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.

 

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 5 Comments
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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 are recorded as breaking into sobs more often.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones

Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character, he does not start crying in the Torah story until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt.  When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, argue about whether to kill him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1  Later, the brothers remember that he pleaded for mercy;2 but nowhere does the Torah say he cried during that ordeal.  Nor does the Torah report any crying when Joseph, as a head house slave in Egypt, is falsely accused and thrown into prison.3

If Joseph does not cry when he feels frightened or sorry for himself, when does he cry?

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Egyptian relief of slaves bowing

First sob

The first time Joseph cries is in the Torah portion Mikeitz (“In the end”).  After a year of drought and famine, Joseph’s older brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain.  They bow down to the viceroy of Egypt, not recognizing him as their brother Joseph 20 years later.  Joseph speaks to them in Egyptian, using an interpreter so they will not suspect he knows their language.

He accuses them of spying, and they protest that they are all brothers, and honest men.  When the viceroy says no, they are not, the brothers babble:

“We, your servants, are twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan.  And hey!  The youngest is with our father now, and the other—is absent.”  (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph throws them into prison for three days, then confronts them again.  As they talk among themselves, they do not know he understands every word when they agree that although they are not spies, they deserve punishment because they did not listen to Joseph pleading from the bottom of the pit 20 years before.

And he [Joseph] turned away 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.  (From the root verb bakah, בָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)

Joseph is overwhelmed when he hears them admit, in effect, that they were wrong to leave him in the pit.  He steps out to break down in private, and returns only when he can control himself again.

When he recovers his composure he tells them he will sell them grain, but he will keep one brother hostage until they prove they are honest men by returning with their youngest brother, the one who stayed home in Canaan.

Maybe Joseph embarks on this elaborate game in order to punish his older brothers for their old crime.  But most commentary assumes Joseph is testing his brothers to see if they have truly changed.  The youngest brother is Benjamin, who was a small child when Joseph’s older brothers sold him, and the only one who has the same mother.  Will the older brothers treat Benjamin as callously as they once treated Joseph?

Second sob

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones

After a second year of famine, the brothers finally return with Benjamin.  When they arrive at the viceroy’s palace a servant brings Shimon to them, none the worse for imprisonment, and says the viceroy invites them to stay for a meal.

All eleven brothers prostrate themselves when the viceroy of Egypt walks in.  Joseph asks them whether their father is still alive and well, and they say yes.

Then he lifted his eyes, and he saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother …  And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot; so he came into the inner room vayeivek there.  Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself, and he said: “Serve the food.”  (Genesis 43:29-31)

bekot (בֶּכּוֹת) =  weeping.  (Also from the root bakah.)

This time the Torah attributes Joseph’s emotional ferment to a sudden feeling of compassion.  The sight of his brother Benjamin triggers the compassion, but who is the object of it?  Does he feel compassion toward all his brothers, for the ordeal he is putting them through now?  Toward his father, who had to let Benjamin go?  Or toward Benjamin himself, for growing up surrounded by brutal older brothers?  The Torah does not say.

Joseph resumes his game, giving Benjamin five times as much food as the others.4  The older brothers do not act jealous.  Next Joseph has a silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s pack before they leave, and sends his steward to catch them on their way out of town. The steward, following Joseph’s script, insists on searching their packs, and declares that the owner of the pack containing the missing goblet must return to the viceroy’s palace as a slave.  When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s pack, the ten older brothers are free to travel on without him.  But they choose to return with Benjamin to confront the viceroy.5

Third sob

The third time Joseph cries is during the confrontation at the beginning the next Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, steps up and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin.  He says he is doing it 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.6

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 to bekhi, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.  (Genesis 45:1-2)

bekhi (בְּכִי) = weeping, wailing, sobbing; distilling water.  (Also from the root bakah.)

Once Egyptians are cleared out of the room, a tearful Joseph finally identifies himself to his brothers.  He excuses their old crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt, where they will have plenty of food.7

The cause of Joseph’s sobbing this time is the shock of Judah’s revelation.  An enemy who despised and sold him 20 years before has become a moral paragon, sacrificing himself to spare two other people.  Perhaps Joseph’s compassion ferments again, this time toward Judah.

Fourth sob

Benjamin Returns to Egypt, by Owen Jones

Then he [Joseph] fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek, and Benjamin bakha upon his neck.  (Genesis 45:14)

bakha (בָּכָה) = he sobbed. (Also from the root bakah.)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace.  The two full brothers are full of emotion at their reunion after 20 years.  They have no bad history with one another, so they simply weep tears of joy.  (Benjamin probably weeps with relief as well, since his status has just changed from prospective slave to honored brother of the viceroy.)

Fifth sob

Then he kissed all this brothers vayevek on them, and after that his brothers spoke with him.  (Genesis 45:15)

By kissing, embracing, and crying on the ten men, Joseph accepts them at last as his older brothers.  They are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved.  Joseph appears to have forgiven them, but he does explicitly pardon them; he only excuses their past crime as God’s means for getting him, Joseph, to Egypt.  In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension.8  They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.9

*

So what makes Joseph cry?  The first five times he breaks down and sobs, he is emotionally overwhelmed when he suddenly sees one or more of his brothers from a new point of view.

First he is moved when his older brothers realize they deserve punishment (Genesis 42:24).  Joseph thought his older brothers were irredeemable, but now he realizes they feel guilty.  Next he sees Benjamin for the first time in 20 years and feels compassion (Genesis 43:29-31).  Joseph had written off his baby brother, whom he thought was lost to him forever, but now he sees Benjamin in front of him.

The third time Joseph weeps is when Judah offers to become a slave to spare Jacob and Benjamin (Genesis 44:27-34 and 45:1-2).  He thought none of his brothers would sacrifice his freedom for the sake of another person, but now Judah volunteers to do it.  And the fourth time is when Joseph embraces Benjamin (Genesis 45:14).  Joseph was completely committed to his life as an Egyptian, determined to forget his whole family in Canaan, but now he embraces his relationship with his innocent brother.

Joseph cries for the fifth time when he embraces the rest of his brothers, even though they do not reciprocate.  He had considered them his implacable enemies.  Now he sees them as the instruments of fate—but also as men who blundered and later felt guilty and are trying to do the right thing now; as human beings and brothers.

Joseph sobs three more times in Genesis, all in the last Torah portion, Vayechi.  He sobs at his reunion with his father, when his father dies, and when his brothers plead with him afterward.  We will listen to those sobs in my next blog post.

*

Have you ever felt moved to tears, or to a “ferment of compassion”, when an important person in your life is suddenly revealed in a new and better light?  Did it change your relationship?

May we all be able to notice when things are different, and embrace relationships we had turned away from.

  1. Genesis 37:19-28.
  2. Genesis 42:21.
  3. Genesis 38:1-23.
  4. Genesis 43:34.
  5. Genesis 44:1-14.
  6. In the first Torah portion of Joseph’s story, Vayeishev, Jacob’s ten older sons noticed when Joseph was an adolescent that their father displayed extreme favoritism toward Joseph, giving him the “coat of many colors” and asking him to his older brothers’ misdeeds to him.  That is why, when they are away from home and Joseph shows up in his fancy coat to spy on them again, they throw Joseph into a pit and then sell him into slavery.  When they return home they tell their father that Joseph is dead, torn by a wild animal.  Jacob goes into deep mourning and refuses to be comforted by any of them.
  7. Genesis 45:9-11.
  8. See Genesis 50:15 for evidence that the brothers felt lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution for years.
  9. At the beginning of the Joseph story, when Joseph is 17, the Torah says:  “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace.” (Genesis 34:4)  Now, finally, they are able to do it.

 

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.

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. 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 | 1 Comment

Visible tokens of your public role help to remind everybody of your authority.  Who would obey a  police officer in street clothes, without even a badge?

Visible symbols of authority can also seduce you, and others, into forgetting the difference between one’s public identity and one’s 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 Story of Judah and Tamar

In this week’s portion, Vayeishev, one of Joseph’s older brothers, Judah, convinces the others to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt instead of killing him outright.  (See my post Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy on why Joseph’s brothers hated him.)

Then Judah moves away from his family and starts a new life.  He becomes a prosperous shepherd with his own household, including three sons.  Judah marries his oldest son, Eir, to a Canaanite woman named Tamar.  Eir dies soon after, and Tamar is not pregnant.  So according to the custom of yibum, or “levirate marriage”, Eir’s brother (or closest male relative) must impregnate his widow.  If her baby is a boy, he will inherit her late husband’s property, and she will be have economic security and status through her son.

Judah sends his second son, Onan, to Tamar.  But Onan refuses to do his duty; why should he mess up his own inheritance?  Then he dies, too.1

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 is pending.

Tamar and Judah, by James Tissot

Tamar waits for years.  Shelah grows up, and Judah’s wife dies.  Judah finishes mourning for his wife, and heads off to the annual sheep-shearing.  Tamar slips away from her father’s house, 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 chotam and your cord and the matteh that is in your hand”.  And he gave them to her, and he entered her, and she conceived.  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:18)

chotam (חֹתָם) = 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 (מַטֶּה) = a staff, a walking stick, the symbol of a tribe or clan or its chieftain.

453px-Babylonian_-_Cylinder_Seal_with_Three_Standing_Figures_and_Inscriptions_-_Walters_42692_-_Side_D

Cylinder seal (chotam)

Tamar is asking Judah for the symbols of his public authority—his signature (which is how a seal was used) 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 not to tell anyone that he left his seal and staff with a prostitute.

Eventually 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 chotam and the cord and the matteh.  (Genesis 38:25)

At that point, Judah says:  She is more right than I am” (Genesis 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.

This story also 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 desires 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 chotam and matteh, 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.

The Story of Joseph and Pharaoh

Meanwhile,  in next week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Judah’s little brother Joseph is transformed in one day from an imprisoned slave to the viceroy of Egypt.

The pharaoh has two troubling dreams that his own wise man cannot interpret.  His butler mentions a dream interpreter he met when he was in prison awaiting trial, a slave from Canaan.  Pharaoh commands that Joseph be brought to him.  He is impressed with Joseph’s divinely inspired interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams as warnings about a coming seven-year famine, as well as with his proposal for solving the problem—so impressed that he puts Joseph in charge.

The Glory of Joseph, by James Tissot

And Pharoah said to Joseph:  “See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt!”  And Pharaoh removed his taba-at 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 merkavah 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)

taba-at (טַבַּעַַת) = a signet ring.  (A king’s ring in Egypt was a signet ring with the king’s seal carved into it.  Like the cylindrical chotam that a Canaanite man such as Judah wore on a cord, the signet ring was pressed on a damp clay document as a signature of authorization.)

merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה= chariot.

Avreikh (אַבְרֵךְ) = (Translation disputed.  It might be an unknown Egyptian word, or “I command kneeling!” in Hebrew.)

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

But Joseph loses some of his own 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 as an Egyptian.  He never writes home.  He is happy to live his role—until his ten older brothers come to him to buy food during the first year of famine.

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

Inside, Joseph bears a personal grudge against the brothers who sold him into slavery, and he cannot forgive them until he knows whether they have changed.  I can imagine him wondering whether he should take them aside, drop his mask, and confront them directly; or stick to being the Egyptian viceroy, and simply sell them food along with all the other purchasers from Canaan.  Then he thinks of a way to test them.

Joseph invents a charge against his brothers, accusing them of being spies, and throws them in prison for three days.  He retains one brother, and sends the rest home with an order to bring back their youngest brother, or else.  (Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, was a child at home when Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery.)  When starvation forces them to return with Benjamin, Joseph inflicts more tests on his older brothers, all while maintaining the persona of an Egyptian ruler.  Although he hides his personal identity, his private past affects his behavior as a public official.

The game does not end until Judah confronts the unjust viceroy in the Torah portion Vayiggash and volunteers to enslave himself to spare his father and youngest brother.2

Judah is able to step up and speak to the Egyptian viceroy because, thanks to Tamar, he has already recognized and addressed the conflict between his personal feelings and his public role.  He has repented of both selling his brother and denying his daughter-in-law.  He has dedicated himself to justice and compassion.

Hearing him, Joseph weeps and reveals his personal identity—after sending away his Egyptian servants to make sure they will not lose respect for his authority.  He never apologizes for testing his brothers by lying to them; nor does he explain to them why he did it.  He does send for his whole extended family, introduces a few of them to the Pharaoh, and arranges for them to live in Egypt, where there is food.  But he makes these arrangements as the gracious viceroy of Egypt, without every admitting he was wrong about anything.

Perhaps he cannot integrate an old private identity that he hates (persecuted son of Jacob) with his new public position of authority (viceroy of Egypt).  But those who adopt their public roles as their only guide to behavior cannot have a change of heart.

  1. Genesis 38:8-10.
  2. Genesis 44:1-34.
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