Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?

December 5, 2018 at 9:38 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

Narcissistic personality disorder: a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.1

The Mayo Clinic definition continues by noting that the cause of this mental disorder is still unknown, but it may be linked to genetics, neurobiology, and/or environment, specifically “mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive adoration or excessive criticism that is poorly attuned to the child’s experience”.

The Joseph story in Genesis/Bereishit offers an example of some level of narcissism due to a parent’s “excessive adoration”.  But narcissism in childhood and even adolescence can be outgrown if the narcissist learns a measure of humility, empathy, and appreciation for others.  Does this happen with Joseph?

Vayeishev

Joseph Reveals His Dream, by James Tissot

Jacob has twelve sons, but he showers attention on Joseph, and gives him an outrageously expensive garment.  Joseph wears it even when he is in the fields with his jealous older brothers.  He is a tattletale, and reports to their father when his brothers share unsavory gossip.  And he tells his brothers two dreams of his in which they all bow down to him.  (See last week’s post, Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy.)

These behaviors indicate that Joseph is a narcissist at age seventeen.  If he notices his older brothers’ jealousy and hatred, he does not mind.  When Jacob asks him to travel for several days to check up on his older brothers and report back, Joseph sets off in his fancy garment and walks right up to them as if he were invulnerable.  They seize him and strip him.

And they took him and they cast him into the bor …  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:24)

bor (בּוֹר) = a cistern with cemented walls, a pit, a prison, a grave.

They sit and eat lunch while they discuss whether to kill him.  Then a caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and they pull him naked out of the bor and sell him as a slave.2  In Egypt, the Pharaoh’s captain of executioners, Potifar, buys Joseph.

The shock of being instantly demoted from the expensively-dressed favorite son to the naked slave of an executioner might lead some adolescents to wonder if they did something wrong.  Does Joseph take his first steps from narcissism to empathy, from thinking only of his own importance to considering the feelings of others?

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

At Potifar’s estate God blesses all of Joseph’s work with complete success, so his master makes him steward over his whole household.3  Then Joseph, who is beautiful as well as successful, encounters a potential moral dilemma.

After these things his master’s wife fixed her eyes on Joseph and said: “Lie with me.”  And he refused.  He said to his master’s wife: “With me here, my master does not know what is in the house; everything that he has, he has placed in my hands.  He is no greater in this house than I, and he has not held back anything from me except you, since you are his wife.  So would I do this great evil and be guilty before God?”  (Genesis 39:7-8)

What is Joseph’s motivation for refusing to have sex with Potifar’s wife?  Is his speech an example of narcissism, or empathy?

Narcissism:  Narcissists treat higher-status people with respect, even as they dismiss everyone they consider inferior.  If Joseph is a narcissist, he wants to keep his record clean with Potifar and God.

Empathy:  People capable of empathy can feel gratitude and affection.  If Joseph is not a narcissist, he is grateful to Potifar for giving him so much trust and authority, and does not want to hurt the man who is good to him.

When Joseph and Potifar’s wife are alone in the house she grabs him and he flees, leaving his garment in her hand.  (See my post Vayeishev: Stripped Naked, which argues that Joseph learns humility.)  She lies and says he attacked her, and Potifar throws him in prison.  But God blesses Joseph’s work for the chief jailer with success, and he becomes the virtual head of the prison.4

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

God sent Joseph two significant dreams when he was seventeen, both indicating that someday his brothers would bow down to him.  Now, when he is 28, the Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker wait in prison for their judgments, and each has a dream on the same night.

And they said to him: “A dream we dreamed and there is no interpreter.”  And Joseph said to them: “Aren’t interpretations for God?  Recount, please, to me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

What does Joseph mean by that?

Narcissism:  Joseph is either equating himself with God, or at least assuming that he has a God-given power to interpret dreams which will always work.

Empathy:  Joseph implies that only God can interpret a dream.  Awkwardness makes him sound peremptory rather than hopeful when he asks the prisoners to tell their dreams.

Mikeitz

Two years later, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (“In the end”), the Pharaoh has two dreams that none of his soothsayers or wise men can interpret.  The Pharaoh’s chief butler remembers Joseph’s correct interpretations of the two dreams in prison, and speaks up.

And Pharaoh sent and summoned Joseph, and they brought him quickly from the bor, and he shaved and he changed his clothing and he came to Pharaoh.  (Genesis 41:14)

The first time Joseph is brought up from a bor is when his brothers sell him into slavery just to get rid of him.  This time it is when a king needs his skill.        

And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “A dream I dreamed, and no one could interpret it.  And I have heard it said about you, that you [merely] hear a dream to interpret it.”  And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying: “Not I.  God will answer for the welfare of Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 41:15-16)

Narcissism:   Joseph is cleverly pretending to be humble, while reminding the Pharaoh that he speaks for God.

Empathy:  Joseph is deflecting admiration out of the humble knowledge that he is only a mouthpiece for God.

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, by Reginald Arthur, 1894

Joseph (correctly) interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as indicating God’s plan to give Egypt seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Then he adds gratuitous advice.

And now, may Pharaoh look for a man who is discerning and wise, and may he set him over the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 41:33)

This man, Joseph continues, should oversee the collection and storage of grain during the years of plenty and its distribution during the years of famine.  Why does Joseph suggest appointing one man, and imply that it should be a newcomer rather than the usual government administration?

Narcissism:  Not only does he want the job himself, but he knows that only he could do it right.

Empathy:  He has observed the Egyptian government bureaucracy and believes a strong hand is needed, but he expects someone else in Egypt may be a better candidate for the job.

The Pharaoh responds with a narcissist’s dream-come-true.

And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as discerning and wise as you.  You yourself shall be over my house and on your command all my people shall be ordered.  Only by the throne will I be greater than you.”  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “See, I place you over all the land of Egypt.”  And Pharaoh removed his ring from upon his hand and he placed it on the hand of Joseph, and he dressed him in clothes of fine linen, and he put a 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 41:39-43)

Avreikh, by James Tissot

Avreikh (אַבְרֵךְ) = either an unknown Egyptian word, or an invention meaning “I cause kneeling” in Hebrew.

Joseph says nothing.

Narcissism:  He believes he is getting what he deserves.

Empathy:  He recognizes that since he is a complete unknown in Egypt, a lot of pomp is required to convince the people that he now has authority.

After the seven years of plenty, famine spreads over not only Egypt, but all of Canaan.

And Joseph was the tyrant over the land; he was the grain-seller to all the people of the earth.  And Joseph’s brothers came, and they bowed low to him, noses to the ground.  (Genesis 42:6).

Apparently Joseph, who must have a large staff, prefers to personally greet foreigners who bow to him and ask for rations.  He recognizes his ten older brothers, but they do not recognize him.  Joseph was 17 when they sold him; now he is 38, wearing Egyptian garb, and accompanied by a translator.  He accuses his brothers of being spies, causing them to babble defensively that they are ten of twelve brothers—“and hey! The youngest is with our father today, and one is no more.” (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph gives them a test, supposedly to prove they are not spies.  He will keep one of the brothers hostage while the others go home with food; but they must return to Egypt with their youngest brother to prove their honesty.

The brothers then realize their own lack of empathy, twenty years before.

And they said, each to his brother: “Ah, we are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw his distress in pleading to us for pity, and we did not listen; therefore this distress came to us.”  (Genesis 42:21)

Joseph hears this, although he is pretending he does not know Hebrew.

And he turned around from them, and he wept.  Then he turned back to them and he spoke to them and he took from among them Shimon, and he fettered him before their eyes.  (Genesis 42:24)

Narcissism:  Joseph weeps for himself, remembering how he wept at age seventeen when he was in their power.

Empathy:   Joseph weeps in sudden recognition that his brothers have feelings and know they are guilty.

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones, 1869

Joseph continues to carry out his elaborate charade and test.  (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.)  Because their father, Jacob, is unwilling to let go of Rachel’s remaining son, the brothers wait until they have run out of food before returning to Egypt with Benjamin.  Joseph has his steward bring them to his palace and return Shimon to them.  Then Joseph comes and makes polite conversation, not neglecting to ask if their father is still alive.  Finally he takes a good look at Benjamin, his only full brother, who was a small child when Joseph was sold into slavery.  Now Benjamin is in his twenties.

And Joseph hurried out, because his rachamim was kindled toward his brother and he needed to weep; and he came to the inner room and he wept there.  Then he washed his face and he went out and he pulled himself together and he said: “Serve food.”  (Genesis 43:30-31)

rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, loving feelings, affection, mercy.  (From rechem (רֶחֶם) = womb.)

Here the Torah finally states that Joseph feels compassion toward someone.  He knows that his father, Jacob, would treat Rachel’s only remaining son with favoritism.  Perhaps he assumes that Benjamin, too, has suffered at his half-brothers’ hands.

This is a form of empathy.  Can Joseph take the next step, and become interested in Benjamin as an individual in his own right, or will Joseph always see his little brother as a reflection of himself?  When his elaborate test is completed, will he be able to consider his older brothers’ feelings as well?  Or will the story be all about him?

The answer is hidden in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash.

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662. Only extreme cases of narcissism are classified as personality disorders, but the clinical definition applies to all levels of narcissism.
  2. Genesis 37:25-28.
  3. Genesis 39:1-6.
  4. Why does God keep blessing Joseph with success? Maybe this is the Torah’s way of saying that Joseph is inherently intelligent and capable.  (Some narcissists are, and their commitment to their own importance drives them to work hard.)  On the other hand, maybe the anthropomorphic God-character portrayed in the book of Genesis is testing Joseph by repeatedly making him successful under difficult circumstances.  Maybe God wants to find out whether his clan will be worthy of leading the Israelites in the future.  Modern scholars date the original composition of the Joseph story to J and E sources recorded during 922 to 722 B.C.E., when the Israelites lived in two kingdoms, with the northern kingdom dominated by the Efraimites, descendants of Joseph, and the southern kingdom dominated by descendants of Judah.  When the Assyrian Empire swallowed the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E., it seemed like a vindication of the Judahite narrative.

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing

December 19, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash | 3 Comments

Someone harms you or your loved one.  There is no apology, no reconciliation.  Years later you are thrown together again.  What do you do?

Joseph sold as a slave,
artist unknown

Joseph faces his ten older brothers 21 years after they seized him, talked about killing him, then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1  During that time, thanks to his own intelligence and a prophetic gift from God, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s viceroy.  When Joseph sees his brothers again, they are bowing down to him and requesting permission to buy grain.

When the brothers last saw Joseph he was seventeen.  Now he is in his late thirties.  He has an Egyptian name, and wears Egyptian clothes.  He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him.  So he pretends to be the stranger he appears, and speaks to them through an interpreter.

At first Joseph accuses them of being spies.  (He wants to accuse them of something, and spying may occur to him first because when he 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 protest:

“All of us are sons of one man.  We are keinim!  Your servants would never be spies.” (Genesis/Bereishit 42:11)

keinim (כֵּנִים) = (plural) upright, honest, virtuous.

Joseph knows that they were hardly keinim when they sold him into slavery.  But have they changed over the last 21 years?

He repeats that they are spies, and as the ten men from Canaan explain who they are, they mention that their father had twelve sons.

And hey!  The youngest is with our father now, and the [other] one is absent from us.  (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph uses this statement to test his brothers.  He says:

“In this tibacheinu, by the life of Pharaoh!  If you leave this place, then your youngest brother must come here.  Send off one from among yourselves, and he will take your brother; and you will be imprisoned.  And your words, yibachanu, [to see if] the truth is with you.  If not, by the life of Pharaoh, then you are spies.” (Genesis 42:15-16)

tibacheinu (תִּבָּחֵנוּ) = you will be tested.  (A form of the verb bachan, בָּחַן = tested.)

yibachanu (יִבָּחַנוּ) = they will be tested.  (Also a form of the verb bachan.)

Joseph throws all ten of them in prison for three days.  When he releases them, he overhears them speaking in Hebrew.

And they said, each man to his brother: “Alas!  We are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us for mercy, and we did not listen.  Therefore this distress came upon us.”  (Genesis 42:21)

This is the first evidence Joseph gets that his older brothers have changed.  When he was seventeen, his brothers were only concerned about getting rid of Joseph for good without being technically responsible for shedding his blood.  Now they remember Joseph as a human being with feelings, and they feel guilty.

Joseph’s Brothers Find the Silver,
Aunt Louisa’s Sunday Picture Book, c. 1870

The test continues.  Joseph decides to keep only one brother, Simon, as a hostage.  He sells grain to the other nine, and sneaks their silver back into their packs just before they leave for Canaan. Again he orders them to return with their youngest brother, threatening that they will not see his face unless they do.

The youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons is Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother—the only other son Jacob had with his beloved Rachel.  Their father, Jacob, always played favorites.  He loved Rachel more than his other wife or his concubines, and after she died he loved her elder son Joseph more than his other sons.  Joseph guesses that his father has become attached to Benjamin now, and he wants to find out if his half-brothers would treat Benjamin as badly as they once treated him.

He may also remember his baby brother fondly; he was an innocent child of six when Joseph’s older brothers could not speak a peaceful word to him.  Maybe Joseph wants to protect Benjamin in Egypt if their half-brothers turn out to be just as wicked as before.

Jacob, having already lost Rachel and Joseph, refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt.  He would rather leave his unloved son Simon in an Egyptian prison for life.  But the famine continues.  Judah (Jacob’s fourth son) points out that the whole family will starve to death if they do not return to Egypt for grain, and he pledges to be responsible for Benjamin.  Jacob finally lets him go.

When the brothers arrive in Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph releases Simon and invites them all to dine at his palace.  Nervously, the brothers tell Joseph’s steward that they found silver in their packs last time, and offer to return it along with more silver to buy more food.  This might show only that the brothers are smart enough to avoid being accused of theft; or it might indicate that they have become more honest.

At the feast, Joseph gives Benjamin five times as much food as the others, putting his little brother in the same position Joseph was in when Jacob gave him, and none of his brothers, an expensive tunic.  This time the ten older brothers do not react to the favoritism.

The Cup Found,
by James Tissot

Then the final test begins.  Once again, Joseph has the silver returned to the brothers’ packs.2  He also has his steward plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack.  Then Joseph sends the man to overtake the brothers on the road, make a show of finding the “thief” of the cup, and declare that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as a slave.

Instead of letting Benjamin take the blame, the brothers all return to Joseph’s palace with him.

And Judah said: “What can we say to my lord?  How can we speak, and how can we prove our innocence?  God has found out the crime of your servants.  Here we are, slaves to my lord, along with the one in whose hand the goblet was found.” (Genesis 44:16)

The older brothers’ solidarity with Benjamin might be the final piece of evidence Joseph needs.  But a lingering doubt makes him repeat that only Benjamin will stay as a slave in Egypt.

Then, at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”), Judah steps closer to the viceroy of Egypt and tells the story of Jacob’s love for Benjamin, predicting that if Benjamin does not return, their father will die.  He concludes:

“And now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord.  And let the boy go up with his brothers.  For how can I go up to my father if the boy is not with me?—lest I see the evil that would find my father!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

At that point Joseph’s test ends.  His older brothers have proven that they have changed for the better.

There is one piece of unfinished business.  Joseph has not had the opportunity to test his father, who never overtly harmed him, but did smother him with a narcissistic love, and did send him off alone and unprotected to find his hostile older brothers far away to the north.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father for two clues that Joseph blamed his father for some of his suffering.)

Joseph Recognized by his Brothers,
by Marc Chagall

Joseph has not forgotten his father.  Overcome with emotion, he sends all his attendants out of the room, bursts into tears, and says:

I am Joseph.  Is my father really still alive? (Genesis 45:3)

Having tested his older brothers, Joseph will not punish them, will not take revenge.  But will he forgive them?

Will Joseph be able to forgive his father without testing him?  I will address these questions in next week’s post, Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.

Testing people who once harmed you or your loved one is harder in real life than it is in the Torah.  A few times in my life I have withheld my true feelings, looking for signs of change in people who once attacked me, but the evidence has always been ambiguous.  If reconciliation is possible, it happens in a different way.  And if reconciliation is not possible, the injured person can still find an inner healing.

May all of us who have been harmed without a reconciliation receive divine insight, so that like Joseph, we can reveal our feelings, let go of our disguises, and become whole.

  1. Genesis 37:12-27 (in the Torah portion Vayeishev).
  2. Robert Alter points out: “Meanwhile, as in dream logic—or perhaps one should say, guilt logic—the brothers, who once took silver when they sold Joseph down into Egypt, seem helpless to ‘return’ the silver to Egypt, as much as they try.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 253)

 

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).

 

Haftarat Mikeitz—1 Kings: No Half Measures

December 28, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Mikeitz | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 3:15-4:1.
Anointment of King Solomon

Anointment of King Solomon

Solomon, the young new king of Israel, has a dream just before this week’s haftarah reading. God offers him not three wishes, but one wish:

At Gibeon God appeared to Solomon in a dream in the night, and God said: “Ask, what shall I give you?”  (1 Kings 3:5)

Solomon, being already somewhat wise, does not ask for wealth. long life, or the defeat of his enemies (as God notices with approval). After mentioning his own inexperience as a leader, the new king says:

May You give Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, lehavin between good and bad.  For who is able to judge this impressive multitude of Your people?  (1 Kings 3:9)

lehavin (לְהָבִין) = to be able to discern, to gain insight.  (From the same root as binah, בִּינָה = insight.)

God responds:  Hey! I have done as you spoke. Hey! I gave you a mind [which is] wise and navon…  (1 Kings 3:12)

navon (נָווֹן) = perceptive, discerning.  (Also from the same root as binah.)

In the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. (See my post Giving Directions.) But in the dream at Gibeon, God grants Solomon’s wish for the ability to discern between good and bad.

The young king wakes up from his dream and returns to Jerusalem at the opening of this week’s haftarah, sacrifices at the altar, and holds a banquet.

It was then that two prostitute women came to the king and stood before him.  (1 Kings 3:16)

Solomon asked for understanding and binah in order to be a good judge for the whole multitude of Israel. His first case is a dispute between two of its most despised members: prostitutes. Normally a local elder would judge this case; a king would only serve as a court of appeals or as the judge for affairs of state.  Either the two prostitutes have already gone to a local judge, who was unable to decide on a ruling, or they simply barge in on the new king’s party and he decides to hear them out instead of throwing them out.

Since the two prostitutes are never named in this story, I will quote only their dialogue as they present their case, identifying each speaker as Woman #1 or Woman #2.

by Andrea Mantegna

by Andrea Mantegna

Woman #1:  Please, my lord, I and this woman [#2] are living in one house, and I gave birth with her in the house.  And it happened that on the third day after my giving birth, this woman [#2] also gave birth.  And we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house except me. The two of us were in the house.  (1 Kings 3:17-3:18)

So far, Woman #1 has explained that there were no witnesses to the event she is about to describe. But a discerning listener—and Solomon is now discerning—would notice that unlike other Israelite women, the two prostitutes do not live with any family members. They live alone in a shared house. Clients (including the unknown fathers of their infants) may come and go, but they have only one another for companionship and help.

Woman #1:  Then the son of this woman [#2] died at night, when she lay down on him. And she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your servant [woman #1] slept. And she [woman #2] laid him in her bosom.  And her son, the dead one, she laid in my bosom. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, hey! He was dead! Va-etbonein him in the morning, and hey! He was not my son to whom I had given birth!  (1 Kings 3:19-21)

va-etbonein (וָאֶתְבּוֹנֵן) = but I looked closely at, but I paid attention to, but I was perceptive about. (From the root binah, like the words lehavin and navon in Solomon’s dream.)

Woman #2:  No, for my son is the living one and your son is the dead one!  Yet this one [woman #1] is saying: “No, for your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.”  (1 Kings 3:22)

While Woman #1 tells a complete story, Woman #2 merely contradicts her on the key question: Who is the mother of the living infant?  Like Woman #1, she refers to her housemate and companion only as “this one” or “this woman”. The trauma of the dead baby has alienated the two women; they are no longer friends. Now they are desperate competitors for a baby to nurse and love (and eventually, if all goes well, a grown son to support them in old age).

Judgment of Solomon 14th century

The Judgment of Solomon
14th century

King Solomon summarizes the dispute, then calls for his sword. His servants place it between the king and the two women. This dramatic visual aid makes his words more believable when he says:

Cut the boy in two, and you shall give half to one and half to the other.  (1 Kings 3:24-25)

In a fairy tale, that is what the evil monster would say, prompting the two women to unite against him. But this is a wisdom tale about an insightful judge.

The Bible does not dictate what a judge should do if two people claim ownership of the same object, and there are no witnesses or other evidence. But the Mishnah (written ~200 C.E.) for the Talmud tractate Bava Metzia discusses the problem using the example of a valuable garment two people are holding onto as they speak to a judge.

Talmud Readers by Adolf Berman

Talmud Readers
by Adolf Berman

One of them says “I found it’ and the other says “I found it’. One of them says “it is all mine’ and the other says “It is all mine”. Then one shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and the other shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and it shall then be divided between them.  (Bava Metzia 2a, Soncino translation)

The Mishnah it is a record of “oral law”, i.e. previously unwritten legal precedents thought to date back to the time of Moses. So the above rule may well have been in use since the books of Kings were written in 6th century B.C.E., about seven centuries before the Mishnah was written.

The haftarah does not say whether both women are holding onto the baby while they stand before the king. But if so, this precedent would give King Solomon an excuse for uttering the same ruling about a disputed baby as he would about a disputed garment.

Both women believe he means it, and are shocked into revealing more about themselves.

The Judgment of Solomon by William Blake

The Judgment of Solomon
by William Blake

And the woman whose son was living said to the king—because her compassion was stirred up over her son—she said: “Please, my lord, give the living boy to her, or you will certainly kill him!” But the other one was saying: “Let him be neither mine nor hers.  Cut him!” (1 Kings 3:26)

Which woman begs the king to give the living baby to her enemy, in order to save his life—Woman #1 or Woman #2? Which woman is so fixated on winning the dispute over ownership that she no longer cares about the child? The text is not clear, though perhaps the first woman to present her case (Woman #1) is also the first woman to speak after Solomon’s shocking order.

And the king responded, and he said: “Give her the living boy, and certainly do not kill him. She is his mother!  And all Israel heard the judgment that the king had judged, and they were in awe in face of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice.  (1 Kings 3:27-28)

The bottom line is that only a woman who wants a baby to live is fit to be its mother. Anyone who would rather let a child die than lose a dispute is an unfit parent, even if she reacts that way only in a moment of temporary insanity. King Solomon proves that he can go beyond legal considerations and rule according to his God-given binah between good and bad.

I suspect the compassionate mother is Woman #1, the one who told a coherent story about what happened. She is the one who saidva-etbonein him in the morning: she paid attention to the infant, looking at him with a Solomon-like discernment. She implied that if she had recognized the dead baby as her own, she would have accepted her loss; she knows infants are not interchangeable.

Woman #2 speaks only to insist that she owns the living baby, without offering any explanation. I can imagine her making the midnight substitution in order to get the advantage for herself, without even considering whether her action is ethical. When Woman #1 demands her own child back, Woman #2 is reduced to saying: No, it’s mine!

If Woman #2 is also the woman who says “Cut him!” she lacks not only compassion, but also any knowledge of good and bad.

Nobody is good all of the time. Waking up next to a dead baby might fill any woman with grief and horror. With no one to comfort her, and breasts full of milk, Woman #2 might have switched the babies in the middle of the night without thinking it through. But when Woman #1 discovered the substitution in the morning, a woman with a heart would have apologized, cried, and handed over the living baby.  Who knows, perhaps then the two lonely prostitutes could have made peace and raised the boy together.

But when one of the two women insisted on lying, peace and friendship became impossible. The innocent woman could not bear, and would not dare, to continue living in the same house with a predatory liar. Yet she has no family or friends to help her get away and protect her and her son. She goes all the way to the king, who turns out to have the binah to see the truth.

Unfortunately, compassion and truth do not always triumph in our world. Those who have little power can still be victimized by people who never tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad—people who are impaired either by their genes or their upbringing, and do not understand the moral imperative of being human.

I pray that every powerless victim may either escape or find a wise judge.  And I pray that everyone who is called upon to judge may be granted binah—and compassion.

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 5

December 27, 2015 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Mikeitz, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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This is the final post in a series comparing three stories of Jews who rise from captivity to high positions in a foreign land: the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther.  After Joseph. Daniel, and Esther’s cousin Mordecai have all become viceroys of empires, all three stories continue with the themes “The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead”, and “Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land”.

* The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead. *

Joseph’s revenge is the most complex and psychological. When he is seventeen, his ten jealous older brothers throw him in a pit, discuss killing him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.  Twenty-one years later, the brothers come to Egypt to buy grain during the first of what will be seven years of famine.  They bow down to the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnot-Paneiach, who wears Egyptian linens and a gold collar and speaks through an interpreter, without recognizing their little brother Joseph, all grown up and in charge of Egypt. But Joseph recognizes them.

Joseph and brothers in EgyptJoseph has absolute power; he could order his brothers’ execution and no one would question it.  Instead, he accuses them of being spies, and they explain they are ten of twelve brothers. He says he will keep one of the brothers in prison while the others bring grain back to their households in Canaan. But then they must bring back their youngest brother, Joseph’s innocent little brother Benjamin, to prove they are telling the truth.

Then they said, each to his brother: Ah, we are carryng guilt over our brother because we saw the tzarah of his soul when he pleaded with us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this tzarah has come upon us. (Genesis/Bereishit 42:21)

tzarah (צָּרָה) = distress.

They intuit that Joseph’s distress resulted, somehow, in their current distress—even without knowing that the Egyptian viceroy is Joseph (or that he knows Hebrew and understands their every word).

Joseph throws them all into prison for three days—an echo of when Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit. Then he sends off nine of his brothers with sacks full of grain (and the silver they paid for the grain hidden in the sacks).  He keeps one of his nastier older brothers, Shimon, in prison, and promises to release him only when the others return with Benjamin.

They do not return until the second year of famine; it takes that long before their father, Jacob, will let his beloved son Benjamin go with them. Then Joseph gets revenge for being sold as a slave—without actually enslaving anyone.

Joseph's Brothers Find the Silver Goblet in Benjamin's Sack, by Alexander Ivanov

Joseph’s Brothers Find the Silver Goblet in Benjamin’s Sack, by Alexander Ivanov

He releases Shimon and treats all eleven of his brothers to a feast. When their sacks are filled with grain, he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then he sends a servant after them, who finds the goblet, claims it was stolen, and declares that Benjamin—the one innocent brother—must stay in Egypt as Joseph’s slave.

This is a test to see whether the ten older men have reformed and will no longer abandon the brother their father loves best. The test causes the brothers further psychological distress, but they do get a passing grade. First they all volunteer to be slaves along with Benjamin, and then when they are brought before Joseph, a.k.a. Tzafnot-Paneiach, Judah volunteers to replace Benjamin and become the viceroy’s slave instead. Only then does Joseph tell them his true identity.

*

Joseph arranges his own revenge on his brothers, but in the books of Daniel and Esther the revenge happens at the king’s command, in the form of a simple tit-for-tat. The bad guys get exactly the same punishment they had intended for the hero.

Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel’s rivals for the post of viceroy set him up so that he will be sealed overnight into a den of lions. (See Part 3.)  Daniel survives, thanks to a divine miracle.

Then by order of the king, those men who had slandered Daniel were brought and, together with their children and wives, were thrown into the lions’ den. They had hardly reached the bottom of the den when the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones. (Daniel 6:25, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)

In the book of Esther, the bad guy is Haman, whose pride is wounded because Mordecai the Jew refuses to bow to him when he is made viceroy of Persia. Haman persuades the king to issue an edict that everyone in the Persian Empire may kill all Jews on the 13th of the month of Adar. Haman also erects a tall stake so he can personally impale Mordecai when the day comes.

His plot is foiled when Queen Esther, Mordecai’s cousin, reveals that she is a Jew.

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Then Charvonah, one of the eunuchs before the king, said: Also there is a wood [stake] that Haman made for Mordecai, whose good words saved the king [from an assassination plot]. It is standing at the house of Haman, 50 cubits tall.  And the king said: Impale him on it! And they impaled Haman on the wood [stake] that he had prepared for Mordecai, and the anger of the king abated. That day King Achashverosh gave to Queen Esther the property of Haman, enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came before the king, since Esther had told what his relationship was to her. Then the king removed his signet ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and he gave it to Mordecai. (Esther 7:9-8:1)

Instead of Haman being viceroy and Mordecai being impaled, Mordecai is viceroy and Haman is impaled. The king’s edict permitting the massacre of the Jews cannot be rescinded, but Esther persuades the king to issue a counter-edict that on the same day, the 13th of Adar, the Jews of every city may assemble and fight anyone who attacks them. Between that edict and Mordecai’s new position, nobody dares to kill a Jew.

The enemies of the Jews hoped lishlot them, but the opposite happened, and the Jews shalat those who hated them. (Esther 9:1)

lishlot (לִשְׁלוֹט) = to gain power over.

shalat (שָׁלַט) = gained power over.

* Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land. *

Goshen Rameses PitomJust as Joseph arranges his own non-lethal revenge, he arranges to move the children of Israel to a foreign land. After he ends his game of testing his brothers, he reveals his identity and tells them to fetch their father and their own families and move to a fertile district of Egypt called Goshen.

And I shall provide for you there, because there will be five more years of famine, so that you will not be deprived, you and your households and all that you own. (Genesis/Bereishit 45:11)

Pharaoh happily ratifies Joseph’s offer and sends wagons north to help Jacob and all his descendants move to Egypt. These original 70 children of Israel do not leave Egypt when the famine ends five years later. They stay on for four centuries, until a new dynasty rules Egypt and enslaves them to build Pharaoh’s cities. So although the children of Israel prosper during Joseph’s lifetime, eventually their lives in Egypt become intolerable, and they need God and Moses to rescue them—in the story that begins with this week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Names) in the book of Exodus.

*

The book of Daniel only implies that the Jews in the new Persian Empire benefit from Daniel’s prayers three times a day, which he continues even when his rivals trick the king into ordering that no one shall bow to a god for 30 days. Daniel emerges unscathed from the lion’s den, but when the king throws Daniel’s enemies into the den, the lions kill them at once. At this additional proof that a powerful god is on Daniel’s side,

King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language that inhabit the earth, ‘May your well-being abound! I have hereby given an order that throughout my royal domain men must tremble in fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God who endures forever …He delivers and saves, and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, for He delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.’ Thus Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and during the reign of Cyrus the Persian. (Daniel 6:26-29)

Although the book does not specifically say that all Jews in the empire prospered along with the viceroy Daniel, the official elevation of their god implies that their position also improves. The rest of the book of Daniel consists of a series of prophetic visions Daniel experiences, with no mention of any further discrimination against the children of Israel in the Persian Empire.

*

Triumph of Mordecai, by Jean Francois de Troy

Triumph of Mordecai, by Jean Francois de Troy

In the book of Esther, the new prestige of the Jews in the Persian Empire is an inseparable part of the revenge against Haman. First the king executes Haman and makes Mordecai the viceroy in his place—giving a known Jew great power. Then the king counteracts Haman’s edict urging everyone to kill Jews on a certain date by issuing a new edict permitting the Jews to assemble and kill their enemies on that day.

Due to both Mordecai’s power and the king’s new edict, people throughout the empire show deference to the Jews among them, being careful not to offend them.

…and many of the people of the land mityahadim because the terror of the Jews fell upon them. (Esther 8:17)

mityahadim (מִתְיַהַדִים) = were pretending to be Yehudim = Jews.

The Jews kill their few remaining enemies on the official day, the 13th of Adar, which becomes the holiday of Purim.

*

The stories of Joseph, Daniel, and the Esther and Mordecai duo put a different spin on each of the seven themes they have in common, including the final theme of Jews prospering in a foreign land.

The children of Israel prosper in Egypt (for several generations, at least) because Joseph moves his extended family to he fertile district of Goshen. The Israelites secure religious freedom under the first king of the Persian Empire because Daniel proves the power of the God of Israel. And the Jews acquire more status and power later because Esther (King Achashveirosh’s chosen queen) and Mordecai (who saves Achaveirosh’s life) identify themselves as Jews, and persuade the king to reverse every action of Haman, the prime enemy of the Jews.

Together, the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther demonstrate that it is possible for Jews to succeed in exile (galut), outside their former land.

What do you need to live successfully in a new place? A way to make a living and secure the physical necessities of life, according to the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. Freedom of worship, according to the book of Daniel. And the respect of the people around you, according to the book of Esther.

I pray that more and more nations in today’s world will let everyone within their borders make a living, follow their own religion, and live in peace and mutual respect.

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther: Part 4

December 21, 2015 at 11:28 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Mikeitz | Leave a comment
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Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all Israelites who attain success outside of their native land. Their stories have seven themes in common; the fifth is:

* The hero gets a foreign name. *

Actually only Joseph gets his new name and his new rank at the same time. When he is brought up from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams in the Torah Portion Mikeitz (see Part 3), he is still the Hebrew slave Joseph. When he leaves Pharaoh, he is the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnat Panei-ach.

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream, by Reginald Arthur, 1894

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, by Reginald Arthur, 1894

Joseph explains that Pharoah’s two dreams are prophecies of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he gratuitously advises Pharoah to find a discerning and wise man to appoint a bureaucracy to collect a fifth of Egypt’s harvest during the next seven years and stockpile it against the coming famine.

And Pharaoh said to his servants: Could we find [another] man like this, who has the spirit of God in him? …Then Pharaoh said to Joseph: See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh did more, and placed his signet ring from his hand on the hand of Joseph. And he dressed him in clothes of fine linen, and he put the gold collar over his neck. (Genesis 41:39-42)

Then Pharaoh gives Joseph a new name and an Egyptian wife.

And Pharaoh called the sheim of Joseph: Tzafnat Panei-ach, and he gave to him Asnat, daughter of Poti-Fera, priest of On, for a wife. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:45)

sheim (שֵׁם) = name; standing, reputation, renown, fame.

Joseph = English for Yoseif (יוֹסֵף) = adding, increasing.

Tzafnat Panei-ach (צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ) = (Phonetic spelling of an Egyptian phrase, probably meaning “The God Speaks, He Lives”.)

The new name and new wife are further symbols of Joseph’s new rank and position, but I believe they serve a second purpose.  In order for the people of Egypt to accept the Pharaoh’s appointee as their ruler, Joseph must seem less foreign, more Egyptian. Besides wearing the fine linen of the Egyptian upper class, he must go by an Egyptian name.  An Egyptian wife makes him look even more assimilated, and may also increase his loyalty to Egypt.

*

Joseph acquires an Egyptian name the day he is appointed viceroy, at age 30. Daniel and his three friends are given Babylonian names when they are still adolescent boys, captives from the conquered city of Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar orders his head eunuch, Ashpenaz, to bring him some descendants of the royalty and nobility of Judah, boys who are attractive, healthy, and educable. For three years Ashpenaz must teach these foreign boys to read and write Chadean (Babylonian), and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine.

Among those from Judah there were Daniel, Chananyah, Misha-eil, and Azaryah. And the head of the eunuchs put sheimot for them; and he put for Dani-el Beilteshatzar, and for Chananyah Shadrakh, and for Misha-eil Meyshakh, and for Azaryah Aved-nego. (Daniel 1:6-7)

sheimot (שֶׁמוֹת) = names. (plural of sheim)

Daniel = English for Danyeil (דָּנִיֵּאל) = Hebrew: My Judge (Dany) is God (Eil).

Beil fights the dragon on a Babylonian cylinder seal

Beil fights the dragon on a Babylonian cylinder seal

Beilteshatzar (בֵּלְטְשַׁאצּר) = Babylonian: ?? Theories include three possible Babylonian phrases: Protect his Life, Beilat Protect the King, and Beil Keeps Secret Treasures. Beil is the Babylonian creator god, and Beilat is the goddess wife of Beil.

All four boys arrive in Babylon with Jewish names that include a word for the God of Israel, either Eil or Yah. But King Nebuchadnezzar hopes to use these boys as advisors, after they have learned the language and culture of Babylon. It is essential to his plan that the four boys switch their loyalty to him, instead of remaining attached to their native land and their native god.

The first step is to give them new names—monikers that contain names for Babylonian gods instead of the God of Israel. (See postscript below for the other three boys.) And the first thing the four boys do after they are renamed is to request a kosher diet! (See Part 2.)

In fact, Daniel and his friends do something Nebuchadnezzar did not expect: they remain faithful to the God of Israel, and they also become loyal servants of the king of Babylon. Daniel rises to become the viceroy of the empire. Although they answer to their Babylonian names in public, in their own hearts their real names are their Jewish names.

*

In the book of Esther, the two Jewish heroes have Persian names from the start. Here is how Esther’s cousin and guardian Mordecai is introduced:

A Jew was in the citadel of Shushan, and shemo was Mordecai, son of Ya-ir, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a man of [the tribe of] Benjamin, who was deported from Jerusalem with the deportees that were deported with Yekanyah, king of Judah, in the deportation of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. (Esther 2:5-6)

shemo (שְׁמוֹ) = his name.

Mordecai (מַרְדָּכַי) = English for Mordakhai = My Marduks. Marduk was a Babylonian god adopted by the Persians.

Ya-ir (יָאִיר) = He Shines.

Shimi (שִׁמְעִי) = I Listen.

Kish (קִישׁ) = (etymology unknown; also the name of the father of Saul, the first king of Israel.)

Marduk and his snake-dragon, from the reign of Cyrus

Marduk and his snake-dragon, from the reign of Cyrus

Mordecai’s father Yair, his grandfather Shimi, and his great-grandfather Kish all have Hebrew names. But Mordecai, a third-generation exile, seems to have only a Persian name. And what a name! But nobody in the story questions that a Jew carries the name of a foreign god.

And he became the foster parent of Hadassah, who was Esther, the daughter of his uncle, because she had no father or mother. (Esther 2:7)

Hadassah (הֲדַסָּה) = Hebrew: Myrtle.

Esther (אֶסְתֵּר) = English for Esteir = Persian: star.

Esther has a Hebrew name, but this is the only time it is mentioned in the whole book of Esther.  The rest of the time she goes by her Persian name.

God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, and neither Mordecai nor Esther prays or does any specifically religious act. But Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman because it is not his custom as a Jew (see Part 3), and when Haman arranges for the execution of Jews, Esther tells the king she is a Jew, and saves her people.

*

Each of the three stories illustrates a different stage of exile. Joseph embraces Egyptian dress and an Egyptian wife, but he never fully assimilates. When he reveals his identity to his brothers, he says simply I am Joseph.  He lets his father give his two sons the heritage of the children of Israel, and he requests his own burial in Canaan.

Some American Jews who use only one first name, a Hebrew name, for everything. Some feel as though Israel is their real home; they consider emigrating, and they want to be buried there. They remind me of Joseph.

Daniel also serves the country where he was brought as a captive, and he flourishes in exile. He becomes a man of Babylon, and never considers returning to Jerusalem. But he continues to keep kosher and to pray to the God of Israel every day for his whole life. And although he is given a Babylonian name, he remains Daniel in the Bible and in his heart.

Most American Jews today have a Hebrew name we use for religious ritual, and a secular name we use for everything else. My Hebrew name is Tzipporah, and I only use it in religious contexts; the rest of the time I am Melissa. Like Daniel and his friends, I am loyal to my religion, but I am attached to the land of the United States (even when its government goes crazy). I want to make a pilgrimage to Israel, but I would not emigrate there.

Esther and Mordecai apparently use Persian names from birth, and their lives revolve around the Persian court. We do not see them do anything religious. Yet they identify themselves as Jews, even at the risk of death.

Some American Jews also never use a Hebrew name, and do not bother much with religion. Yet when identity is an issue, they affirm that they are Jews.

Thus thousands of years after the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther were written down, Jews are still following all three models for holding a Jewish identity in another land!

 

Postscript:

Here are the Hebrew and Babylonian names of Daniel’s fellow captives:

Chananyah (חֲנַנְיָה) = Hebrew: Gracious (Chanan) is God (Yah).

            Shadrakh (שַׁדְרַךְ) = Babylonian: Command (Shuddur) of Aku. Aku is a Babylonian moon god.

Misha-eil (מִישָׁאֵל) = Hebrew: Who is (Mi) That Which (She-) is God (Eil).

            Meyshakh (מֵישַׁךְ) = Babylonian: Who is That Which is Aku.

Azaryah (עַזַרְיָה) = Hebrew: Help (Azar) is God (Yah).

            Aved-nego (עֲוֶד נְגוֹ) = Servant of Nego. Nego is a mispronunciation of one of two Babylonian gods: Nabu, co-ruler of Babylon with the god Marduk, or Nergal, a god of death.

 

Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Joseph cries eight times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, more often than any other individual in the Hebrew Bible. Only the Israelites as a whole break into sobs more often.

Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character in the Hebrew Bible, but he does not start crying until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt. When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, then sell him as a slave. His brothers remember later that he pleaded for mercy, but nowhere does the Torah say he cried. Nor is any crying reported when Joseph is falsely accused and imprisoned in Egypt.

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Twenty years later, in last week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph’s older brothers bow down to him in Egypt and ask his permission to buy grain. They do not recognize the viceroy, but Joseph recognizes them.  He accuses them (in Egyptian) of spying and throws them into prison.  Then he overhears them agreeing that they are guilty because they did not listen to Joseph’s pleading when he was in the pit.

And he [Joseph] turned around from them, vayeivek; then he returned to them and he spoke to them, and he took Shimon from them and tied him up in front of their eyes. (Genesis/Bereishit 42:24)

vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְּ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly.

Joseph breaks down in private, but when he recovers he knows he needs better evidence that his brothers have truly changed.  He devises a test, and tells them that he will keep one of them as a hostage until the rest return with the youngest brother, whom their father kept at home.

When they finally do return with Benjamin, Joseph runs out of the room to cry a second time.

And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot (sobbing); so he came into the inner room vayeivek (and he sobbed) there. Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself. (Genesis 43:30-31)

His emotional ferment is close to the surface, but he manages to resume the test. Before his eleven brothers depart for Canaan, Joseph plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack. He has his brothers stopped and searched.  When they return to the viceroy’s palace, he accuses the youngest of stealing, and commands that Benjamin stay in Egypt as his slave.

The third time Joseph cries is in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“and he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, makes a passionate speech and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin, in order to spare their father from dying of grief. Joseph is moved by the revelation that Judah, at least, has changed from a man who would sell his own brother into a man who would sacrifice himself for the sake of a father who does not even love him.

Then Joseph was not able to restrain himself in front of everyone stationed around him, so he called out: Remove everyone from me! And no one stood with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. And he gave his voice free reign in bekhi (sobbing), and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph identifies himself to his brothers, excuses their crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt.

Then he fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek (and he sobbed), and Benjamin bakha (sobbed) upon his neck. Then he kissed all his brothers, vayeivek upon them, and after that his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:14-15)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace. Their ten older brothers are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved. Joseph has excused their past sin, but he has not pardoned them. In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension. They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.

This scene is a variation of a scene between their father, Jacob, and his brother, Esau. Earlier in the book of Genesis (in the portion Vayishlach), Jacob returns to Canaan twenty years after he ran away because Esau threatened to kill him. Esau travels toward him with four hundred men, and Jacob sends generous gifts ahead to propitiate his brother. When he sees Esau on the road, he arranges his family with his favorite wife (Rachel) and child (Joseph) in back.

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Then he himself crossed over in front of them, and he bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came all the way up to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him, vayivku (and they sobbed). Genesis 33:3-4)

In both scenes, two brothers have been separated for twenty years. In both scenes, the two brothers sob. And in both scenes, the emotional displays are unequal.  Esau, who has more power in the first scene, runs eagerly, hugs his brother, falls on his neck, and kisses him. He has forgiven Jacob, and he cries from relief and the joy of reunion. Jacob bows to propitiate his brother, then stands nervously until Esau’s affectionate behavior convinces him he has nothing to fear for the present. Then he sobs in relief.

In the second scene, Joseph has the power. He sobs as he reveals himself and welcomes his brothers as friends instead of enemies. Next he is overwhelmed by relief and joy over his reunion with Benjamin, the little brother who never harmed him. He falls on Benjamin’s neck and sobs again. Benjamin reciprocates, but his primary relief and joy is that his own status has changed; instead of being considered a thief and a slave, he is now the viceroy’s favorite brother.

Then Joseph kisses all his brothers, as Esau kissed Jacob, and sobs over them. But the ten older brothers can only respond by speaking with him; their level of emotional relief does not match his. Joseph has excused their past crime as God’s means for getting him to Egypt, but he has not explicitly pardoned or forgiven them. Like Jacob when he was reunited with Esau, Joseph’s brothers are not sure their brother’s goodwill is going to last.

A third variation of the scene occurs when Jacob and his extended family travel to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection. Joseph rides his chariot to meet his father on the road.

And he fell upon his neck, vayeivek (and he sobbed), still, upon his neck, as Israel (Jacob) said to Joseph: This time I would die, after I have seen your face, for you are still alive. (Genesis 46:29-30)

Maybe Joseph sobs because the sight of his aged father floods him with emotional memories.  Or maybe he sobs because his long and difficult relationship with his father is suddenly resolved. (See my posts Vayeishev: Prey, and Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy.) Now Joseph is the one in charge, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to his now-dependent father. What a relief!

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, does not sob. He mourned over Joseph’s apparent death for years, and even when he switched to doting on Benjamin, he frequently predicted his own death. Although seeing Joseph alive and well (and rich and powerful) is the best thing that has happened to him since Rachel was alive, Jacob is emotionally worn out. He has no tears left.

In my own life, I have sometimes been the eager, loving one, and I have sometimes been the wary but hopeful one. And I have sometimes been the one who is too worn out to feel what the occasion requires.

When two people meet, they never have the same experience inside. Even when they are both weeping in an emotional release, they have different reasons for their tears.

May we all be blessed with awareness and acceptance of these differences between ourselves and the people we are connected with. And may we all be blessed with tears of relief.

 

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Identity Crisis

December 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The last four Torah portions in the book of Genesis/Bereishit tell the story of Jacob’s two most dynamic sons: Joseph, who changes from a foreign slave into a viceroy of Egypt; and Judah, who changes from an amoral egotist into a man of integrity. This double post looks at Judah’s transformation in the first half of the story: the Torah portions Vayeishev and Mikeitz, and Judah’s speech at the beginning of Vayiggash.

(My next post, on later events in the portion Vayiggash, will appear two weeks from now.)

Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)

The story begins when Joseph is seventeen. He tends the flocks with his ten older brothers, who are in their twenties, and brings his father bad reports about them. Jacob dotes on Joseph, since he and baby Benjamin are the sons of his second and most beloved wife, Rachel, who died when Benjamin was born. Jacob gives Joseph a fancy tunic or coat. Then Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them. Naturally, his older brothers hate him.  As soon as they get a chance, they seize their obnoxious little brother and throw him into a pit.

Joseph's Coast Brought to Jacob, by Giovanni Andrea de Ferarri

Joseph’s Coast Brought to Jacob, by Giovanni Andrea de Ferarri

First they argue over whether to kill him. Then Judah persuades the others to sell Joseph to some slavers heading for Egypt.  The brothers dip Joseph’s fancy tunic in goat blood and bring it to Jacob, saying: This we found; hakker na, is it your son’s tunic or not? (Genesis/Bereishit 37:32)

hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.

na (נָא) = please.

The trick works; Jacob concludes a wild beast has killed his favorite son. He goes into inconsolable mourning. And Judah suddenly moves south.

Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that Judah’s brothers blame him for selling Joseph and tricking their father, and claim that if Judah had proposed a better course of action, they would have listened to him. So Judah moves to get away from his father’s grief and his brothers’ resentment—the reminders of his own guilt.

Judah starts a new life by marrying a Canaanite woman and having three sons with her: Eir, Onan, and Shelah.

Judah took a wife for Eir, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. And Eir, the firstborn of Judah, was bad in God’s eyes, and God made him die. Then Judah said to Onan: Come into the wife of your brother and yabeim with her, and establish offspring for your brother. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:6-8)

yabeim (יַבֵּם) = impregnate the childless widow of one’s deceased brother or close male relative. (Yabeim is an imperative verb; the noun for the act is yibum, also called levirate “marriage”.)

According to the law of both Canaan and Israel, a son born from yibum receives the inheritance of the deceased man. Without a son from yibum, the inheritance goes to the man’s surviving brothers.

Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when coming into the wife of his brother, he wasted his seed on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And it was bad in God’s eyes, what he did, and [God] made him die, also. (Genesis/Bereishit 38:9-10)

Judah’s remaining son, Shelah, is not yet old enough to impregnate Tamar. Judah uses this as an excuse to send her back to her father’s house.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up. For he said [to himself]: lest he dies, also, like his brothers. And Tamar went, and she sat in her father’s house. (Genesis 37:11)

Judah has no intention of letting Shelah yabeim with Tamar. He assumes that she, not God, somehow caused of the death of Eir and Onan. Determined to protect his remaining son, Judah dooms Tamar to the disgrace of returning to her father’s house, and to the limited life of a woman who is legally forbidden to remarry, have a child, or do anything without her father-in-law’s consent.

Shelah grows up, but Judah does not send him to Tamar. Judah’s wife dies, and after he has finished mourning for her, he heads to a sheep-shearing festival in Timnah to have a good time. Tamar decides to risk her life in an attempt to win a new life.

detail by John Singer Sargent

detail by John Singer Sargent

She took off her widow’s clothing and she covered herself in a shawl and she wrapped herself, and she sat at petach eynayim, which is on the road to Timnah… And Yehudah saw her and he considered her a prostitute, for she had covered her face. (Genesis 37:14-15)

petach eynayim (פֶּתַח עֵינַיִם) = the entrance to a pair of wells; the opening of the eyes.

Prostitutes in Canaan did not cover their faces; Tamar’s face-covering merely prevents Judah from recognizing her.  He assumes she is a prostitute because she is sitting by a public road, where no woman except a prostitute would linger. She may also have wrapped herself in clothing typical for a prostitute.

At petach eynayim, Tamar’s eyes are open behind her shawl; she sees that Judah will never give her Shelah. Judah’s eyes are still closed. Not only does he fail to recognize his daughter-in-law; he cannot see his own past behavior clearly. He propositions the woman sitting by the road.

And she said: What will you give me if you come into me? And he said: I will give a goat kid from the flock. And she said: If you give an eiravon until you send it. (Genesis 37:16-17)

eiravon (עֵרָבוֹן) = guarantee, security deposit, pledge.

And he said: What is the eiravon that I shall give you? And she said: Your seal and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand. And he gave them to her, and he came into her, and she conceived. (Genesis 37:18)

453px-Babylonian_-_Cylinder_Seal_with_Three_Standing_Figures_and_Inscriptions_-_Walters_42692_-_Side_DImportant men in ancient Canaan wore seals on cords around their necks. A seal was a small (about an inch long) cylinder carved with a name or a design indicating the owner’s identity. At that time, documents were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. In order to sign a document, a man rolled his seal along one edge of the clay tablet while it was still wet.

A man’s staff was the emblem of his authority over his own household, clan, or tribe. Thus Judah hands Tamar the symbols of his personal and social identities. When he gets home, he sends his friend to find the prostitute and exchange a goat kid for the eiravon, but she cannot be found.

A few months later Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, even though she is not allowed to have any sex outside of yibum. This flouting of society’s rules requires the man in charge of Tamar to take immediate action.  Judah might be secretly relieved that now he can order Tamar’s death, and save Shelah for good.

Judah said: Take her out and she shall be burned. Taken out she was; and she sent to her father-in-law, saying: By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant. And she said: hakker na, whose are this seal and cord and staff? Judah recognized them, and he said: She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah. (Genesis 38:25-26)

Judah is shocked into facing the truth by the sight of his own guarantee. On a literal level, these objects prove he is the father, and Tamar’s sexual encounter with him was for the sake of the yibum he had denied her. On another level, the symbols of identity make him see who he really is: not the righteous ruler of his household, but a man who circumvented the law and ruined an innocent woman’s life.

Tamar’s expression hakker na (“Recognize please” or “Identify please”) surely reminds Judah of when he and his brothers showed Joseph’s bloody tunic to their father and said hakker na. So Judah must also face his identity as the ringleader who sold his little brother and tricked his father.

Recognizing your own bad behavior is painful; staying in denial is much more comfortable. In my own life, I have reacted to the realization that I did something wrong in two different ways: Either I feel irrevocably guilty and unable to change into the person I want to be; or I forgive myself for the past but know that I can, and therefore must, behave better from now on.

Judah starts down the second path, publicly admitting his wrongdoing and vindicating Tamar. She returns to Judah’s house, and gives birth to twin sons.

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

When we next see Judah, he has rejoined his father and brothers.  There is a famine in Canaan, but Egypt has grain for sale—thanks to the advance preparations of Joseph, the Pharaoh’s new viceroy. He has risen from rags to riches due to his good attitude, management skills, and a God-given gift of dream interpretation.

Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, keeping only Benjamin at home. The loss of one of Rachel’s sons has made Jacob determined to keep the other one safe.

The ten more disposable sons of Jacob bow down to the viceroy of Egypt without recognizing him; Joseph was a teenager when they sold him, and during the last twenty years or so his face and voice have changed, he dresses like an Egyptian nobleman, and he speaks Egyptian. Joseph, however, recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery. He accuses them of being spies, the first crime that comes into his mind. They protest that they are honest men, and all brothers. Joseph repeats his accusation, so they elaborate, saying they are twelve brothers, but one is gone and the youngest is home with their father. sack-of-grain

Joseph imprisons them for three days, keeps one of them (Simon) as a hostage, and sends the rest back to Canaan under orders to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. (See my earlier post, Mikeitz: Shock Therapy.) He also supplies them with grain, and hides the silver they paid inside their packs.

The nine brothers who return to Canaan explain the situation to Jacob, who responds: As for me, you have deprived me of children! Joseph is gone, and Simon is gone, and now Benjamin you would take! Upon me everything happens! (Genesis 42:36)

As Jacob complains that they have deprived him of children, Judah could not help but remember that for years he also deprived Tamar of children.

Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, replies: My two sons you may kill if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will personally return him to you. (Genesis 42:37)

Jacob refuses the offer, perhaps because Reuben’s guarantee is so unappealing, and Reuben does not speak again in the Torah. The famine continues, and when the extended family has eaten the last of the grain from Egypt, Jacob tells his older sons to go back to Egypt to buy more food. Then Judah steps forward again as a leader.

The first time Judah speaks in the Torah, he arranges for the brothers to sell Joseph as a slave instead of killing him. He speaks often during the story of Tamar, giving orders, haggling with the woman he takes as a prostitute, and admitting his own wrongdoing.

Now Judah points out that the Pharaoh’s viceroy will not let them return to Egypt without their youngest brother, Benjamin. Then, after Jacob has complained, Judah takes another step down the path of transformation, saying:

Send the youth with me, and let us get up and go, so we will live and not die: we and also you and also our children!  I, personally, ervenu; from my hand you may seek him; if I do not bring him to you and set him before you, I will be guilty before you for all time. (Genesis 43:8-9)

ervenu (אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ) = I will guarantee it. (From the same root as eiravon = a guarantee.)

Earlier in the story, Tamar asked Judah for a guarantee consisting of the physical emblems of his identity as the ruler of a household. Now Judah offers his father a guarantee based solely on his own commitment to do the right thing. And Jacob accepts it.

In Egypt, Joseph treats Benjamin better than his brothers. Then he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, and has the brothers stopped on their way out. When the goblet is “discovered” in Benjamin’s pack, they all return to the viceroy’s house, and Joseph declares Benjamin must stay as his slave. This is his final test of his brothers; will they enslave Benjamin, as they once enslaved him?

Judah, the leader, speaks for his brothers. He acknowledges that they cannot defend themselves against the charge of theft, and therefore they are all slaves to the Pharaoh’s viceroy. But Joseph insists that only Benjamin will be his slave.

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

The next Torah portion opens with Judah stepping closer to the viceroy and delivering a passionate plea to let Benjamin go home with his brothers. Otherwise, he says, their father will die of grief. Judah concludes:

So now, please let your servant stay instead of the youth, as a slave to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how could I go up to my father when the youth is not with me, and see the evil that would come upon my father? (Genesis 44:33-34)

Then Joseph finally breaks down and reveals his own identity. The whole family is reunited in Egypt.

Why did Judah volunteer to take the punishment for something he did not do?  He guaranteed he would not return to Jacob without Benjamin, and he is determined to be true to his commitment— even if it means losing his position as a free man and household ruler, losing his seal and his staff for good. And although he is not guilty of theft, he knows he is guilty of other bad deeds: selling Joseph into slavery, tricking their father into thinking Joseph is dead, and abusing his power over Tamar.

Judah chooses to be an honest and compassionate slave, rather than an independent agent who is selfish and eternally guilty. By making that choice, he also becomes a man of integrity, and an impressive ancestor for the tribe of Judah and its eponymous kingdom.

We are all born into certain identities, and assigned others by our own society. Not everyone gets a seal and a staff. But we all make moral choices, even though we do not always know we are doing it.

May we all become able to recognize ourselves and identify our own behavior, good and bad. May we become able to consciously choose our moral identities, and may we be inspired to make the right choices.

 

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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