Vayeishev: Favoritism

November 24, 2021 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | Leave a comment

This week I am having a good time rewriting a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of the snake in the Garden of Eden. I also made some Thanksgiving dishes, and looked over this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, the beginning of the story about Joseph and his brothers. This essay on Vayeishev comes from the first draft of my book on Genesis.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones, 1865

The Favorite

Joseph’s ten older brothers are guilty of throwing him into an empty cistern with the intention to kill him, then selling him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their behavior is clearly immoral.

What is less blatant is the unethical behavior of Joseph and his father, Jacob.

Joseph’s unethical behavior

These are the histories of Jacob: Joseph, at age 17, was tending the flock with his brothers, and he was a na-ar with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s women. And Joseph brought dibatam to their father. And Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a fancy tunic. (Genesis 37:1-3)

na-ar (נַעַר) = boy, young single man, assistant, servant.

dibatam (דִּבָּתָם) = slander about them, slander of theirs, their bad reputation.  (dibat, דִּבַּת = slander of, bad reputation of + suffix -am, ָם = third person masculine plural.)

Joseph is “a son of his old age”,1 but that is not the only reason Jacob (also called Israel) loves him the most.  Joseph is Rachel’s older son, and the Torah says Jacob loves Rachel more than his other three women, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah.  When he meets Esau at the Yabok River, Jacob places Rachel and Joseph last, the farthest from harm.  After Rachel dies, Joseph is the person he loves most in the world.

In what way is Joseph a na-ar? At age 17, his role might be to assist some of his adult brothers in the family business.  Joseph is a na-ar with the four sons of Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Perhaps Jacob divided his sons into two groups in charge of different flocks because Leah’s older sons destroyed Shekhem, and he does not trust them to be a good influence on Joseph, his favorite. (Probably Leah’s last three children, who are about the same age as Joseph, are assisting her four adult sons.)

Or perhaps Joseph chose to go out with the sons of the concubines because they are conscious of the inferior status of their mothers, and therefore defer to him.2

Besides being an assistant, Joseph acts like a juvenile (another meaning of na-ar) when he brings dibatam to Jacob.  He might be slandering his brothers.  Or he might be reporting that his brothers are slandering him.  If he were a young child there would be nothing wrong with running to his father and saying the equivalent of “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!” But at age 17, Joseph should be mature enough to fight his own battles, especially if they are battles of words; later in the story he turns out to be exceptionally intelligent.

The word dibatam refers to any words that harm another person’s reputation, whether they are the truth or slander.  Whether Joseph is lying about his brothers or merely reporting all of their actual bad deeds, he is lowering their reputations. There is no indication in the Torah that he does this to achieve any higher good.

Then he antagonizes his brothers even more by telling them one of his dreams.

Joseph’s Dream of Sheaves, by Owen Jones, 1865

And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and it added to their hatred of him even more. (Genesis 37:5)

In this first dream, the brothers are binding sheaves, and all of their sheaves bow down to his sheaf. The brothers conclude that their younger brother wants to rule over them like a king.

Joseph’s behavior is ethically unsavory. He harms four of his brothers by making them look bad, and all ten of his older brothers by flaunting his dream of dominance, which makes them feel inferior.

Joseph’s weaknesses

What subverts Joseph’s ability to make better moral choices?

He knows, at least subconsciously, that he has done nothing to earn the status of Jacob’s favorite son; his father dotes on him merely because Rachel was his mother. Since Rachel’s death, Jacob has probably become even more attached to her older son.

Joseph cannot prove that he deserves his father’s esteem, but at least he can prove that the four sons of Jacob’s concubines deserve less esteem than he does by bringing his father bad reports, true or false.

Why does Joseph tell his brothers his dream? Is he too egocentric to realize that it will upset them? Or does he want to upset them, at least subconsciously?

Nobody sees Joseph as an individual; he is only Jacob’s favorite son. Since his mother’s death he has needed attention as a human being, not as a symbol.  Even negative attention is better than none. So he makes another poor moral choice, telling his brothers that according to the predictive world of dreams, they are going to be subservient to him.

Jacob’s unethical behavior

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives him the Coat, by Owen Jones, 1865

Their father, Jacob, foolishly shows his favoritism when he gives Joseph a fancy tunic. Like Cain, who reacts to God’s unfair favoritism by attacking his brother Abel rather than God, Joseph’s older brothers react to their father’s unfair favoritism by attacking their brother rather than Jacob.

At first their attacks are only verbal: they never speak a peaceful word to him.3  Then Joseph tells them two of his dreams.

In Joseph’s second dream the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him.

And he told it to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him, and said to him: “What is this dream that you dreamed? Will we actually come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter. (Genesis 37:10-11)

Joseph’s Second Dream, by Owen Jones, 1865

Jacob interprets the sun and moon as representing himself and Rachel (deceased), and the eleven stars as Joseph’s eleven brothers (including little Benjamin, Rachel’s youngest). It is not clear whether Jacob rebukes his favorite son for the content of the dream, or for telling it to his family. He observes that the dream makes Joseph’s brothers jealous, but he does not seem to be aware that he contributed to their jealousy by giving only Joseph an upper-class tunic.

Then Jacob’s ten older sons take the family’s flocks to Shekhem. Jacob gives Joseph instructions that might be straightforward—or might imply he does not trust his other sons, and he wants Joseph to continue acting as a tattletale.

And he said to him: “Go, please, see about the well-being of your brothers    and the well-being of the flock, and return word to me.” (Genesis 37:14)

Jacob knows that his older sons resent Joseph, but it does not occur to him that they hate Joseph so much they would consider murdering him.

Jacob’s weaknesses

Why does Jacob listen to Joseph’s bad reports about his brothers?

Subconsciously he may realize that his partiality for Joseph is based only on his love for the boy’s mother. (The Torah does not mention Joseph’s good looks or intelligence at this point.) If Jacob knew that Joseph actually was superior to his brothers, he would have less reason to feel guilty for his preferential treatment. So when Joseph gives him bad reports about at least four of his brothers, Jacob is happy to believe him.

Why does he send Joseph on a journey of several days4 to check up on his older brothers?

Perhaps he is merely worried that his older sons are up to no good. Or perhaps Joseph’s second dream has alerted his father that his favorite son is either narcissistic or dangerously naive. Traveling alone to Shekhem might teach Joseph more independence and give him time to reflect. He might even encounter God, as Jacob did when he traveled alone to Charan.

Those are charitable explanations. But it is also possible that Jacob is simply in the habit of soliciting more evidence that his bias toward Joseph is justified. The collusion between the father and his favorite son would make them seem closer, and that would reinforce Jacob’s bad  habit of asking Joseph to inform on his brothers.

Jacob is too narcissistic to realize that his own behavior is lowering Joseph’s moral standards. When he dispatches Joseph to Shekhem to check up on his brothers, he is too narcissistic to realize that he is jeopardizing his favorite son’s life.

When Joseph finally catches up with his brothers,

Joseph Sold into Slavery, by Owen Jones,1865

They said, each man to his brother: “Hey!  Here comes the master of dreams!  And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of these pits, and we can say a wicked beast ate him.  Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!”  (Genesis 37:19-20)

They do not murder Joseph, but they do sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.

Small unethical deeds can have big consequences.

  1. Commentators disagree on Jacob’s age when his son Joseph is born. When Jacob leaves for Charan we know he is over 40 (Genesis 26:34); Nachmanides (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Ramban) wrote that he is 84.  (Like some other fabulously aged heroes of Genesis, Jacob has no problem with sex and physical labor after 80.)  Joseph is born 14 years after Jacob arrives in Charan (Genesis 29:14, 19-20, 27, 30; Genesis 30:25).  Although Leah’s youngest sons, Issachar and Zebulun, are born in the same year or two as Joseph, only Joseph is called the “son of his old age”.  Nachmanides explained that when Jacob was well over 100, he must have picked Joseph to be the son who took care of his physical needs in old age.
  2. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, p. 706.
  3. Genesis 37:4.
  4. Jacob believes his ten oldest sons are pasturing the flocks in Shekhem, which is about 50 miles (80 km) from his home in Hebron. When Joseph arrives at Shekhem he learns that his brothers have gone on to Dotan, so his journey is even longer.

Lamentations, Va-etchannan, & Vayeishev: The Pit

July 14, 2021 at 8:48 pm | Posted in Lamentations, Va-etchannan, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Dig a deep hole in the ground and you have a pit, a bor in Hebrew.  In the bible you can use it as a dungeon, or line it with cement and use it as a cistern to store water. A bor is also part of the underworld where the souls of the dead go.

Roman Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, the annual Jewish day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple—both the first temple, razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the second temple, razed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  On Tisha B’Av it is customary to read the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, a series of five poems which mourn the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army.

The first poem opens with the word Eykhah (“How can it be?”)1 and expresses the desolation of the ruins of Jerusalem.  The second poem, which also begins Eykhah, calls the destruction “the day of God’s wrath” over the misdeeds of Jerusalem’s people.  The fourth and fifth poems combine the two themes, with emphasis on starvation and being at the mercy of the enemy.

The third poem, however, reads like one of the personal psalms in which the ancient poets feel as if they are near death, and plead with God to bring them back to life and take vengeance against their enemies.2  Only in verse 40 does the third poem of Lamentations switch from “I” to “we”, urging all the people of Jerusalem to plead with God for forgiveness and rescue.

     Let us check on our ways and cross-examine [ourselves], and turn back to God!  (Lamentations 3:40)3

The first person singular returns with:

     Streams of water go down from my eyes over the shattering of my people.  (Lamentations 3:48)

Shortly after that, the narrator, identifying with Jerusalem, claims that the Babylonians did not actually need the city.

     My enemies actually hunted me like a bird, for no reason.

     They silenced my life in the bor, and in their hand was a stone against me.

     The waters rose over my head.  I thought: “I am ended!”

     I called your name, God, from the bottom of the bor.

     May you hear my voice!  Do not shut your ear to my spirit, to my cry for help!  (Lamentations/Eykhah 3:52-56)

bor (בּוֹר) = a pit; a cistern, a dungeon, a synonym for Sheol.

Here the bor is not a physical cistern or dungeon, but a poetic image for Sheol, the underworld of the souls of the dead.  Bor is used at least 21 times in the Hebrew Bible to indicate either Sheol or the lowest region of Sheol, but this is the only such reference that includes water.  Souls never drown after they are dead in ancient Hebrew mythology.  Thus the narrator of this poem is not dead, but despairing of life.  The poet uses the images of both stone and water, comparing the bor of Sheol to a cistern filling up with water.

The narrator, like all the citizens of defeated Jerusalem, is trapped—unable to float to the surface and escape.

A full cistern

Next week Jews read from Va-etchanan (“And I implored”), the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  In this portion cisterns are listed as assets that the Israelites will enjoy once they conquer the land of Canaan:

… cities big and good that you did not build, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, excavated borot that you did not excavate, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  [Then] take heed, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

borot (בֺּרוֹת) = plural of bor.

How lovely to move into a land already dotted with cisterns that collect and store water for the dry season!  Moses reminds his people not to take the cisterns for granted, since they did not excavate them.  Canaanites dug them, and the Israelites will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.4

The books of Exodus through Joshua treat the conquest of Canaan as an unmitigated good, since it results in fertile land for the Israelites, not to mention pre-existing amenities such as cities, houses, and cisterns.  The bible does not consider the Canaanite point of view.

But I can imagine poets from the various conquered peoples of Canaan writing laments after the Israelites besiege and loot their cities, destroy their temples, and kill many of their people.  The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua is the same story as the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar; only the names and dates change.

An empty cistern

Cisterns holding water are mentioned twelve times in the Hebrew Bible.  Dry cisterns and dry pits are mentioned at least 31 times.  They serve as hiding places,5 a warrior throws bodies of the slain into them,6 and large animals fall in.7  Psalm 7:16 refers to a man falling into a pit he dug himself, a fine image of being caught in your own trap.8

Since the walls of an empty cistern are covered with cement, they do not provide handholds for a human to climb out.  The only escape is for someone at the top to throw you a rope.

At least thirteen times the bible mentions a dry bor, it was  excavated to serve as a dungeon.  Five times in Genesis, in the portion Vayeishev (“And he settled”), the bor is an empty cistern that Joseph’s older brothers use as an ad-hoc prison.

They see Joseph coming up the road to check on them, and they know he will give a negative report to their father, as usual.

Joseph pulled up from the pit, by James J.J. Tissot

And they said, each man to his brother: “Hey!  Here comes the master of dreams!  And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of the borot, and we can say a wicked beast ate him.  Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!”    And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into this bor that is in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and return him to his father.  And it happened when Joseph came up to his brothers.  They stripped his tunic off Joseph, the fancy tunic that he had on, and they took him and threw him into the bor.  And there was no water; the bor was empty. (Genesis 37:20-24)

It would take about two weeks for a healthy adolescent like Joseph to die of dehydration at the bottom of the pit, less if there were no shade.  Before Reuben can return with a rope to rescue him, Judah sells Joseph to a caravan.  The traders pull him up out of the bor and take him to Egypt as a slave.

*

A deep hole in the ground is beneficial when it becomes a cistern full of water, or the basement of a building.9  But when it is used as a dungeon, the captive will die unless given food and water.  A prisoner in a dungeon can hope for a reprieve or a rescue, but if the bor is Sheol you can only be saved if God heeds your prayer as you go down.  There is no life after death in that bor; at best the disembodied souls lie in eternal sleep.10

Today, when we are depressed we feel “down”, trapped in a mysterious place without life or meaning.  In English we call it “a pit of despair”.

May everyone who sinks into a pit find a way to cry out for help and be rescued, whether the rescuer is a fellow human being or the voice of God within.

  1. See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
  2. g. Psalms 28, 30 and 88, all of which mention bor as a synonym for Sheol.
  3. Since the poem is an acrostic, verse 40 must begin with the letter nun, נ. When the prefix nun is attached to verbs in the perfect tense, it indicates the second person plural.  However, the prefix nun can also be used to indicate the simple passive (nifal) verb stem, and there are many other words that begin with a nun, so switching to the second person plural for a word beginning with nun is a deliberate choice on the part of the poet.
  4. See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?
  5. 1 Samuel 13:6, 1 Chronicles 11:17-18, and Proverbs 28:17.
  6. Jeremiah 41:7-9 and 1 Chronicles 11:17-18.
  7. Exodus 21:33-34, 2 Samuel 23:20, and 1 Chronicles 11:22.
  8. Psalm 7:16.
  9. The word bor is not used for a basement in the bible; the substructure of a building is called a yesod (יְסוֹד) = foundation, base.
  10. Unless they are disturbed by a diviner such as the witch of Endor, who summons the ghost of Samuel to speak briefly with King Saul in 1 Samuel 28:7-20.

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2

April 1, 2021 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask; these are the four kinds of children in the Passover Seder.  Can we find them among Jacob’s progeny?

Last week I argued that out of the three of Jacob’s children with speaking roles in the book of Genesis, Reuben is an unwise wise child, and Judah is a reformed wicked child.  You can read that post here: Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1.

The only other one of Jacob’s children who speaks is Joseph.  In the Passover Haggadah, the simple child says only, “What is this?”  Joseph says a great deal more.

Joseph: Complicated Simple Son

In fact, he talks too much.  By the time he is seventeen, four of his older brothers hate him because he brings bad reports of them to their father, Jacob.1  The rest hate him because he is Jacob’s favorite.  Joseph should notice their animosity, since “they could not speak to him in peace”.2

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James J.J. Tissot

Yet he tells his brothers about two dreams in which they (thinly disguised as sheaves of grain, then as stars) are bowing down to him.3

Only a simple child would tell these dreams to brothers who already hate him.  Does Joseph realize how his older brothers feel?  Is he unable to imagine that they might lash out at him?

Their father, Jacob (who may also be deficient in emotional intelligence) sends Joseph off alone to check up on his brothers and their flocks.  As soon as he reaches them, they seize him, throw him into a pit, and argue about whether to kill him, let him slowly starve, or sell him as a slave.4  He pleads with them to no avail,5 and before the day is over he is a slave bound for Egypt.

The next time Joseph speaks is when his Egyptian master’s wife tries to seduce him, and he explains that he will not lie down with her because it would be wicked.6   It does not even occur to him to flatter her when he refuses her advances. She does not take his rejection well, and Joseph ends up in Pharaoh’s prison.

One morning in prison Joseph notices that two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s head butler and head baker, have “bad expressions”7—the first sign that he is noticing the feelings of others.  He asks them why, and they say there is no one to interpret their dreams.

Joseph in Prison, by James J.J. Tissot

Then Joseph said to them: “Aren’t dream interpretations for God?  Please tell me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

Is Joseph giving credit to God for his upcoming interpretations, or is he claiming that God gives him secret information?  Probably both.  Joseph’s predictions based on their dreams come true, and two years later when Pharaoh has a pair of puzzling dreams, the head butler recommends Joseph.

This time Joseph says God is revealing the future to Pharaoh through those dreams.8  The implication that God is giving Pharaoh, not Joseph, secret information indicates Joseph’s increasing sophistication.  He says the dreams are forecasting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and throws in some advice: Pharaoh should appoint an insightful man to organize stockpiling and later distribution of food.  Impressed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph.  From then on, he is the viceroy of Egypt.9

When Joseph’s ten older brothers come to the viceroy to buy grain during the first year of famine they do not recognize him.  Joseph plays a complicated game, arranging elaborate tests to see if his brothers have reformed.10  Joseph’s premise is that he can judge his older brothers according to how they treat Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and his new favorite.

Joseph still has grandiose impulses, and adds details to his game that are not strictly necessary.  For example, he invites them to dinner and seats them in order from oldest to youngest, although no Egyptian could guess their exact birth order.  They are astonished by his apparent magical power.11

The final test comes when Joseph plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, then accuses him of stealing it and decrees that the punishment is to stay in Egypt as the viceroy’s slave.  Joseph’s ten older brothers say they are all guilty and they will all be slaves with him.  Even this is not enough for Joseph, who insists that only Benjamin will stay.12  Finally Judah breaks the deadlock by explaining that their father could not live without Benjamin.  Judah begs to be the viceroy’s slave instead of Benjamin, and Joseph finally breaks down and admits who he is.13

But there is one more complication.  Joseph is so attached to his role as the savior of Egypt, Canaan, and his own family, that he says:

“And now don’t worry and don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me.  Because hey! God sent me ahead of you to save life.  For this was a pair of years of the famine in the midst of the land, and there will be five more years when there will be no plowing nor reaping …  So now, you did not send me here!  Rather, God did, and he placed me as a father-figure to Pharaoh and as a master to all his household and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)

By the end of this speech Joseph is bragging about his high position.  As Pharaoh’s 39-year-old viceroy, he is older and wiser than he was at age 17.  But he is still as full of himself as a simple child.  He is also full of his theory of divine providence (at least for him and his family), and does not see that his brothers need his forgiveness.

Joseph invites the whole extended family to live in Egypt and benefit from his munificence.  Yet when their father Jacob dies, his ten older sons send a message to Joseph begging for a pardon.  They still do not feel safe with a simple child who has absolute power over them and never explicitly forgave them.

Then Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?  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.  And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:19-21)

Whatever Joseph says to comfort them works, and they have a change of heart.  But I wish one of Joseph’s brothers would protest, “What is this?”

Benjamin: Speechless Son

Jacob has nine sons who are not quoted in the Torah.  He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is silent about her own rape, the subsequent proposed marriage, and the murder of her would-be bridegroom.14  I am tempted to call Dinah the fourth child in the Passover Seder, the “child who does not know how to ask”, so I could grandstand about how women in the Ancient Near East were pawns and chattels of the men, deprived even of the right to speak for themselves.15

But if Reuben, Judah, and Joseph correspond to the three children who ask questions, then the fourth child, who is amazed by the Passover rituals but cannot put together a question, must be Benjamin.

Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s children, and the only one who does not commit or witness any terrible deeds.  He has not even been born when Dinah is raped and Jacob’s oldest sons massacre all the men in the town of Shekhem.  He is only a toddler in Jacob’s camp when Joseph’s older brothers sell him as a slave.  The first year Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, he does not let Benjamin go.  The second year, when Benjamin does go, he is a married man with children of his own—but he is leaving his father’s home for the first time in his life!

He is silent—probably flabbergasted—when the viceroy’s steward “finds” the silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it.  Benjamin remains silent when his older brothers tell the viceroy they will all stay in Egypt and suffer the punishment of slavery.  Another man might protest at this point, but Benjamin is not used to making his own ethical decisions.

After the viceroy reveals that he is Joseph, he embraces Benjamin first.

And [Joseph] fell on the neck of Benjamin, his brother, and he sobbed, and Benjamin sobbed on his neck.  And he kissed all his brothers and he sobbed on them.  And after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:14-15)

Benjamin is the only one of Joseph’s brothers who sobs back.  He is overwhelmed by Joseph’s affection, and unlike his older brothers, he is innocent of any wrongdoing.  He can react freely, and non-verbally.

Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, Benjamin is the baby of the family.  It does not even occur to him to question what is going on.  We do not learn whether he ever grows up.

  1. Genesis 37:2.
  2. Genesis 37:3-4.
  3. Genesis 37:5-9.
  4. Reuben argues that they should throw Joseph in the pit without killing him outright, implying that he will eventually die of dehydration.  Reuben’s plan is to sneak back and rescue him (Genesis 37:21-22).  Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-28).
  5. Genesis 42:21.
  6. Genesis 39:8-9.
  7. Genesis 40:7.
  8. Genesis 41:25.
  9. Genesis 41:39-44.
  10. Genesis 42:9-25, 43:26-44:17.
  11. Genesis 43:33.
  12. Genesis 44:16-17.
  13. Genesis 44:18-45:3.
  14. Genesis 34:1-31.
  15. Except for Rebecca, who can say “yes” or “no” to her engagement to Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).

 

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1

March 24, 2021 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder.  The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine.  Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.

The Four Seder-night Sons, American Haggadah, circa 1920

“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3  Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child.  These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:

  1. The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
  2. The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
  3. The “simple child”: “What is this?”
  4. The “child who does not know how to ask”.  (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival.  Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:8))

The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3  You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.

Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children.  In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four SonsIn 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.

This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about  Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter.  Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph.  Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah?  What about the fourth child, the silent one?

Reuben: Unwise Son

Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”.  I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing.  But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.

When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!”  His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)

After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah.  Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly.  What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?

And they do.  While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.

And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here!  And I, where can I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)

Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.

Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them.  Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone.  Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:

“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you!  Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice.  But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons?  Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.

Judah: Reformed Wicked Son

The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?”  In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households.  But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:

“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?”  (Genesis 37:26)

He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him.  At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph.  Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative.  Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child.  Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!”  (Genesis 38:26)

After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?”  I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.

When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.

Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him.  Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him.  If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.”  (Genesis 43:8)

Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother.  This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph.  Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.

*

Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”?  And who is the silent child?  You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators.  The four sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
  4. This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”

Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law

February 5, 2021 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Vayeishev, Yitro | Leave a comment

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving you.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  You can read my blog post about it here: Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents.

The portion Yitro also gives us a portrait of an eponymous father-in-law well worth honoring.  Yitro visits his son-in-law Moses in the wilderness around Mount Sinai, where Moses he has led the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  The two men exchange greetings, with Moses bowing to the ground to honor his father-in-law.1  Yitro, a Midianite priest, rejoices over the good things that Moses’ God has done for Moses’ people, without showing a hint of jealousy.2  Then he makes an animal offering to God, and all the elders of the Israelites join him in the ritual meal.3  Finally, Yitro observes Moses wearing himself out by serving as the only judge for all his people’s disputes, asks him the reason, and then suggests a system for delegating authority.4  He leaves his son-in-law in a better position than when he arrived.

*

As I continue to write my book on morality in Genesis, I am now wrestling with the story of a less admirable father-in-law.  Judah, who once arranged to sell his brother Joseph as a slave,5 has three sons.  He chooses Tamar as a wife for his oldest son, Eir.6  But Eir dies after the wedding.

According to the law of yibum (also called levirate marriage), a woman who is childless when her husband dies must be given a place in the household of the deceased through an arrangement in which the dead husband’s brother or nearest male relative impregnates her, and when she has a son her boy inherits her dead husband’s portion of the family wealth.  Without yibum, the widow has no rights.

Judah dutifully sends his second son in to Tamar’s bed, but he refuses to perform, and shortly dies.  Now Judah has only one son left, young Shelah, and he is afraid that Shelah will also die if he gets near Tamar.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: “Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:11)

Tamar waits a long time in limbo, and then finally takes the yibum into her own hands.  When Judah goes to the annual sheep-shearing, he spots someone at a crossroad whom he assumes is a prostitute waiting for a customer.  It is Tamar, dressed like a prostitute and veiled so he does not recognize her.  She asks him to give her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge until he can pay her.  When Judah sends his friend with the payment, no prostitute can be found.  A few months later, when it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah condemns her to death for prostitution.  After all, she was supposed to remain chaste until he arranged yibum for her again.

At the last minute, Tamar sends Judah his own seal and staff with the message:

“To the man whose these are his I am pregnant.”  And she said: “Recognize, please: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”  (Genesis 38:25)

At that moment Judah changes.  He is the first person in the Torah to admit he was wrong.

And Judah recognized, and he said: “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:26)

He becomes an honorable father-in-law, returning Tamar to his household, where she has twin sons.  Judah also becomes an honorable man, who eventually offers himself as a slave to protect his innocent brother Benjamin.7

*

Not all parents-in-law, or all parents, are worthy of being honored.  But we can still treat them with respect, for being fellow humans and for who they might become.  The example of Judah reminds us that human beings can change.

  1. Exodus 18:7.
  2. Exodus 18:9-10.
  3. Exodus 18:12.
  4. Exodus 18:13-26.
  5. Genesis 37:26-27.
  6. Genesis 38:6.
  7. Genesis 44:32-33.

By Hand

January 27, 2021 at 6:39 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Hands are powerful.  Hands are personal.

by Theodore Gericault, 1824

Both modern English and biblical Hebrew use the word for “hand” (yad, יָד) in many idioms.  And sometimes an idiom in an English translation of the Hebrew bible was adopted into English just because the “Old Testament” had so many English-speaking readers.

The Israelites leave Egypt “with a high hand” in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach.  Here is the King James translation:

And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.  (Exodus 14:8)

In English we say people are “high-handed” when they act as if they have the authority to accomplish something by themselves, without consulting anyone or considering anyone else’s concerns.  When the Israelites march out of Egypt, they feel arrogant for a change.  The pharaoh who oppressed them has begged them to go, they are taking everything Pharaoh wanted them to leave behind, and they have just commandeered  gold and other valuables from their Egyptian neighbors.  They act as if they are invincible–until the Egyptian army catches up with them.

See my 2013 post on the subject here: Beshallach: High Handed.

In English we say “He was caught red-handed,” because a man at a murder scene with blood on his hands is probably the murderer.  The idiom applies to anyone caught committing a violation in front of witnesses or with obvious, incontrovertible evidence.

But if you arrange for someone to die while you are elsewhere and there is no evidence that “your hand was in it”, you might never be implicated.  Biblical Hebrew would phrase that idiom as “your hand was with” the obvious perpetrator.  For example, King David asks a woman with an imaginary story about two sons “Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?” to find out if Joab’s hand is in her ploy to make him change his mind about his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14:19).

This week I am writing the part of my book on Genesis about when Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to caravan bound for Egypt.  Initially, most of Joseph’s ten older brothers want to kill him, then throw his body into one of the dry cisterns in the vicinity.  Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them not to get blood on their own hands.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw them into this pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t extend a hand (yad) on him,” in order to rescue him from their hand (yad) and return him to his father.  (Genesis 33:22)

In colloquial English Reuben is saying: “Don’t lay a hand on him.”   All the brothers cooperate by seizing Joseph, stripping off his fancy tunic, and throwing him into the cistern alive.  Then Reuben wanders off while the rest of Joseph’s brothers sit down for a meal and Joseph pleads for his life from the bottom of the cistern.  An Ishmaelite caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and one of the brothers, Judah, says:

What profit if we murder our brother and cover up his blood?  Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand (yad) won’t be on him; for he is our brother, our flesh.”  (Genesis 33:26-27)

What Judah does not say is that a slave sold in Egypt would probably have a short life-span.

Thus the Torah provides an example of how humans excuse their own behavior when they put someone in harm’s way or incite someone to commit a crime.  If I didn’t do it with my own hands, they think, I’m not really guilty.

In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers realize that they are guilty after all, and that guilt haunts them the rest of their lives.

 

 

Repost: Vayeishev & Mikeitz

December 20, 2019 at 1:46 am | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Inside the Pantheon, Rome

During four and a half whirlwind days in Rome we saw, among other things, the Pantheon, built 113-125 C.E.; St. Peter’s Basilica, built 1506-1612; and the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue), built  1899-1904.  In some ways they all look alike: each is designed to enclose a large, impressive volume of space, horizontal as well as vertical; and the architecture is grand, with the circle, the square, and the Greek orders of columns and capitals repeated over and over again.  All three buildings project authority.

So I polished up my 2011 post on this week and next week’s Torah portions: Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority.  The symbols of Judah’s and Joseph’s positions of authority include a cylinder seal and a signet ring, both used the way we use a signature to authorize a written order.  Judah also has his staff, as a clan leader.  And Joseph has his chariot, as the pharaoh’s second-in-command.

Pantheon

The architecture of sacred buildings can also include symbols of authority.  Roman Emperor Hadrian built the Pantheon as a temple for all the gods.  He had M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT (“built by Marcus Agrippa in his third consulate”) carved on the front to glorify the ruler who erected the previous temple on that site.  As well as being a religious building, the Pantheon reinforced the authority of Rome’s government.

Cathedra, St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s is the pope’s church, in Vatican City.  Behind the central altar, where only the pope may serve mass, is the “cathedra”.  A cathedra is the seat or throne of a bishop in a cathedral, and the throne of the pope in St. Peter’s.  Originally when the pope announced a decision “ex cathedra” he sat in that throne to show that his word had ultimate authority.

The only true stained glass window I saw in St. Peter’s was the sunburst window in the wall above the cathedra, with a symbolic dove in the center representing the Holy Spirit.  It is the focal point of the church’s interior, drawing the eye to the relatively dark chair below.

The synagogue that Roman Jews built to celebrate their liberation from the ghetto has several good wooden chairs on the bima, the raised platform at the east end.  One is where the person holding the Torah scroll sits while the scrolls is dressed again in its cover, and its two crowns are put on.  The other chairs are traditionally used to honor important members of the community.

Ark, Great Synagogue

But the focal point, as in all synagogues, is the ark where the crowned Torah scrolls are stored in between readings.

These symbols put the text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the position of the authority, rather than a person.  And any adult Jew (male, in this orthodox synagogue) can step up on the bima and lead the service.

 

 

Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?

December 5, 2018 at 9:38 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | 2 Comments

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.

Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy

November 29, 2018 at 7:41 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | 6 Comments

Why do Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him?  Because they resent their father’s favoritism?  Or because they resent Joseph’s behavior?

An Obnoxious Father

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, has always played favorites.  He has children with two official wives (Leah and Rachel) and their two female servants (Zilpah and Bilhah), but he loves only Rachel.  After Rachel dies in childbirth, it is no surprise to learn in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“And he settled down”) that he loves Rachel’s son Joseph more than his ten older half-brothers.

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives Him the Coat, by Owen Jones, 1869

And Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a ketonet passim.  And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him and could not speak in peace.  (Genesis 37:3-4)

ketonet (כְּתֺנֶת) = a long tunic/shirt/loose dress worn by both men and women, either alone or underneath a robe or cloak.  It was belted with a sash, and removed at night.1

passim (פַּסִּים) = ?  Translations include “multicolored” (as in the King James “coat of many colors”), “ornamented”, and “long-sleeved”.

The only other appearance of ketonet passim in the bible is in 2 Samuel 13:18-19, which notes that every unmarried daughter of King David wore one.  Joseph is a shepherd like his brothers, but Jacob gives him a garment fit for a king’s child.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion says Jacob loves Joseph the most because he is a son of Jacob’s old age.  But his love for Joseph’s deceased mother also affects his feelings.  Besides giving Joseph the princely tunic in Vayeishev, Jacob refuses to be comforted when he believes his favorite son has been killed.2  In next week’s portion, Mikeitz, Jacob is not alarmed to learn that the vizier of Egypt has imprisoned Shimon, one of his sons with Leah.  But he refuses to let Benjamin, his second son with Rachel, leave his side and go to Egypt.3

An Obnoxious Youth

Naturally Jacob’s ten older sons resent their father’s favoritism.  But they have another reason to hate Joseph.  When one child in a family is spoiled and the others neglected, the spoiled one can become a narcissist—either because he believes he truly is wonderful, or because he wants to believe it in order to justify all the attention.  This week’s Torah portion does not say directly that Joseph is selfish at age seventeen, but the implication is there, beginning with the word na-ar.

These are the lineages of Jacob: Joseph, seventeen years old, tended the flock along with his brothers, and he was a na-ar … (Genesis/ Bereishit 37:2)

na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave, male assistant, boy, young marriageable man.

Although the Torah promises to give us the lineages4 of Jacob, it does not name any descendants but Joseph, the most important person in Jacob’s life once Rachel is gone.

What does na-ar mean in Joseph’s case?  Joseph is certainly not a slave.  At most he is an assistant to his brothers as he learns the shepherding business.

Kohl used by Egyptian men and women

Bereishit Rabbah 84.7, citing Joseph’s beauty, claims he acts like a vain youth, daubing kohl around his eyes, lifting his heels, and dressing his hair.5  (I assume that Joseph is not tripping through the sheep pastures all dolled up, but saves the show for when they stop at a village.)

Or perhaps he is a na-ar because he is immature for his age.  Right after calling him a na-ar, the Torah says Joseph is a tattletale.

…  and he was a na-ar with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, women of his father’s, and Joseph reported dibatam ra-ah to their father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:2)

dibatam (דִּבָּתָם) = (noun) their slander, their gossip.  (dibah (דִּבָּה) = gossip (usually malicious), slander + tam (תָם) = suffix for the third person masculine plural construct form.)

ra-ah (רָעָה) = (noun) intentional evil, wickedness, disaster.

Many translators rework the final clause into “Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father” or something similar.  This translation fits the context, but it makes the word dibah superfluous.  And although the suffix tam can be interpreted as meaning “of them”, it is usually used as the possessive “their”.

If we translate the clause as “Joseph reported their gossip evil to their father” we account for all the words in the original Hebrew.  Since a noun following another noun often serves as an adjective in biblical Hebrew, a more accurate translation is “Joseph reported their malicious gossip to their father.

What are Zilpah and Bilhah’s sons gossiping about?  And what does Joseph report?  One possibility is that the four young men are slandering Joseph, drawing wicked conclusions about his beauty treatments or the way he wears his fancy tunic.  If Joseph were six years old, like his little brother Benjamin, he might well run home and cry, “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!”  But does he do this at age seventeen?  If so, his father is too blind with devotion to notice his favorite’s immaturity.

Another possibility is that Zilpah and Bilhah’s sons are slandering Leah’s oldest sons, who would be likely to lord it over them because of their superior age, experience, and status.  By reporting this malicious gossip to Jacob, Joseph would make all ten of his older brothers look bad.  Joseph, who proves his intelligence later in the story,6 may even use these bad reports as a pre-emptive strike.  If any brother subsequently tells Jacob about Joseph’s unworthy deeds, Jacob will not be inclined to believe him.

Of course by reporting his brothers’ malicious gossip, Joseph becomes guilty of malicious gossip himself.  But he does not worry about that.  He knows it will not occur to his doting father, and he himself is not yet concerned about ethics.7  Sure enough, later in this week’s Torah portion Jacob sends Joseph on a journey to check up on all his brothers and report back.8

When Joseph catches up with his brothers they throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery, and then convince their father that the boy was killed by wild beasts.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  Thus Jacob suffers for his clueless favoritism.

And Joseph suffers for his own contribution to his brothers’ hatred: his youthful narcissism, which is expressed not only in his malicious reports, but also in his narration of his dreams.

Joseph dreamed a dream and he told his brothers, and it increased their hatred of him.  He said to them: “Listen, please, to this dream that I dreamed.  Hey, we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and hey, my sheaf stood up and was even standing firm, and hey, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheath.”  (Genesis 37:5-7)

Joseph Reveals His Dream, by James Tissot

If the brothers were on friendly terms, they would merely tease him about this grandiose dream.  Instead they hate him more—but although Joseph is intelligent, he does not change his behavior.  He tells them a second dream in which his brothers are symbolically bowing down to him.9  This time Jacob also hears the dream, yet he still sends Joseph off to spy on his brothers.

*

Jacob and Joseph make the same mistake in this week’s Torah portion: they both fail to respect the feelings of others.

And what about Joseph’s older brothers?  Their hatred is understandable; nobody likes being denigrated and treated as insignificant, especially by a parent or younger sibling.  But they could choose a different reaction.

I have had a few young Josephs in my life, narcissists too wrapped up in their own dramas to wonder what I think, to have any interest in me as an individual.  I have imagined how nice it would be if these people were dead, or banished to another country.

Over decades of suffering and reflection, I have realized that when I cannot speak to someone in peace, it is better to run away.  And that when I am blessed enough to hold compassion in my heart and peace on my tongue, it is good to listen—even when I am not heard in return.  When I do the right thing myself, I have peace inside, and I do not have to spend the rest of my life feeling guilty, like Joseph’s brothers.10  It helps to remind myself that the “young Josephs” in my life, however old they are in years, are not being narcissistic on purpose; they are themselves victims of their upbringing.

(I posted an earlier version of this essay in November 2010.)

  1. A ketonet was belted with a sash: see Isaiah 22:21. It was taken off at night: see Song of Songs 5:3.
  2. Genesis 37:34-35.
  3. Genesis 42:38.
  4. Toledot (תּוֹלֵדוֹת).
  5. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400- 600 C.E., extrapolates from Genesis 39:6, which mentions Joseph’s extraordinary good looks in order to explain why Potifar’s wife repeatedly tries to seduce him.
  6. Joseph demonstrates his intelligence in Egypt both in his implementation of his 14-year plan for preventing famine in Egypt while increasing the power of the government (Genesis 41:33-36, 47:13-26) and in his complicated scheme for testing his brothers before revealing his identity to them (Genesis 42:6-45:3).
  7. Joseph’s first ethical act reported in the Torah is after Potifar, who buys Joseph as a slave, makes him steward over his whole household. Then when Potifar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, he refuses her.  (Genesis 39:4-12).
  8. Genesis 37:12-14.
  9. Genesis 37:9-11.
  10. Genesis 42:21-22, 50:15-17.

 

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving?

December 26, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Posted in Vayechi, Vayeishev, Vayiggash | 4 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 37 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).
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