Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?

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

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

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

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

Vayeishev

Joseph Reveals His Dream, by James Tissot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

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

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

What does Joseph mean by that?

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

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

Mikeitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avreikh, by James Tissot

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

Joseph says nothing.

Narcissism:  He believes he is getting what he deserves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones, 1869

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy

November 29, 2018 at 7:41 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | 4 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 | 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).

Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers,
by James Tissot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph is Governor,
by Owen Jones

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

 

Haftarat Vayeishev—Amos: No Prophecy Allowed

December 21, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Amos, Jonah, Vayeishev | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), and the haftarah is Amos 2:6-3:8.

The doom of other countries is easier to read about than the doom of your own. So the book of Amos opens with God’s proclamations against the kingdom of Israel’s neighbors Aram, Philistia, map-amos-ch-1-2Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. In each prophecy, Amos mentions a wicked deed the state committed, followed by the war-related punishment that God will bring down upon it.

I can imagine Amos’s audience in the kingdom of Israel nodding at the well-deserved punishments predicted for other countries, many of which their own king, Jereboam II, attacked in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Then Amos’s introductory formula for the next prophecy names Israel. This week’s haftarah begins:

            Thus said God:

            Because of three revolts of Israel,

                        And because of four, I will not accept it:

            Because of selling the innocent for silver,

                        And the needy for the sake of a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)

The first revolt (or transgression) against God in Amos’s polemic against the Israelites is selling people into slavery merely out of greed. In the Bible parents are allowed to sell themselves or their children—but only to fellow Israelites, and only in order to pay off debts.1 Selling someone to an outsider, or for any reason other than debt, is unacceptable.

In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their only reason is that they hate him. Later they suffer for this bad deed.

The book of Amos goes on to list four other revolts against God by Israelites:

           Mauling the head of the powerless in the dust of the ground,

                      They stretch the path of the needy.

           A man and his father go to the [same] na-arah

                      For the sake of profaning My holy name.

           And on garments taken as security [for debts]

                      They stretch out beside every altar.

           And wine from fines they charged

                      They drink in the house of their god(s). (Amos 2:7-2:8)

na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = girl; a young woman old enough to marry who has not yet had a child; a female slave or servant.

Drinking in Ancient Greece

Drinking in Ancient Greece

The Israelites who revolt against God are the ones who victimize the innocent, the needy, the powerless, servants, and debtors. They disregard God’s instructions about the poor in order to accumulate silver and live in selfish luxury, indulging in dubious sex and lolling about drinking beside religious altars.  (Either they are worshiping an alien god, as Amos discovers in Bethel, or they are using a shrine built for making libations and animal sacrifices to God as if it were a private drinking hall.)

The wealthier Israelites ignore God despite everything God has done for them: bringing them up from Egypt (where the Israelites were the slaves), guiding them through the wilderness, and destroying their Amorite (i.e. Canaanite) enemies. Furthermore,

I raised up some of your children for neviyim,

                        And some of your youths for nezirim.

            Is this also nothing, children of Israel?

                       —declares God.

neviyim (נְבִיאִים) = prophets (singular= navi, נָבִיא). From the root verb niba (נִבָּא) = behave like a prophet, either by having ecstatic experiences of the divine, or by serving as a mouthpiece and translator for God.

nezirim (נְזִרִים) = nazirites; men and women who dedicate themselves to a period of sanctity during which they abstain from grooming their hair and from drinking wine and other alcohol. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)

The neviyim transmit God’s messages to the people. The nezirim set an example of inner strength, even in their youth, by holding themselves to a different standard for the sake of sanctity. God’s rhetorical question—Is this also nothing?—is designed to make the listeners agree that neviyim and nezirim are assets to the community.

drunk-womanBut the Israelites have rejected these human assets, making the nezirim break their vows and forbidding the neviyim to speak for God.

           But you made the nezirim drink wine,

           And you ordered the neviyim, saying: Lo tinavu!  (Amos 2:11-12)

Lo tinavu (לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ) = You shall not prophesy!  Lo (לֹאּ) = not; tinavu is a form of the verb niba (נִבָּא).

Naturally the immoral, disobedient Israelites do not want anyone reminding them of their own wickedness.

Since the Israelites have rejected God’s gifts, God threatens to make Israel’s army unnaturally slow and weak. The obvious, though unstated, conclusion is that if an enemy army (such as the Assyrians) attacks, the kingdom will be unable to defend itself.

Amos continues God’s prophecy with a list of rhetorical questions, including:

            If misfortune happens in a town,

                        Did not God make it? (Amos 3:6)

This expresses the common Biblical belief that God controls everything that happens to human beings. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior, but nothing else; when bad things happen to them it is always a punishment from God for misbehaving. (The Hebrew Bible questions this ancient belief only in the book of Job.) Biblical writers applied a similar principle to collective behavior: if a whole country is vanquished, the reason is not that the enemy has superior military might, technology, or strategy, but rather that God is using the enemy’s army to punish people who have done wrong.

The Call of Amos, Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

The Call of Amos,
Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

By sending a prophet, God gives a country a chance to reform and avoid the divine punishment. In the book of Jonah, once the reluctant prophet finally prophesies in Nineveh, the people repent and the city is saved—even though Nineveh is the capital of the evil Neo-Assyrian Empire. Amos pauses in his list of rhetorical questions to remind his audience:

            Indeed, my lord God does not do a thing

            Unless He has revealed His confidential plan to His servants, the neviyim. (Amos 3:7)

Then Amos finishes his list:

            A lion has roared;

                        Who will not be afraid?

            My lord God has spoken;

                        Who will not prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

God’s voice is as frightening as a lion’s roar. When God speaks to the prophet, he cannot help but obey God by transmitting the message. Amos may be implying that God’s word, spoken by a true prophet, should be just as frightening. Then the Israelites could not help but repent and reform.

Yet the wealthy and powerful of Israel are so resistant to change that they order the neviyim to keep their mouths shut and go away.2 They would rather continue doing wrong and stay in denial than admit their wrongdoing and change their ways in time to avoid the conquest and destruction of their country.

Today, when we face the degradation of the whole world due to climate change, including a high toll on human life, few people consider it a punishment from God.  Why blame an anthropomorphic deity, when it is so easy so see how human actions are causing our collective suffering?

Nevertheless, it is hard to change our actions. Many people today offer information about what is happening, and call for reducing air pollution and preparing for rising waters. Some individuals are responding by using less gasoline to travel—and no doubt when Amos prophesied, a few individuals responded by treating the poor and their own families with more justice, and their religion with more respect.

Yet when a whole kingdom, or the whole world, is threatened, the disaster can only be avoided or ameliorated by commitment and action on the part of the leaders at the top. In the book of Jonah, Nineveh would not have repented if its king had not put on sackcloth and issued his decree. In the book of Amos, King Jereboam II never reforms, and neither do his people. By 720 B.C.E. the Assyrian army had captured Israel and its capital, Samaria.

May a divine spirit open all of our ears and hearts today, and may all the leaders and influential people of the world become more like the repentant king of Nineveh than like the leaders of Israel in the time of Amos.

1See my post  Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Dance of Pride. Even when someone acquired a slave as a payment of debt, the debtor’s kinsman was obligated to buy back his relative as soon as he could afford it, and after six years a master had to liberate an Israelite slave even without financial recompense.  In fact, the Torah says: And when you send him out emancipated from you, do not send him out with nothing. You must certainly provide him [with goods] from your flock or from your threshing-floor or from your wine-vat, which are blessings that God has given you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:13-14)

2 An example is given later in the book: Amatzyah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jereboam, the king of Israel, saying: Amos conspires against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land cannot endure everything he speaks! (Amos 7:10) … And Amatzyah said to Amos: Seer, go with your spirit to the land of Judah, and eat your bread there, and prophesy there! But do not ever prophesy again at Bethel, because it is a sanctuary for the king and a royal palace. (Amos 7:12-13)

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 3

December 17, 2015 at 9:06 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Someone tries to kill Joseph twice in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. When he is seventeen, his jealous older brothers throw him into a pit, then sit down and discuss killing him. This fits the first of seven themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common: Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.  (see Part 1.)

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery instead of murdering him, but while he is a slave in Egypt a woman tries to get him executed for a different reason. This time, the theme is:

*  The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.  *

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

And it happened after these things, then the wife of his master raised her eyes to Joseph, and she said: Lie with me.  And he mei-ein, and he said to the wife of his master: Hey, having me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and everything that belongs to him he has put into my hand. There is no one greater in his house than I am, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, since you are his wife, so how could I do this great evil and transgress against God? (Genesis/Bereishit 39:7-9)

mei-ein (מֵאֵן) = refused. (In Biblical Hebrew, this is not a polite demurral, but a stubborn refusal.)

For Joseph, an ethical transgressions is a transgression against God. He refuses, even though he knows it is dangerous to anger his master’s wife. But she keeps propositioning him day after day, until one day when the house is empty,

…she grabbed him by his garment, saying: Lie with me! But he abandoned his garment in her hand and he fled outside. (Genesis 39:12)

What difference does it make that the house is empty? Potifar’s wife seems unconcerned about whether they are caught in the act, since she propositions him many times when other people are nearby. But the lack of witnesses this time gives her an opportunity to get revenge and slander Joseph. She claims he tried to rape her, and left his garment behind when (she says) she screamed.

The few examples we have of ancient Egyptian law on sexual relations indicate that rape was punished by death (though the punishment might be commuted to exile in the case of a free foreigner). Potifar is the head of the royal executioners, and Joseph is his slave. But instead of arranging a summary execution, Potifar puts Joseph in the king’s prison indefinitely. He is alive, but stuck until God rescues him.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Then Pharaoh sends his chief cupbearer and chief baker to the prison (see Part 2),

and they said to him: a dream we dreamed, and there is no interpreter. Then Joseph said to them: Do not interpretations belong to God? Recount [your dreams] to me, please. (Genesis 40:8)

Inspired by God, Joseph reads the dreams as prophecies that the chief cupbearer will be restored to his post in three days, but the chief baker will be beheaded. This is exactly what happens.

When Pharaoh has two dreams that his magicians cannot interpret, the chief cupbearer tells him about Joseph, and God gives Joseph the correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams.  Joseph adds some advice on what to do about it, and Pharaoh elevates Joseph from imprisoned slave to viceroy of Egypt.

Thus God rescues Joseph from his punishment—presumably because he did the right thing by rejecting Potifar’s wife.

*

While Joseph escapes death twice, Daniel is threatened with death only once. In his case, resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero by using his well-known religious scruples against him, immediately bringing in the theme the hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.

Daniel and three other boys are taken as captives from Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar conquers the city, and spend the rest of their lives in Babylon. Daniel becomes head of the king’s wise men and dream interpreters, and his friends, Shadrach, Meyshach, and Aveid-nego, become administrators of the province of Babylon. At one point, Daniel’s three friends are thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to a golden idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and God prevents the flames from even singeing their hair. Daniel is not mentioned in the furnace story.

Many years later, when Persia conquers Babylon, Daniel is serving as one of three governors over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The new king (whom the story identifies sometimes as Cyrus, sometimes as Darius) considers promoting Daniel to viceroy over the entire Persian empire.

Only then do resentful rivals—other high government officials—conspire to kill the hero. They know that Daniel adheres to a kosher diet and prays three times a day, bowing down in the direction of Jerusalem. There are no laws against this, so they persuade the king to decree that anyone who petitions any god or man other than the king during the next 30 days shall be thrown into a lion’s den. (See Part 1.) It does not occur to the king that this decree will affect Daniel.

Daniel's Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Daniel’s Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God as he had always done. Then those men came thronging in and found Daniel petitioning his God in supplication. (Daniel, 6:11-12, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)

As in the book of Esther, the Persian king cannot countermand his own decree, and he cannot find any way around it. Thus the resentful rivals succeed in having Daniel punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

By the king’s order, Daniel was then brought and thrown into the lions’ den. The king spoke to Daniel and said, ‘Your God, whom you serve so regularly, will deliver you’.  (Daniel 6:17, JPS translation)

Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Briton Riviere

The king worries all night and rushes back at dawn to unseal the den.

Daniel then talked with the king, ‘O King, live forever! My God sent His angel, who shut the mouths of the lions… Daniel was brought up out of the den, and no injury was found on him, for he had trusted in his God. (Daniel 6:22-24, JPS translation)

God rescues Daniel from death because of his dedication to God, expressed in his thrice-daily prayers.

*

The book of Esther also combines the themes of resentful rivals and refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples.

The story has two heroes, the young and beautiful Esther, and her older cousin and guardian Mordecai. When Esther becomes a captive in the king’s harem, she follows her cousin’s instruction and pretends she is not Jewish.

Mordecai, however, incites jealousy in the king’s new viceroy, Haman, by disobeying a royal order to bow down whenever Haman passes through the palace gate. (See Part 1.)

And the royal servants who were in the gate of the king said to Mordecai: Why are you oveir the command of the king? And they spoke to him day after day and he did not listen to them. Then they told Haman, to see if the matter of Mordecai would stand, for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. (Esther 3:3-4)

oveir  (עוֹוֵר) = crossing, going through.

The Bible does not say that Mordecai refused (mei-ein) the king’s command, but rather that he ploughed right across it as if it did not exist. When his fellow royal servants in the gate question him, he says he ignores the order to bow to Haman because he is a Jew.

Nothing in the Bible forbids Jews to bow down to human beings. Esther Rabbah (a collection of midrash from 500-1050 C.E.) claimed Haman must have sewn a picture of a god on his clothing, so Mordecai was really refusing to bow down to an image of an alien god. Other commentary suggests that Mordecai would not bow because Haman was a descendant of King Agag of Amalek (so identified in Esther 3:1), and the Torah calls for eternal enmity between the Israelites and the Amalekites. But the text of Esther does not explain.

Mordecai never bows to Haman

Mordecai never bows to Haman

And Haman saw that Mordecai never knelt or bowed down to him, and Haman filled up with rage. And it seemed too contemptible in his eyes to send a hand against Mordecai alone, because they had told him the people of Mordecai, and Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews who were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh, all the people of Mordecai. (Esther 3:5-6)

Haman talks the king into issuing an irrevocable decree that on a certain date (the 13th of Adar, now the holiday of Purim) every province of the Persian Empire must kill all its Jews. Haman personally erects a tall stake on which to impale Mordecai.

Does God rescue Mordecai and the rest of the Jews in Persia? Not really. Esther reveals that she and Mordecai are Jews, and Haman has arranged their death. She persuades the king to write a second decree (since the first one cannot be revoked) that on the 13th of Adar all Jews may strike down all their enemies, and on the big day nobody touches the Jews. The king impales Haman and promotes Mordecai to viceroy. But God is not mentioned here or anywhere else in the book of Esther.

*

Joseph risks death for a moral principle, and God rescues him. Daniel risks death for the right to pray, and God rescues him. Mordecai risks death to make a point about being Jewish, and Esther rescues him.

What are your religious scruples?  Which ones would you refuse to cross, even at the risk of losing your job? Or even at the risk of death?

 

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 2

December 13, 2015 at 8:13 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 3 Comments
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Two more themes shared by the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are: “The hero is taken away from home and held captive” and “A court eunuch admires and helps the hero”.

*The hero is taken away from home and held captive.*

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

In the first Torah portion devoted to Joseph, Vayeishev, Joseph’s ten older brothers can hardly stand him. (See The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 1.) They take the family flocks to Dotan, about a hundred miles away from their home in Hebron, and their father sends Joseph to check on them.  When he arrives, his brothers throw him into an empty cistern and conspire to kill him.

But Judah said to his brothers: What profit [is there] if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites… So they pulled Joseph and they brought him up from the pit. Then they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:26-28)

The brothers believe Joseph will never return from slavery in Egypt.

While Joseph is singled out by his brothers, Daniel and Esther are removed from their homes merely because they happen to meet the criteria for a category of people the king summons.

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

The book of Daniel opens when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captures Jerusalem. The king orders his chief eunuch to transport some young Israelite boys to Babylon. The boys must be:

…from Israel and descended from the royalty and the nobility; boys who have no blemishes, and are tovey mareh, and understand all wisdom, and have practical knowledge and some understanding of academic knowledge, and who have the ability to serve in the palace of the king, and to learn the writing and the tongue of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3-4)

tovey mareh (טוֹבֵי מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (masculine form).

The boys will be educated for three years, and then will serve Nebuchadnezzar in some capacity. Young Daniel is taken away from home and transported to a foreign court merely because he fits the king’s description.

Similarly, in the book of Esther the king of Persia orders a certain class of girls to be rounded up and brought to the royal residence in Shushan. King Achashveirosh wants a new wife, and his advisors respond:

Let the king appoint appointees in every province of his kingdom, and let them gather all the virgin girls tovat mareh to the citadel at Shushan, to the house of the women, to the hand of Heigai, the chief eunuch of the king, guard over the women… And the girl who is good in the eyes of the king will become queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:3-4)

tovat mareh (טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (feminine form).

map Persian Empire

Esther is taken to the harem of King Achashveirosh (Xerxes?) in Shushan

Esther happens to live in Shushan with her cousin and guardian Mordecai, but she is taken out of her home and put under guard in the “house of the women”, i.e. the harem, simply because she fits the description:

…and the girl was beautiful in shape and tovat mareh… (Esther 2:7)

Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all good-looking adolescents when their stories begin. All three live in comfort, Joseph with his doting father, Daniel in the royal court of Jerusalem, and Esther with her fond and wealthy cousin Mordecai.  Then the earth shifts under their feet.  Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt. Daniel is deported for re-education in Babylon. Esther becomes a captive in the Persian king’s harem.

Yet all three heroes rise from the fall in their fortunes—with some assistance from a eunuch in the royal court.

*A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.*

And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt; and Potifar, a saris of Pharaoh, the sar of the tabachim, acquired him from the hands of the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. (Genesis 39:1)

saris (סָרִיס) = eunuch; court official. Plural=sarisim. (From the Assyrian title sa resi = royal official. In Assyria, as in many ancient Near Eastern empires, employees in the king’s house were often eunuchs, so later in the Bible saris came to mean any eunuch.)

sar (שַׂר) = head, chief, official in charge. (From the Assyrian sarru = king, chieftain, captain.)

tabachim (טַבָּחִים) = meat-handlers (butchers, meat cooks, and meat servers); executioners.

Joseph’s new master, Potifar, owns an estate and reports directly to the Pharaoh as the head of a group of servants.  He is also in charge of the prison where men are detained until their trials.

Since the Torah refers to Potifar as both a saris and a sar, the additional title of saris probably means “eunuch” rather than a repetition of “court official”—even though he is married. Traditional commentary speculates that Potifar was castrated at some point after his marriage.

And his master [Potifar] saw that God was with him [Joseph], and everything that he did, God made a success.  And Joseph found favor in his eyes, and he became his attendant. Then he [Potifar] appointed him over his household, and he gave everything he owned into his hand. (Genesis 39:3-4)

When Potifar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, Potifar has to take action to preserve her honor. Normally a slave would be executed for such an attempt, but Potifar appreciates Joseph so much, he imprisons him instead—in the prison for the king’s detainees, which Potifar manages.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Then Potifar appoints Joseph to wait on two detainees with high court positions.

Pharaoh became angry at two of his sarisim, the sar of the cup-bearers, and the sar of the  bakers.  And he placed them in the custody of the sar of the tabachim [Potifar], in the house of the round prison, the place where Joseph was imprisoned. Then the sar of the tabachim appointed Joseph to be with them, and he waited on them… (Genesis 40:2-4)

Like Potifar, these court officials are called both sar (chief official) and saris (eunuch). Joseph correctly interprets their dreams, and in the Torah portion Mikeitz, the head cup-bearer mentions Joseph when the Pharaoh needs a dream interpreter. Pharaoh calls for him at once, and Joseph’s career takes off.

Thus Joseph is helped along by two different eunuchs, the king’s head executioner and the king’s head cup-bearer.

In the book of Daniel, a Babylonian officer named Ashpenaz is called both the high saris, and the sar of the sarisim. I think the title sar covers his position as a captain, so the word saris gives the additional information that he and those he supervises are eunuchs. After Ashpenaz’s boss, King Nebuchadnezzar, has conquered Jerusalem, he sends his high-ranking eunuch on a mission.

The king said to Ashpenaz, his high saris: Bring some sons of Israel, descendants of the royalty and the nobility. (Daniel 1:3)

Nebuchadnezzar orders Ashpenaz to educate these foreign boys for three years and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine. But Daniel and his three companions from Jerusalem object to eating anything that is not kosher.

Daniel silently vowed that he would not make himself impure with the king’s fine food or with the wine he drank, and he sought to obtain [permission] from the sar of the sarisim that he need not make himself impure. And God disposed the sar of the sarisim to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. And the sar of the sarisim said to Daniel: As for me, I am afraid of my master, the king, who allotted your food and your drink; what if your faces look pitiful compared to the other boys your age, and they forfeit my head to the king?  (Daniel 1:8-10)

Daniel proposes a ten-day trial during which he and the other three boys from Jerusalem will eat seeds or legumes and drink water.  At the end of ten days, they look healthier than the others. So the chief eunuch lets them continue their religious dietary restrictions. When he brings them to the king at the end of their three years of training, Nebuchadnezzar is pleased with them and appoints them to entry-level jobs among his “wise men”.

In the book of Esther, the head eunuch, Heigai, is the guard over King Achashveirosh’s “house of women” or harem. Esther is delivered to him along with the other beautiful young virgins rounded up for the king.

And she was good in his eyes, and she inspired kindness in him, and he was quick to give her her massage ointments and her rations and the seven girls who were her due from the king’s house. And he moved her and her girls to a better [room] in the house of women. (Esther 2:9)

Esther Present to Ahasuerus. detail by Rembrandt

Each virgin is kept in the harem for one year while she gets beauty treatments, then taken to spend a night with the king. The virgin of the night is allowed any clothes and cosmetics she requests.  When it is Esther’s turn,

she did not seek to obtain anything except what Heigai, saris of the king, guard of the women, said. And it was Esther who inspired favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her. The king loved Esther more than all the other women… And he put a crown of royalty on her head, and he made her queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:15, 2:17)

*

The court eunuchs who help Joseph appreciate his competence. According to the Torah, God makes all Joseph’s work successful and gives him dream interpretations that are true prophecies.

The court eunuch who helps Daniel admires his fortitude and his adherence to his religion. Probably due to these qualities, the God of Israel later rescues him from lions and gives him his own dream interpretations and prophecies.

The court eunuch who helps Esther probably appreciates her respect for his advice. He responds by making her life more comfortable and advising her well.

All three young heroes accept their sudden enslavement without complaining, withdrawing, or rebelling.  They do their work and treat the eunuchs overseeing them with respect, making the best of it. Because of their good attitudes, the eunuchs help them to appear in a favorable light before the king.

May we all be blessed with the ability to ride out our misfortunes with realism, patience, and respect!

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther–Part 1

December 1, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 2 Comments
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Joseph is sold as a slave and becomes the viceroy of Egypt. Daniel is a war captive and becomes the viceroy of Persia. Esther is imprisoned in a harem and becomes the queen of Persia, while her cousin Mordecai escapes impalement and becomes the empire’s viceroy.

Each of these three rags-to-riches stories has a different plot and different characters. But many of the same themes emerge, appearing in a new light in each story.

The story of Joseph begins in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“and he stayed”), and continues through three more weekly portions. So this month I am writing a series of posts comparing seven dramatic themes in Joseph’s story, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther:

          Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.

          The hero is taken away from home and held captive.

          A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.

          The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.

          The hero gets a foreign name.

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

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

 

Vayeishev, the first Torah portion in the Joseph story, introduces the first theme:

*Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.*

Joseph’s story in Genesis/Bereishit begins with jealousy.

Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a child of old age to him, and he made him a special long-sleeved tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him most out of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:3-4)

Upright sheaves

Upright sheaves

Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers (symbolized first by sheaves of grain, then by stars) are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them his dreams.

…we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and hey! My sheaf stood up and actually stayed [upright], and hey! Your sheaves circled around vatishtachavena my sheaf. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:6-7)

vatishtachavena (וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ) = and prostrated themselves to, bowed down to the ground toward.

After hearing that, his brothers hate him even more.

When the ten older brothers take the family’s flocks far to the north, their father Israel (also known as Jacob) sends Joseph out to find his brothers and report back.

They saw him from afar, before he reached them, and they plotted against him, to kill him.  And they said to each other: Hey! The master of dreams is coming! Now let’s go and kill him, and we will throw him down into one of the pits, and we will say a wild beast ate him.  Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams! (Genesis 37:18-20)

They do throw Joseph into an empty cistern, though instead of killing him they sell him as a slave to a caravan heading for Egypt. Their intense jealousy causes Joseph’s downfall—down into a pit, down into slavery, and down to Egypt.

Daniel, on the other hand, rises from being a foreign captive to being the viceroy of the Babylonian empire without offending anyone’s pride. King Nebuchadnezzar makes Daniel his chief magician.  A later Babylonian king, Belshazzar, appoints Daniel as one of three administrators over all the provinces in the empire. When Darius conquers the empire, he appoints the same three administrators as supervisors over the 120 district managers.

This man Daniel surpassed the other ministers and satraps by virtue of his extraordinary spirit, and the king considered setting him over the whole kingdom. The administrators and managers looked for some fault in Daniel’s conduct in matters of state, but they could find neither fault nor corruption…

Daniel's Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Daniel’s Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Then those men said: We are not going to find any fault with this Daniel unless we find something against him in connection with the laws of his god. (Daniel 6:4-6)

Daniel’s fellow administrators and managers are determined to bring him down. Like Joseph’s brothers, their resentment is so extreme, they want him dead. So they persuade King Darius to issue an edict that for the next 30 days, anyone who petitions any man or god other than Darius will be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel continues to kneel and pray to God three times a day in front of his windows. His rivals rush into his room, then go and inform the king, who reluctantly obeys his own written edict and throws Daniel into the lions’ den, placing a rock over the mouth of the cave so Daniel must spend the night inside.

The book of Esther has two Jewish heroes: Esther, and her cousin and guardian Mordecai. King Achashveirosh makes Esther his queen; Mordecai merely becomes one of the elders who sits in the gate of Shushan and judges minor cases. Meanwhile the king promotes Haman, one of his advisors, to viceroy.

Mordecai refuses to bow

Mordecai refuses to bow

And all the servants of the king who were in the gate of the king were kneeling umishtachavim to Haman, because that was what the king ordered. But Mordecai would not kneel and lo yishtachaveh. …Haman saw that Mordecai was not kneeling umishtachaveh to him, and Haman filled up with rage. (Esther 3:2, 3:5)

umishtachavim (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = (plural) and bowing down to the ground.

lo yishtachaveh (לֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = he would not bow down to the ground.

umishtachaveh (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = (singular) and bowing down to the ground.

Haman learns that Mordecai is not bowing because he is a Jew. Commentators generally conclude that he refuses to bow—either because Haman expects the kind of full bow (kneeling, then touching one’s head to the ground) that is reserved for God; or because Haman is a  descendant of Amalek, God’s enemy in every generation.

…Then Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews that were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh—Mordecai’s people. (Esther 3:6)

He persuades Achashveirosh that “a certain people” in his empire do not obey the king’s laws, and should therefore be eliminated. The king (who is fairly brainless throughout the story, perhaps because of all his drinking feasts) does not question Haman, but immediately gives him permission to issue a royal edict.

So thanks to jealousy and wounded pride, Joseph is thrown into a pit, Daniel is sealed into a lions’ den, and all the Jews in Persia are threatened by an edict of destruction.

Is this theme a warning on the part of the Biblical authors that it is dangerous, even deadly, to threaten the pride of others?

If so, the Joseph story offers a lesson, since Joseph wounds his brothers’ pride further by telling them his dreams of overlordship. If he had considered his brothers’ feelings and kept silent, he would not have been enslaved—but his brothers would still have held a grudge against him because of their father’s favoritism.

In the Daniel story, Daniel is promoted only because of his own excellent work, not because he is lording it over anyone. Although he is caught praying and thrown into the lions’ den, he does not brag about his god, or try to convert anyone else. Sometimes nothing can be done about the jealousy and pride of others.

In the book of Esther, all the Jews in Persia are put under a death sentence because Mordecai insists on following a religious scruple to the letter. Haman is clearly the villain, yet Mordecai is also responsible for the threat to his people. Perhaps Mordecai is emulating Daniel, whose prayers affect only his own fate.  He fails to take into account that when one member of a group offends a prideful person, that person is likely to consider everyone in the group offensive. Prejudice is always dangerous.

Sometimes it is better to be silent in the face of enemies. Sometimes it is even better to bow when everyone else is bowing.

*

The danger of wounding someone’s pride is only one of the themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common.  Watch for my upcoming blogs on the twists and turns of other themes!

 

 

 

 

 

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Identity Crisis

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

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

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

Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)

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

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

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

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

hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.

na (נָא) = please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

detail by John Singer Sargent

detail by John Singer Sargent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vayeishev: Stripped Naked

November 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | 3 Comments
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What does it mean to be stripped and exposed in public with no clothes? Joseph finds out—twice—in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (And he stayed).

When Joseph is growing up, his father, Jacob, treats him as superior to all ten of his older brothers. Naturally his brothers are jealous. They also hate Joseph because he tells them his two dreams, both of which predict his brothers will bow down to him.

One sign of Jacob’s favoritism is a special garment he gives only to Joseph.

…and he made for him a ketonet passim. And his brothers saw that it was he their father loved most out of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him with peace. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:3-4)

ketonet  = a long tunic

passim = ? (Newer translations include “ornamented” and “long-sleeved”. Pas = palm of hand (or sole of foot). A garment with sleeves below the wrist would be impractical for physical labor, and therefore a sign of high rank.  The only other biblical reference to passim is in 2 Samuel 13:18-19, which explains that King David dresses his unmarried daughters in katenot passim.)

The King James Bible translated ketonet passim, inaccurately, as a “coat of many colors”. I wonder if the translators chose the word “coat” in order to imply that Jacob is fully dressed underneath the garment his brothers strip off. But a coat or cloak would be a simlah or me-iyl in biblical Hebrew, not a ketonet. And as far as we know, nothing was worn under a ketonet.

Jacob sends Joseph to check up on his brothers, who are pasturing the family flocks far away in Dotan. Although he knows his brothers could not speak to him in peace (Genesis 37:4), Joseph cannot imagine that as they watch him approach, they are debating whether to kill him.

And so it was, when Joseph came to his brothers, then they stripped off Joseph his ketonet, the ketonet of the passim, which was on him. And they took him and threw him down into the pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. (Genesis 37:23-24)

The brothers decide to sell Joseph as a slave instead of killing him. They have no trouble selling him to a passing caravan; at the bottom of an empty cistern, naked and far from home, Joseph could be anyone. When the traveling merchants reach Egypt, they resell Joseph to the Pharaoh’s chief butcher, Potifar.

What if you found yourself in a foreign country with no clothes, money, or identification, being handed over to your new owner? Would you scream that it was a mistake, and keep trying to explain who you are?

At age 17, Joseph accepts his new situation with remarkable equanimity. He sees that without his father’s ketonet and his father’s favor, he has no identity. Naked, he has only the blessings God gave him at birth: brains and beauty. So he applies his intelligence to his new situation and makes the best of it.

God was with him and he became a man of success, and it happened in the house of his master, the Egyptian. (Genesis 39:2)

Joseph’s master, Potifar, promotes him from field slave to steward of his entire household. Egyptian field slaves worked naked, but a steward would wear a linen kilt called a shenti or shendyt.

Once Joseph is nicely dressed, his beauty attracts Potiphar’s wife. She propositions him day after day, but Joseph refuses her on the grounds that it would be unfair to his master and an offense against God.

A less mature young man would assume his elevation to steward was entirely due to his own cleverness and hard work. But Joseph’s reply to Potifar’s wife shows that he knows he would still be naked in the field without the goodwill of his human and divine masters.

Then it happened one day, he came into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house were there inside the house. And she seized him by his beged, saying: Lie with me! But he left his beged in her hand, and he fled and he went outside. (Genesis 39:11-12)

beged = garment (of any kind), clothing, cloth covering; treachery

Joseph’s wrap-around kilt would be tied in front, and if the knot came loose—or were pulled loose by a lustful woman—the garment would fall off onto the floor.

What does an Egyptian wear under his kilt? In the time of the Middle Kingdom, an Egyptian nobleman wore a sheer linen shendyt and a short under-skirt. But Joseph would wear coarse linen and nothing underneath. When he flees and goes outside, he is naked.

Potifar’s wife is afraid that other servants will see Joseph naked, and find Joseph’s garment in her room. To avoid being accused of adultery, she screams, and then accuses Joseph of imposing himself on her. As a result, Joseph finds himself back in a pit: Potifar sends him to prison.

Once again, Joseph has been stripped of his clothing and his public identity, due to the treachery of someone he never suspected would go that far.

Joseph continues to use his brains in prison, and God continues to bless him with success. He becomes the chief jailer’s steward. After two years, Joseph is given an opportunity to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams, and he succeeds at this, too. Pharaoh elevates him to viceroy of Egypt, and Joseph wears a gold ring and the finest sheer linen. This time he keeps his public identity, along with his clothes.

Today, clothing still gives people visible status and identity. We treat a man wearing a suit and tie differently from one wearing a torn sweatshirt. And even today, we might lose our social identities at any time, no matter how wonderful our innate qualities are.

But we increase the odds of keeping our public identities when we treat other people not as clothes hangers, but as human beings with their own feelings and desires. We do better if we are grateful to the Potifars in our lives, and extremely cautious with the jealous brothers and philandering wives.

We are all naked under our clothes. May we all become humble enough, like Joseph, to learn from the times we are exposed, and reinvent our lives for the better.

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