Vayechi: Three Tribes Repudiated

December 19, 2018 at 10:16 pm | Posted in Vayechi | 2 Comments

Jacob/Yaakov delivers his last words to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“And he lived”).

Jacob on his Deathbed,
1539 woodcut

And Jacob called his sons and he said: “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you in future times.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 49:1)

Jacob, also called Israel, then launches into a long poem about the fate of the twelve tribes named after his twelve sons.1  This poem resembles the poems in the books of prophets transmitting God’s warnings and plans from the divine point of view.  Jacob pauses once to cry out: “I wait for your deliverance, God!”2  This interruption only makes the rest of his poem sound more like a direct divine prophecy.

When Jacob finishes his poem, the Torah says:

All these were the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them.  Vayevarekh them, each with what was kevirkhato he blessed them.    (Genesis 49:28)

vayevarekh (וַיְבָרֶךְ) = and he blessed.  (A form of the verb beirakh, בֵּרַךְ = bless; bestow or wish on someone the achievement of something desirable.  In the Torah, the achievement is most often prosperity, success in battle, or fertility.)

kevirkhato (כְּבִרְכָתוֹ) = according to his own blessing.  (From the same root as beirakh.)

Immediately after this sentence about blessings Jacob gives instructions for his burial, draws his feet into the bed, and dies without mentioning any of his sons’ names again.3  So the prophecies about the twelve eponymous tribes must also be the blessings.

Except for the first three sons, this is a reasonable interpretation.  Jacob blesses his fourth son (or his tribe), Judah/Yehudah, with future kingship, success in battle, and fertile vineyards.4  Zebulun, he says, will succeed in shipping, and Issachar in farming.5  He compares Dan to a snake, but at least he declares the tribe will remain part of the land of Israel.6  Gad and Benjamin/Binyamin will be successful in raiding, Asher will be wealthy, and Naftali beautiful.7  Jacob blesses Joseph/Yoseif with overall success and prosperity.8

Yet Jacob’s first three sons appear to get curses instead of blessings.

by Marc Chagall, stained glass

Reuven, my first-born are you,

my vigor and the first fruit of my potency,

Exceedingly noble,

       exceedingly fierce!

Heedless as water, you will no longer exceed,

       for you mounted your father’s bed.

That was when you desecrated it.  My couch he mounted!  (Genesis 49:3-4)

Jacob refers to a specific incident in Genesis.  After the death of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, Reuven has intercourse with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine.9  Reuven may  hope to become the family’s leader through an ancient custom by which the new ruler assumes his office by having sex with the old ruler’s concubines.10  Although Reuven is the firstborn son, and therefore normally entitled to become the head of the extended family after his father’s death, Jacob is at least 119 years old.  Reuven may decide not to wait.  (Jacob dies in this week’s Torah portion at age 147.)

Because of that undisciplined and defiant act, Jacob declares that Reuven is unfit for leadership.

by Francisco Coelho, 1675

In the biblical tradition, leadership would then pass to the next oldest son.  But Jacob rules out both his second son, Shimon, and his third son, Levi.

Shimon and Levi are partners;

Weapons of violence are their wares.

Don’t let my soul be brought into their council!

Don’t let my honor be reckoned by their assembly!

by Marc Chagall, stained glass

For in their rage they murder a man,

and in their desire they uproot a wall.11

Accursed be their fury because it is fierce,

and their wrath because it is remorseless!

I will split them up in Jacob,

and I will scatter them in Israel.  (Genesis 49:5-7)

Since Jacob condemns Reuven on the basis of an incident during his lifetime and reported in the bible, the reader expects him to cite another such incident as his reason for criticizing Shimon and Levi.  The closest match is when the two brothers trick the rulers of Shekhem, enter the town as friends, murder the man who raped their sister Dinah, kill all the other men, destroy the town, and carry off the booty.  No doubt some walls fell.  (See my posts Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1 and Part 2.)

Then Jacob said to Shimon and Levi: “You made me shunned, odious among the inhabitants of the land!”  (Genesis 34:30)

On his deathbed, Jacob attributes Shimon and Levi’s violence to the intensity of their anger.  When he says “I will split them up in Jacob” the “I” is God, the “Jacob” is an alternate name for the territory of Israel, and the need to split them up may imply that they are more dangerous when they are together and their fiery natures combine in a conflagration of rage.

Having eliminated Reuven, Shimon, and Levi with his prophetic curses, Jacob announces that the descendants of his fourth son, Judah, will be king over other Israelites.

*

Looking at Jacob’s deathbed poem from the viewpoint of the history of the twelve tribes in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, only some of the predictions come true.  This is normal for biblical prophecies, which are often warnings of what will happen unless certain people change their ways.  In this case, the prophecy about Judah “comes true”; the second king of a united Israel is David, from the tribe of Judah, and his descendants continue to rule even after the northern kingdom secedes from the southern kingdom of Judah.

12 Tribes according to Joshua

The tribe of Reuven is part of the northern kingdom, but its members live in the land east of the Dead Sea, which is sometimes ruled by the Moabites who also live there.12  The tribe of Shimon occupies an enclave within the southern desert of the Kingdom of Judah, and is “scattered” only in the sense that all desert nomads are scattered.13  The tribe of Levi consists of hereditary priests and other religious functionaries.  In the book of Joshua, the Levites are assigned 48 towns in the territories allotted to the other tribes, including a few in the territory of Shimon.14  So the Levites are indeed scattered, but they are not entirely split apart from the Shimonites.

From the viewpoint of the stories in Genesis, however, Jacob’s deathbed prophecies  assign appropriate consequences for the behavior of Jacob’s first three sons.

Reuven’s attempts to take leadership, both when he beds Bilhah and when he acts regarding Joseph, are undisciplined and poorly thought out.  His eponymous tribe is cursed with never producing a king; but it gets the blessing of being a member tribe of the northern Kingdom of Israel, a.k.a. Samaria.

Since Shimon and Levi are the ringleaders in the disaster at Sheckhem, their tribes are cursed with being too scattered to lead their brother tribes into trouble again.  Yet their scattering is also a blessing; the nomadic tribe of Shimon is protected by Judah, and the Levites become a caste of priests and clerics with authority throughout Israel.

I think Jacob’s first prophecies are indeed blessings.  When people have been bad leaders, it is a blessing for them, as well as for their followers, to have their leadership removed—and for the former leaders to continue to be included in the larger community, like Reuven and Shimon.

by Francisco Coelho, 1675

As for Levi, it is a great blessing when people who are inflamed by intense feelings do wrong, are stripped of leadership, and then change their hearts and apply their passionate natures to positive acts for a good cause.

May we all “bless” leaders with their appropriate fates, as Jacob did.  May we work to remove leadership from those who abuse it.  May we accept all human beings as flawed but precious individuals.  And may we be able to recognize when others have truly changed.

  1. Jacob’s wives name his first eleven sons in Genesis 29:31-30:24; Jacob names his twelfth son Benjamin/Binyamin in Genesis 35:18. The first mention of “twelve tribes’ in the bible is in Genesis 49:28, at the end of Jacob’s poem.  Elsewhere in the Torah there are always twelve tribes, but they are not always identical with the names of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Whenever Shimon or Levi is omitted from the list, then Joseph is replaced by tribes named after his own two sons (adopted by Jacob), Efrayim and Menasheh.
  2. Genesis 49:18.
  3. Genesis 49:29-33.
  4. Genesis 49:8-12.
  5. Genesis 49:13-14.
  6. Genesis 49:16-17.
  7. Genesis 49:19-21, 27.
  8. Genesis 49:22-26. (Jacob’s references to God as “Shaddai” and blessings from “the heavens above” echo Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:28 and 28:3.)
  9. Genesis 35:22.
  10. Absalom slept with King David’s concubines for that purpose in 2 Samuel 16:21-22.
  11. Another legitimate translation of the third couplet is some version of:

For in their rage they murder a man,

              and in their desire they cripple an ox.

How can the last two words be translated as either “uproot a wall” or “cripple an ox”?  In the Masoretic text the phrase is עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹרIkru (עִקְּרוּ) = uproot, cripple.  Shor (שׁוֹר) = bull, ox, steer.  The Masoretic text is based on earlier scrolls that did not use vowel pointing.  Although translations generally assume the Masoretes assigned the correct vowels to the words in the bible, Robert Alter makes a case that in Genesis 49:6 a better reading of the final word is shur (שׁוּר) = wall.  (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 284.)

  1. Numbers 32:1-32, Joshua 2:1-7, 1 Chronicles 5:18-22.
  2. Joshua 19:1-9.
  3. Joshua 21:4.

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving?

December 26, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Posted in Vayechi, Vayeishev, Vayiggash | 3 Comments

Salachtikha; I forgive you.

Joseph never says that.  But then, no form of the verb salach, סָלַח (forgave) appears in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  When the word shows up elsewhere in the Bible, it is always God, not a human being, who forgives.

Joseph in Prison,
by James Tissot

However, Joseph does know about pardoning, which men in command can do.  In the Torah portion Vayeishev he interprets the dreams of two of his fellow inmates in an Egyptian prison.  He tells one, the pharaoh’s chief cupbearer:

“In another three days the pharaoh yissa your head and he will restore you to your position and you will put the pharaoh’s cup on his palm…”  (Genesis/Bereishit 40:13)

yissa (יִשָׂא) = he will lift. To lift up someone’s head is an idiom meaning “to pardon”.  (A form of the root verb nasa, נָשָׂא = lifted, raised high, carried.)

Joseph then interprets the chief baker’s dream:

“In another three days the pharaoh yissa your head off you, and he will impale you on a pole and the birds will eat your flesh off you.”  And it was the third day, the birthday of the pharaoh, and he made a banquet for all of his servants.  Vayissa the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker from among his servants.  And he restored the chief cupbearer to bearing cups, and he put the pharaoh’s cup on his palm.  But the chief baker he impaled…  (Genesis 40:19-22)

vayissa (וַיִּשָּׁא) = and he lifted.  (From the root verb nasa.)

The pharaoh lifts up the cupbearer’s head, pardoning him; but he lifts off the baker’s head, executing him.

Two years later, Joseph is brought up from prison to interpret two dreams of the pharaoh, and by the end of their conversation the pharaoh has made Joseph the viceroy of Egypt.1

Joseph wants to forget his family back in Canaan, especially his ten older brothers, who hated him so much they were not able to speak to him in peace2, and his father, who was responsible both for creating the discord among his sons and for sending Joseph out alone to find and report back on his brothers.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  The brothers seized him, threw him in a pit, then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.

When he sees his brothers again, Joseph is 38 years old and the viceroy of Egypt.  He now has the power to execute his brothers or to pardon them.

He decides to test them first.  He overhears them express remorse over how they treated their younger brother Joseph.  Then the brothers undergo a series of tests, and Joseph concludes that they have changed.  (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.)  The tests are mysterious to Joseph’s brothers because they do not recognize him; they assume their younger brother died as a slave, and the viceroy is an Egyptian.

The conditions are ripe for forgiveness; Joseph’s older brothers have expressed remorse, and he can now trust them not to harm him or his younger brother Benjamin.  But does Joseph ever forgive—or at least pardon—his brothers?  Does he forgive his father for putting him in danger?

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his brothers?

Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers after they refuse to leave Egypt without Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob’s sons and the only one with the same mother as Joseph.

And Joseph said to his brothers: “I am Joseph.  Is my father really still alive!”  But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were aghast before his face.  (Genesis/Bereishit 45:3)

His brothers are too stunned, and perhaps terrified, to answer.  The man who has absolute power over them is the man whom they once sold into slavery.

Meanwhile, Joseph realizes that events had to unfold this way, or his whole extended family would have starved to death during the famine.  His brothers’ crime was necessary to get Joseph to Egypt, where God inspired him to interpret the pharaoh’s dreams and he became the viceroy in charge of the only food supply in the region.

“And now, don’t worry, and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life.  For this pair of years the famine has been in the land, and for another five years there will be no plowing nor harvest.  So God sent me ahead of you to set up food for you in the land and to keep you alive as a large group of survivors.” (Genesis/Bereishit 45:5-7)

By telling his older brothers not to worry or be angry with themselves over their crime, Joseph is telling them that the concept of guilt does not apply in their case.  They are not responsible for their bad deed; God made them do it.

So now, you did not send me here, but God!  And He has set me up as a father-figure to the pharaoh, and as the master of all his household, and as the ruler of all the land of Egypt.  (Genesis/Berishit 45:8)

Now, Joseph thinks, he can be a hero and save everyone—his brothers, his father, and the whole extended family.

“Hurry and go up to my father and say to him: Thus said your son Joseph:  God placed me as master of all Egypt.  Come down to me, don’t stand still.  And you shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and the children of your children, and your flocks and your herds and everything that is yours.  And I will provide for you there …” (Genesis 45:9-11)

Although Joseph starts off attributing everything to God, he ends up promising that he, Joseph, will be a father-figure to his own family, as well as to the pharaoh.  He is in charge.3  And he wants his actual father, Jacob, to be impressed by his long-lost son’s power.

“And you must tell my father about all my honor in Egypt, and all that you have seen.  And you must hurry and bring my father down here.”  (Genesis 45:13)

Joseph Embraces Benjamin,
by Owen Jones, 1869

Having reduced his brothers to mere dependents, Joseph embraces Benjamin and weeps.  Benjamin hugs him back, also weeping.

Then he kissed all his brothers and he wept upon them, and after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:15)

Maybe now his older brothers can “speak to him in peace” because they no longer hate him.  Or maybe their hatred has been replaced by fear.  Benjamin, who was six years old and at home when the older brothers sold Joseph, can embrace his long-lost brother.  But the ten older men merely speak; they neither cry, nor kiss Joseph, nor embrace him.

By denying that his brothers made a choice to sell him into slavery, Joseph shows that he does not respect them as adult human beings who are responsible for their own actions.  Personally, I would rather admit a crime and apologize for it, than be silenced because my victim insists I had no freedom of choice.

As far as Joseph is concerned, he has absolved his older brothers of guilt and reconciled with him.  But his brothers do not see it that way.  Joseph’s speech allays their fear of retribution for a while, but it does not resolve their guilt.

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his father?

Joseph sends his brothers back to Canaan with gifts, and his whole extended family moves to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection.

Joseph and Jacob Reunited,
by Owen Jones 1869

Joseph hitched up his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet Israel [a.k.a. Jacob], his father.  And he [Joseph] appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept upon his neck a while.  Then Israel said to Joseph: “I can die now, after seeing your face, [knowing] that you are still alive.”  (Genesis 46:29-30)

Like many parents, Jacob does not know that he failed his son, so he does not apologize.  Joseph could bring up what his father did 22 years before, and hope for an apology.  (See my post Miketiz: Forgetting a Father.)  Instead he treats Jacob the same way he treated the innocent Benjamin.  There is no apology and no forgiveness; both father and son act as if their relationship is just fine.

This may be pragmatism on Joseph’s part.  After all, Joseph has all the authority now, and he knows Jacob is not an insightful person.  Why stir up old trouble?

Or Joseph may be thinking that if his father had not played favorites, then sent him alone into danger, he would never have been sold to the caravan headed for Egypt.  Therefore God must have arranged Jacob’s behavior, too.

Vayechi: Does Joseph forgive his brothers after Jacob’s death?

Jacob dies in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).  Then his ten older sons become afraid that Joseph only restrained himself from executing them so as not to upset Jacob.  In desperation, they invent a deathbed command.

And the brothers of Joseph saw that their father was dead, and they said: “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and he indeed pays us back for all the evil that we rendered to him?”  And they sent an order to Joseph saying: “Your father gave an order before he died, saying: Thus you shall say to Joseph: Please sa, please, the offense of your brothers and their guilt because of the evil they rendered to you. And now sa, please, the offense of the servants of the god of your father.”  And Joseph wept over the words to him.  (Genesis 50:15-17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift!  (A form of the verb nasa.)

This communication proves that Joseph’s brothers did not feel pardoned or forgiven when he first told them that God arranged everything, including their crime.

And they do not feel safe with Joseph.  Why should they?  According to Joseph’s philosophy, anyone might become a puppet in God’s hands, deprived of free will.  In such a universe, no one can be trusted.

On the other hand, if Joseph is wrong and humans do have a measure of free will, they still cannot trust Joseph.

by James Tissot

Then his brothers even went and threw themselves down before him, and they said: “Here we are, your slaves.”  And Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?4 And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive.”  (Genesis 50:18-20)

Joseph implies that only God can decide whether to punish the brothers.  He also continues to make God responsible for his brothers’ crime.  And although their false deathbed order explicitly begs Joseph to pardon—sa!—his brothers, he does not do so.  Instead he says:

“And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them and he spoke upon their hearts.  (Genesis 50:21)

In the Torah, to speak upon someone’s heart is an idiom for changing that person’s feelings.  (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)  Joseph both comforts his brothers and persuades them that he will continue to be responsible for their well-being.  Even without a pardon, they finally trust Joseph.

Forgiveness or pardon is not the only road to reconciliation.

*

It’s a tall order, but I try to do better than Joseph.  When people offer me apologies, explicitly or implicitly, I remember Joseph, and I am careful to accept them.  Instead of saying merely, “It’s okay,” I say: “It’s okay, I forgive you.”  I do not want anyone to suffer lingering guilt or uncertainty on my account.

On the other hand, if people wrong me or those I love, and they never admit it nor apologize, I struggle to forgive them.  Sometimes I can reach a working relationship with them, but I never feel safe.  Any reconciliation is incomplete.

May we all be blessed with a greater ability to be responsible for our own actions, to apologize, to forgive, and to change.

  1. Genesis 41:1-41.
  2. Genesis 37:4.
  3. Although Joseph is indeed second only to the pharaoh in power, he is not the absolute ruler he claims to be when he is bragging to his brothers. Later he has to ask the pharaoh for authorization for his family to settle in Goshen (Genesis 46:31-34) and for permission to leave Egypt to bury his father (Genesis 50:4-6).
  4. Jacob protested “Am I instead of God?” when Rachel, his second wife, has not become pregnant and she demands that Jacob give her children (Genesis 30:2, Vayeitzei).

Vayechi and Vayeitzei: No Substitute

December 28, 2014 at 9:02 am | Posted in Vayechi, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Am I tachat God? (Genesis/Bereshit 50:19)

tachat (תַּחַת) = underneath, under the authority of; instead of, a substitute for, in exchange for.

Two people in the Hebrew Bible ask this question. Jacob says it to his favorite wife, Rachel, in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (“and he went”). Almost 60 years later, their son Joseph says it to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).

Jacob instead of God

from "Jacob and Rachel" by William Dyce

from “Jacob and Rachel” by William Dyce

Jacob throws the question at Rachel right after she has spoken for the first time in the Torah, more than ten years after Jacob first sees her and kisses her. Their romance is not smooth. Jacob serves her father Lavan for seven years as Rachel’s bride-price, and then on his wedding day, Lavan tricks him and marries him to Rachel’s sister Leah. Jacob’s wedding with Rachel follows a week later, once he commits to working an additional seven years. Leah has four sons before Rachel speaks up.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and she was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me children!—and if not, I am dead. Then Jacob was angry with Rachel, and he said: Am I tachat God, who withheld from you fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:1-2)

Rachel’s demand makes Jacob angry for more than one reason. When she says that without children, she is dead, Rachel implies that Jacob’s devotion is not enough to make her life worthwhile. Naturally Jacob’s anger flashes. And it is not his fault that Rachel is infertile. So he demands: Am I tachat God?

He cannot be a substitute for God. Only God can “open the womb” of an infertile woman.

It does not occur to Jacob to pray to God, as his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebecca to conceive. But his rebuff does lead Rachel to take her own action. She gives her slave-woman, Bilhah, to Jacob as a wife, then adopts Bilhah’s two sons as her own.

Through this human solution, Jacob actually does give Rachel children, tachat—instead of—God.

Joseph instead of God

After Rachel has two adopted sons, God does open her womb, and she gives birth to Joseph. The family continues to be dysfunctional; Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him and sell him as a slave bound for Egypt. When they are reunited twenty years later, Joseph tells them not to worry about their past crime, because God planned it all in order to get him to Egypt and elevate him to viceroy so he could feed everyone during the seven-year famine. The whole clan, including the patriarch Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, and their families, immigrate to Egypt under Joseph’s protection.

But after Jacob dies, we learn that Joseph’s brothers are still worried about retribution. Like Rachel, they “see” a problem.

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: If Joseph bears a grudge against us, then he will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we did to him! (Genesis 50:15)

They assume that their father’s words would carry more weight with Joseph than their own, and they send Joseph what they claim is a deathbed request from Jacob:

Please sa, please, the crime and the offense of your brothers, when they did evil to you; now sa, please, the crime of the servants of your father’s god. (Genesis 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up. (To lift up a man’s head was to legally pardon him.)

And Joseph sobbed when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:17)

Unlike Jacob, Joseph is not angry when he asks: Am I tachat God? Instead, his brothers’ clumsy and obsequious request makes him cry. Perhaps he cries because his brothers cannot speak to him directly. Or perhaps he cries in frustration, because he thought everything was settled, and now he has to deal with the issue all over again.

And his brothers also went and flung themselves down in front of him, and they said: Here we are, your slaves. (Genesis 50:17-18)

Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again.  His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my  post Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.)

joseph_receives_his_brothers_cameoAnd Joseph said to them:  Do not be afraid. For am I tachat God? While you planned evil against me, God planned it for good, in order to accomplish what is today, keeping many people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph said something similar seventeen years before:

And now, do not be worried and do not be angry at yourselves because you sold me here; because God sent me ahead of you for preservation of life. (Genesis 45:5)

Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg made the case that the first time Joseph tells his brothers their crime is part of God’s plan, he is suddenly seeing the big picture. His enslavement was a necessary step to reach his present position as the viceroy, enabling him to save his own family and many other people from starvation. Joseph drops his own resentment against his brothers, and he hopes that sharing his vision of big picture will let his brothers drop their guilt.

But years later, when their father dies, Joseph finds out that his brothers still feel guilty. And he still does not realize that what they need is forgiveness, or at least a pardon. (See my  post Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.) Instead, he once again declares that their evil deed turned out to be part of God’s plan. Joseph continues:

And now, do not be afraid; I myself will sustain you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:21)

Joseph’s brothers are comforted because his promise to sustain them—to keep them alive and well—implies that he no longer hates or resents them. Even though they do not get the relief of explicit forgiveness, they know that at least they do not need to worry about future retribution from their powerful brother.

Targum Onkelos, written around 100 C.E., translated Joseph’s statement “For am I tachat God?” as: “For I am subordinate to God”. In other words, this time tachat means “under” instead of “a substitute for”. In the 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno took this interpretation further by explaining that Joseph considered his brothers God’s agents. It was not his place to judge God’s agents, just as it was not his place to judge God’s plans.

Nevertheless, Joseph acts almost like a substitute for God. As viceroy of Egypt and distributor of food, he decides who will live and who will die.

Two substitutions

When Jacob tells Rachel he is no substitute for God as an opener of wombs, she finds another way he can give her the children she wants.  When Joseph tells his brothers he is no substitute for God as a judge of men, they do not find another way to get the human pardon or forgiveness they want.  They still cannot speak to Joseph directly. But he offers them a substitute for forgiveness: the reassurance that he will not punish them.

Am I tachat God?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves today. Am I trying to do something no human can do? If so, is there another way to achieve a desirable outcome? Or am I acting like God when I should be acting like a human being toward someone? If so, how can I come down off my pedestal and have a true heart-to-heart conversation?

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Old Age and Death

December 16, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Vayechi, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

Old age does not begin on a particular birthday. It begins when we foresee the end of our lives, pull back from asserting ourselves in the world, and pass down our teachings, blessings, and gifts to the next generation.

In the book of Genesis/Berieshit, Abraham’s old age begins when he is 137.  After he buries his wife Sarah, he stops traveling and interacting with other clans. He comissions his steward to make the journey to Aram to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac.  Once that is done, Abraham takes a new wife and sires six more sons, obviously enjoying his retirement. His only other activity is to arrange his estate. He gives gifts to his new sons, then leaves the balance of his estate to Isaac. But the Torah does not say he blesses anyone before he dies, at age 175.

Abraham breathed his last and he died at a good old age, old and sated; and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

Isaac’s old age is less pleasant. At age 123, when he wants to give a deathbed blessing, he is blind and cannot get up easily. His wife Rebecca does not trust him to give the right blessing to the right son, so she cooks up a deception that results in both their sons leaving home. Then Isaac lingers on  for another 57 years, presumably still blind and bedridden, while his sons Jacob and Esau have adventures and build up their own clans. Isaac finally dies at age 180.

And Isaac breathed his last, and he died, and he was gathered to his people, old and sated in days; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. (Genesis 35:29)

The Torah does not describe Isaac’s death exactly the same way as Abraham’s. While Abraham dies at a good old age, sated with life, Isaac apparently dies feeling that he has spent more than enough time waiting for death.

Isaac’s son Jacob wants to die prematurely. When his older sons bring him the bloody tunic of his beloved son Joseph. Jacob jumps to the conclusion that Joseph is dead, and says:

… I will go down to my son in mourning, to Sheol. (Genesis 37:35)

Jacob sees no reason to go on living without either of the two people he loves the most: his second wife, Rachel, and their older son, Joseph. He is depressed and inconsolable for a long time, but eventually he becomes attached to  Rachel’s younger son, Benjamin, and takes an interest in life again—at least enough so that when the famine comes,he sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy food. Nine of them return, with the news that the viceroy of Egypt imprisoned Shimon, and they cannot go back to Egypt and liberate him unless they bring Benjamin with them. Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go. He retains control of the family, keeping his remaining sons at home until Judah takes responsibility for Benjamin’s life. Then Jacob tells his sons what to take with them to Egypt and how to approach the viceroy. He is still in charge. But he demonstrates a new maturity when he says:

And may God of Nurture grant you mercy before the man, so he will send you off with your other brother and with Benjamin. And as for myself, when I am bereaved, I am bereaved. (Genesis 43:14)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped close), the viceroy of Egypt reveals that he is actually Joseph. He sends all eleven of his brothers back to Jacob, along with wagons, donkeys, and provisions, so that the whole clan can move to Egypt.

They went up from Egypt and they came to the land of Canaan, to Jacob, their father. And they told him, saying Joseph was still alive, and that he was ruling over the whole land of Egypt; but his heart was numb, because he did not trust them. Then they spoke to him all the words that Joseph had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to give him dignity. Then the spirit of Jacob, their father, revived. So Israel said: How great! Joseph, my son, is still alive! I will go and I will see him before I die. (Genesis 45:25-28)

After Jacob’s spirit revives, the Torah calls him by the name Israel, the name he earned by wrestling with God and man. As Israel, his better self, he is willing to go to a foreign land where he will be a dependent on his son. To see Joseph again, he is willing to give up being the man in charge of his clan. He is willing, at age 130, to embrace old age. He acknowledges his coming death, but he no longer wants to rush into it.

In next week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (And he lived), Jacob/Israel lives for another 17 years in Egypt. He is no longer in charge of his clan, but he is with his beloved Joseph. At the end of his life, Jacob becomes blind, but when he blesses Joseph’s two sons, he knows exactly what he is doing. Then, before he dies, he passes on his insights in the form of a different individual prophecy for each of his twelve sons, followed by twelve individual blessings. He gives instructions for his burial.

Then Jacob finished directing his sons, and he gathered his feet into the mitah, and he breathed his last, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)

mitah = bed of blankets. (from the same root as matteh = staff, branch, tribe)

I think Jacob achieves a good old age, perhaps better than Abraham’s. He does not sire any more children, but he does give teachings and blessings before he dies. The sentence describing his death can be read as saying that he gathered himself into his tribe, before he was gathered by death.

This month I am watching my stepfather face his approaching death, and I feel sad that he cannot enjoy more of the good life he found in his old age.

I am also reflecting on my own old age. I am only 58, but I wonder: Is it time to let go of some of my responsibilities and authority? Is it time to pull back from asserting myself in the world, and focus instead on teaching and giving blessings? Maybe if I walk into the next stage of my life now, my old age will be long and fruitful, like Abraham’s. Maybe I will even become wise in old age, like Jacob.

It is not easy to accept old age and death. But I believe acceptance can lead to contentment.

Vayechi: A Touching Oath

January 3, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Posted in Vayechi | Leave a comment

The book of Genesis (Bereishit in Hebrew) ends with Jacob’s whole extended family, well over 70 people, settled down comfortably in Egypt.  The last Torah portion in the book, Vayechi (And he lived) begins this way:

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the years of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.  The days for  Israel to die approached, and he called for his son, for Joseph …  (Genesis/Bereishit 47:28-29)

Wait a minute.  Why did the Torah switch the name of the 147-year-old man from “Jacob” to “Israel”?

A mysterious being gave Jacob the name “Israel” five Torah portions before, at the end of their wrestling match at the Yabbok River.  After that point, the Torah calls him Jacob the most often, but sometimes uses his new name.  In the passage above, I think the Torah switches to the name “Israel” because Jacob is about to rise above his usual self-centered attitude and make a request for the sake of his people, the “children of Israel”.

and he called for his son, for Joseph, and he said to him:  If, please, I have found grace in your eyes, then place, please, your hand under my yareikh; and if you would do lasting kindness, you will not, please, bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, and you carry me up from Egypt, my burial place will be in their burial place.  And he (Joseph) said:  I will do as you have spoken.  (Genesis 47:29-30)

yareikh = loin; i.e. lower back, hip, upper thigh, or genitals (depending on the context)

Israel is asking to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and—we learn later in this Torah portion—his own first wife, Leah.  As the self-centered Jacob, he might want to be buried in Bethlehem beside Rachel, the wife he loved and mourned for the rest of his life.  But as Israel, he knows it will have more impact on his descendants if he is buried at Machpelah in Canaan.  Then the children of Israel, who are settling down in Egypt and acquiring land, will remember that in the long run, they must return to Canaan.

Israel begins his speech to Joseph with extreme formality and politeness, addressing him in his role as the viceroy of Egypt, rather than in his identity as Jacob’s favorite son.  He might trust Joseph to carry out his wishes if his son were a private individual.  But, commentators agree, he knows the pharaoh does not want his invaluable viceroy to leave Egypt for even a short visit to his homeland.  What if Joseph does not return?  So Israel decides to give Joseph an extra reason to go, one that will impress Pharaoh:  Joseph must swear the most solemn oath possible.

This is the kind of oath that Abraham made his steward swear when he ordered his steward to get Isaac a bride from Aram instead of Canaan.  Abraham was afraid he would not live long enough to enforce his decision about his daughter-in-law; Jacob/Israel knows he will be powerless over his own burial.  In both cases, the most serious oath is called for.

Abraham’s steward complied at once:

And the servant placed his hand under the yareikh of Abraham, his master, and he swore to him on this matter.  (Genesis 24:9)

As above, the word yareikh, like the word “loin”, could mean any of several different spots on the body.  We can only guess where Abraham’s steward placed his hand.

The next time the word yareikh appears in the Torah is when Jacob wrestles with an unnamed being (perhaps a messenger of God) at the Yabbok, the night before he faces his estranged brother Esau.  At dawn, Jacob’s opponent touches the hollow of his yareikh, and jerks or dislocates it.  (Genesis 32:26)  Nevertheless, Jacob refuses to let go until the being blesses him.  The being gives him the following blessing:

No longer will it be said your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you strove with elohim and with anashim, and you prevailed.  (Genesis 32:29)

elohim = gods, divine powers, God

anashim = men

The implication is that Jacob’s wrestling opponent was divine.  Many commentators conclude that it was an angel, which the Torah calls a “messenger of God”.  I am in the modern camp that concludes one part of Jacob’s personality wrestled with another part, now that he could no longer postpone dealing with his psychological conflicts regarding his twin brother Esau, whom he cheated 20 years before and is about to face again in the morning.  Either way,  a divine perspective wrestled or strove with a small human perspective.  The divine perspective touched a physical spot on Jacob’s body, and Jacob emerged from the experience with both a new name and a limp.

And the sun rose for him as he passed Penueil, and he, he was limping on his yareikh.  (Genesis 32:32)

At the end of his life, Jacob, speaking as Israel, begs Joseph to swear an oath with his hand placed under his father’s yareikh.  But Joseph promises to bury him according to his request without placing his hand under his father’s whatever-it-is.  He merely says, I will do as you have spoken.

Is the hand placement beneath his dignity, as the viceroy of Egypt?  I don’t think so.  I think Joseph remembers Jacob’s famous limp.  He does not want to touch the spot that the unnamed being touched.  There is something holy, even divine, about the hollow of Jacob’s yareikh.

While many commentators assume that Joseph swears without putting his hand in the required place, I think Jacob does not accept Joseph’s unsupported promise as a bona fide oath.

He said:  Swear to me.  And he swore to him.  Then Israel prostrated himself on the head of the bed.  (Genesis 47:31)

Joseph obviously says and does something else after his initial promise, something Jacob accepts as a duly sworn oath, one that even the Pharaoh could not quibble about.

Why is the physical action of the oath so important to Jacob-Israel?  After all, when Jacob dies, Joseph can still tell Pharaoh he swore an oath, whether he used his hand or not.

I wonder if Israel wants Joseph to touch the same place the divine being touched.  The first two times Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, Joseph disguised himself, lied to them, and  manipulated them—just as Jacob did to his brother and father.  Jacob might recognize himself, before the wrestling match, in his favorite son.  How can he get Joseph to confront his own divided personality, and wrestle with the divine side?  Maybe if Joseph touches the spot that the divine being touched, the re-enactment will shock him into awareness.

Jacob-Israel would not think in those terms,  since he is not a psychotherapist.  But humans have always engaged in symbolic acts, instinctively using them to making connections between the seen and the unseen.

Then Israel prostrated himself on the head of the bed.   He is not merely stretching out; the Hebrew word vayishtachavu means bowing to the ground before a king or god.  When Jacob limped toward Esau after the wrestling match, he prostrated himself toward his brother seven times.  Now Jacob prostrates himself as best he can, at age 147, to complete the ritual that echoes his experience at the Yabbok.

The story echoes inside me, even though none of the particulars of my life remotely approach  the Torah’s account of Jacob’s life.  I think what moves me is the understanding that although we use our clever brains to try to arrange what we believe we want, something deeper and more mysterious is going on underneath all that busy thinking.  Something that cannot be pinned down with words, but only alluded to, perhaps by a word like “elohim” or “divine”.  Jacob learns this.  He makes sure his son Joseph knows it.  And when we read their ancient story in the Torah, we can realize it, too.

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