own lives in the Torah portion Vayeitzei.  Rachel’s son Joseph does the same when he has a son of his own.

And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Menasheh “because God nashani all my hardship and all the household of my father”.  (Genesis 41:51)

Menasheh (מְנַשֶּׁה) = Manasseh in English; m-, ־מְ = from + nashah, נָשָׁה = forget, overlook, neglect.

nashani (נַשַּׁנִי) = he made me forget, overlook, neglect.  (A form of the verb nashah.)1

Joseph implies that his current good fortune is such a blessing from God that he can now overlook two periods of suffering in his past: his hardship (presumably his slavery and imprisonment in Egypt) and his father’s household.

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers,
by James Tissot

How did Joseph suffer in Jacob’s household?  Last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, informs us that after his beloved Rachel dies, Jacob continues to play favorites, loving Rachel’s son Joseph more than his ten older sons.  Joseph’s half-brothers hate him for three reasons: because they are jealous of their father’s love, because Joseph brings Jacob bad reports about them, and because Joseph tells them two of his dreams in which his brothers appear to be bowing to him.2

After the brothers head north to pasture the flocks at Shechem, Jacob sends Joseph to find them and then report back.  Joseph’s brothers spot him coming, seize him, strip him, and throw him into an empty cistern.  After debating whether to kill him, they sell him as a slave to a caravan headed for Egypt.3

Joseph is 30 years old in this week’s Torah portion, Mi-Keitz (“In the end”), when he is summoned to interpret the pharaoh’s two dreams.  The pharaoh, impressed by the slave’s gift of prophecy and by his intelligent advice, makes him the viceroy of Egypt, and gives him a high-born Egyptian wife.4  Joseph names his first son Menasheh.

It is easy to see why Joseph wants to bury his memories of the brothers who sold him as a slave.  But when he names his first son, he says “God nashani all my hardship and all the household of my father”—not just his older brothers.  When Joseph was sold at age seventeen, Jacob’s household also included the mothers of the ten older brothers, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah; Joseph’s little brother Benjamin; various employees and slaves; and the patriarch Jacob himself.  Most of these people were merely the background of Joseph’s misery after his own mother died.  But I believe one of them was an additional source of hardship: Jacob.

A telling clue is that Joseph never sends a message back to Canaan to let his father know that he is alive and well.  Maybe he is unable to send a message to another country when he is a slave, even though he quickly rises to the post of steward.  But during the first nine years after Joseph becomes the viceroy of Egypt, he still does not send Jacob any word.  Nor does he ask any of the pharaoh’s agents in Canaan to check up on the old man.

Apologists who saw Joseph as an exemplar of righteousness have theorized that Joseph avoided any communication with Canaan because:

  1.  He did not want to shame his family by revealing that his brothers had sold him.5
  2.  Or: If Jacob found out what his ten older sons had done, the family would fall apart.  Then their aged father would be even worse off.6
  3.  Or: Joseph knew his dreams at age seventeen were prophetic, and he did not want to interfere with God’s plan by taking any action regarding his father or his brothers until the dreams were fulfilled—until all of them had come and bowed down to him.7

Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg8 speculated that Joseph is so traumatized when his brothers seize him and throw him into the pit, that thirteen years later he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.  He functions successfully in Egypt only by going into denial about his past.  When he sees his brothers again, he cries because he remembers his trauma.

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives him the Coat, by Owen Jones

I wonder if the answer is simply that Joseph does not love his father.  A child enjoys being spoiled at first, but later becomes uneasy about being treated differently from everyone else.  Jacob’s love might have felt both smothering and unreal.  The princely tunic that Jacob gave him may have fed Joseph’s grandiosity, but it also may have struck him as a ridiculous garment for a shepherd.  When he wore it in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, travelling alone to Shechem and on to Dotan, the tunic made it easy for his brothers to identify him from a distance and plan their ambush.

Joseph must have asked himself why his father, who should have known better, sent him off on a two- or three-day journey from Hebron to Shechem and beyond without providing an escort or any other protection against bandits and enraged brothers.  Did his father secretly want him to die?  Did Jacob really love him, or did he just love Joseph’s face, because it looked like the face of his beloved dead wife Rachel?  When Joseph was seventeen and his formerly girlish face began sprouting whiskers, did his father stop loving him?

I can imagine Joseph riding toward Egypt in fetters, facing a life of slavery, and thinking bleakly that nobody loves him.  Obviously his ten half-brothers hate him, and now it appears that his father does not care what happens to him.  His full brother Benjamin is only six years old, and his mother is dead.  He might as well give up on his whole family, “all the household of his father”.  He will have to build a new life from scratch, supported by nothing but his own wits—and the one hope remaining to him, that God might someday make those dreams of rulership come true.

Thus when his first son is born, Joseph gives him a name that memorializes both his change of fortune in Egypt, and also his lingering bitterness that he was betrayed not just by his older brothers, but even by his father.  In Egypt he has a new life with honor and authority, and a family of his own.  He will be the father from now on.

Joseph is Governor,
by Owen Jones

When Joseph’s prediction comes true and the first year of widespread famine arrives after seven years of plenty, only Egypt has large stores of grain—thanks to Joseph’s iron rule.  Then suddenly his past reappears.  He recognizes his ten older brothers as they bow to the ground and ask him for permission to buy Egyptian grain.

Joseph’s first action looks like revenge.  He keeps his own identity secret and accuses his brothers of being spies—perhaps because he remembers that his father sent him to spy on his brothers and report back.  Then he imprisons all ten brothers for three days, just as they had thrown him in the empty cistern while they discussed whether to kill him or sell him.9

But Joseph’s next move is different.  He devises a test to find out whether his brothers have changed over the last thirteen years.

*

Our childhood and adolescent wounds never disappear.  Small slights may fade into insignificance from an adult perspective, but we carry our early psychological wounds for the rest of our lives—and use various strategies to function nevertheless in our roles as adults.  One common strategy is to “forget” our wounds or traumas—avoid thinking about them, and carry on as if they never happened.  Another is to “overlook” them, to pretend that they do not affect us in our adult lives.

Yet these early wounds continue to influence our reactions.  And eventually something happens that forces us to face them—as Joseph suddenly found himself face to face with his brothers.

(What Joseph does about his brothers and his father is the subject of next week’s post on the Torah portion Vayiggash.)

May we all remember our early wounds well enough so that we can recognize them when the time to deal with them arises.  And may we refrain from naming or addressing our children from the viewpoint of our wounds!

  1. The traditional translation of Menasheh and nashani in this sentence assumes that the words come from the root verb nashah, נָשָׁה = forget, overlook, neglect. However, Biblical Hebrew scholars Samson Raphael Hirsch and Robert Alter have pointed out that sometimes the root verb nasha, נָשָׁא is conjugated as if it ended in a ה rather than an אNasha, נָשָׁא = lend, borrow, indebt, become a creditor or debtor (depending on the verb form).  If the words Menasheh and nashani in Genesis 41:51 are actually from the root nasha in that alternate conjugation the sentence could be translated: And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Menasheh/From debt “because I am in debt to God for all my hardship and all the household of my father”.
  2. Genesis 37:1-11(Torah portion Vayeishev).
  3. Genesis 37:12-28 (Torah portion Vayeishev).
  4. Genesis 41:1-46 (Torah portion Mikeitz).
  5. e.g. Philo of Alexandria, De Josepho 41, as cited in Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bereishis, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, @1994, p. 567.
  6. e.g. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, @2002, p. 778.
  7. e.g. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides) as cited in Elie Munk, p. 566; Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images, trans. by Yehuda Hanegbi and Yehudit Keshet, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, NJ, 1994, p. 78.
  8. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, New York, 2009, p. 303.
  9. Genesis 42:6-17 (Torah portion Mikeitz).

 

3 Comments »

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  1. […] was 17 he was a spy; he brought “bad reports” of his brothers to Jacob. See last week’s post, Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  The brothers […]

  2. […] his sons and for sending Joseph out alone to find and report back on his brothers.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  The brothers seized him, threw him in a pit, then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for […]

  3. […] into slavery, and then convince their father that the boy was killed by wild beasts.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  Thus Jacob suffers for his clueless […]


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