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.

Vayeishev: Prey

December 3, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | 2 Comments

On Thursday when my stepfather was released from the hospital, my mother was handed information about hospice care. As soon as she told me this over the phone, I pictured my stepfather’s name being erased from the book of life.

Every year, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, Jews pray that God will inscribe their names in the book of life. The ancient Jewish tradition says that anyone whose name is omitted from the list will die sometime during the year. Jews greet each other during those holy days by saying: Leshanah tovah tikateivu! (May you be inscribed for a good year!)

In another part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, we acknowledge that we do not know when or how a person will die. The liturgy asks “Who by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by wild beast?” The list of possible ways to die continues, and then broadens into the recognition that we do not even know what will happen to those who live. “Who will rest and who will wander? Who will be undisturbed and who yitareif?

yitareif = will be like prey torn to pieces by wild animals

Who will die by cancer this year? Who will feel torn to pieces, like my mother?

If you are a subscriber to this blog and you notice that I miss a week or two, you will know I am helping my mother during the next stage of my stepfather’s exit from this world. On other weeks, I hope I will be able to carry on with my own life, including researching, writing, and posting this blog. But I do not know.

As for this week, the Torah portion is Vayeishev (And he settled), the first part of the story of Joseph. This year, I am struck by how quickly Jacob assumes that his favorite son, Joseph, is dead. In fact, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit far from home. They consider murdering him, but they sell him into slavery instead. Now that they have disposed of the brother they hate, what will they tell their father when they return home without him?

They took Joseph’s tunic and they slaughtered a he-goat kid, and they dipped the tunic in the blood. Then they sent the fancy tunic and had it brought it to their father. And they said: We found this. Recognize, please; is it the tunic of your son, or not? And he recognized it, and he said: The tunic of my son! An evil wild beast devoured him! Joseph is definitely toraf! (Genesis/Bereishit 37:31-33)

toraf = prey torn to pieces by a wild animal (a different form of the word yitareif above)

And Jacob ripped his cloak and he put sak around his hips and he put himself into mourning over his son for many, many days. All his sons (and grandsons) and his daughters (and granddaughters) rose up to console him, but he refused to console himself. And he said: For I will do down to my son in mourning, sheolah. And his father wailed for him. (Genesis 37:34-35)

sak = sack-cloth; crude material made of goat hair

sheolah = to Sheol, to the underworld, to the grave; to ask it, to wish for it

Why does Jacob refuse to be consoled for Joseph’s death, and continue wailing and wearing sackcloth for such a long time? We do not expect him to forget the (supposed) death of his favorite son, but the Torah implies that his mourning is excessive. I think Jacob feels responsible for Joseph’s death, and his guilt prevents him from turning back toward life.

Jacob is clearly responsible for the initial jealousy of Joseph’s ten older brothers.

…[Jacob] made him a fancy tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace. (Genesis 37:3-4)

The brothers’ resentment increases when the 17-year-old Joseph tells them his two prophetic dreams, in which his brothers are symbolically bowing down to him. Jacob hears about the dreams, and he knows that his older sons cannot speak to Joseph in peace. Nevertheless, he sends Joseph far away from home to check up on how his brothers are pasturing the flocks, and report back.

Jacob must realize, on some level, that he is sending his favorite son into danger. Subconsciously he must be afraid that he has sent Joseph to his death. When he sees the bloody tunic, he asks no questions, but jumps to the conclusion that Joseph has been killed. When he says, “Joseph is definitely prey torn to pieces by a wild animal!” he might mean it literally. But he might also mean that Joseph is the prey of his brothers, who are like wild, murderous beasts. Jacob has not forgotten how his ten older sons once tricked the entire male population of the city of Shechem and then exterminated them.

Even Jacob’s use of the word Sheol is ambiguous. I do not know why Sheol, the word for the place where dead bodies go, has the same root as the verb “to ask” or “to wish for”. But here, both meanings of the word apply. Jacob is so overwhelmed by guilt, he wishes to die like his son Joseph. If Joseph is dead, Jacob can never make amends, never set things right.

Jacob’s inconsolable mourning demonstrates what happens when you carry a burden of guilt. It is easier, in the short run, to act without thinking about whether your action will hurt someone. It is easier, in the short run, to avoid making amends when you are guilty over a past mistake. But I know that in the long run, guilt catches up with you. And you never know when it will suddenly be too late to set things right.

I believe that if we think ahead, dedicate ourselves to doing no harm, and address our mistakes as soon as we realize them, then we will not suffer like Jacob. We will be able to accept the reality of death, and also rejoice in the reality of living.

But I know this belief of mine will be tested again. We are all tested. Every year, some people are left out of the book of life.

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority

December 21, 2011 at 2:19 am | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

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

Visible symbols of authority can also seduce you, and others, into forgetting the difference between one’s public identity and one’s personal, inner self.  The Torah addresses this problem in the first two Torah portions that tell the story of Joseph and his brothers:  Vayeishev (“And he settled”) and Mikeitz (“In the end”).

The Story of Judah and Tamar

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

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

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

Judah superstitiously delays giving Tamar his youngest son, Shelah.  He uses his authority as the head of his household to return Tamar to her father’s house.  Here she must live as  a widow who cannot remarry as long as the yibum is pending.

Tamar and Judah, by James Tissot

Tamar waits for years.  Shelah grows up, and Judah’s wife dies.  Judah finishes mourning for his wife, and heads off to the annual sheep-shearing.  Tamar slips away from her father’s house, dresses as a veiled prostitute, and sits by the road where Judah will see her.  Not recognizing her, and feeling festive, he propositions her.

When Judah promises her a kid goat in payment for sex, Tamar demands a pledge to keep until the goat is delivered.

And he said:  “What is the pledge that I must give to you?”  And she said: “Your chotam and your cord and the matteh that is in your hand”.  And he gave them to her, and he entered her, and she conceived.  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:18)

chotam (חֹתָם) = a seal.  (A common kind of seal in the Middle East was a carved cylinder worn on a cord around the neck.  To authorize a document written on a damp clay tablet, a man rolled his seal over the clay as a signature.)

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


Cylinder seal (chotam)

Tamar is asking Judah for the symbols of his public authority—his signature (which is how a seal was used) and his corner office!  And he loans them to her, as if he were using a credit card to buy sex now and pay later.  It does not occur to him that this veiled woman might use his seal and staff to run a scam or to blackmail him.  He is so accustomed to ruling his extended household, and to judging and sentencing anyone under his control, it does not occur to him that anything could jeopardize his position.

Later, Judah’s best friend and confidant searches for the “prostitute” to give her the kid goat and retrieve the seal and staff.  But she has disappeared.  Then Judah gets nervous about losing status in the community, and he asks his friend not to tell anyone that he left his seal and staff with a prostitute.

Eventually Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant.  He knows that his son Shelah is not the father, so he calls her a harlot and sentences her to burning.  As Tamar is taken away, she sends Judah his pledge with this message:

I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.   Please recognize who owns these, the chotam and the cord and the matteh.  (Genesis 38:25)

At that point, Judah says:  She is more right than I am” (Genesis 38:26), thus becoming the first person in the Torah to admit he is wrong.

Judah is acknowledging both that he is the father, and that he was wrong to thwart Tamar’s right to get pregnant by a relative of her late husband.

This story also demonstrates that Judah’s personal desires—to protect his last living son, and to enjoy sex after his own wife is dead—are in conflict with his duty as a clan leader.  But he is so accustomed to his position of power, he does not at first realize there is any difference between his private desires and his public role.  By taking away the symbols of his public authority, and then returning them at the crucial moment, Tamar shocks Judah into seeing the difference.

When he takes back his chotam and matteh, Judah also commits himself to doing the right thing as the man in charge—even if his private wishes are different.  This is a major step forward in ethical development.

The Story of Joseph and Pharaoh

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

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

The Glory of Joseph, by James Tissot

And Pharoah said to Joseph:  “See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt!”  And Pharaoh removed his taba-at from upon his hand and he put it on Joseph’s hand, and he clothed him in linen garments, and he put the gold collar on his neck.  And he had him ride in the merkavah of his second-in-command, and they called out before him “Avreikh!”; thus he appointed him over all the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 41:41-43)

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

merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה= chariot.

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

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

But Joseph loses some of his own personal identity when he gains these symbols of his new public identity.  When his first son is born, Joseph says:  “God has made me forget all my hardship and all the household of my father.” (Genesis 41:51)  He retains his religion, but otherwise he speaks and dresses and rules as an Egyptian.  He never writes home.  He is happy to live his role—until his ten older brothers come to him to buy food during the first year of famine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayeishev: The Question

April 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on December 5, 2009.)

A man found him, and here, he was going astray in the field; and the man asked him, “What do you seek?  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:15)

mah-tevakeish—what do you seek; what will you seek

The mysterious unnamed man finds young Joseph in the field at– (ominous music here) –Shechem.  In last week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers tricked the men of Shechem into circumcising themselves, then swooped in and killed them all, plundered the town, and enslaved the women and children.  Jacob, their father, was afraid that the people of the surrounding area would carry out a pre-emptive strike on his family when they heard what happened to Shechem.  So instead of trying to occupy the empty city–or even stay on the plot of land he had bought there–Jacob moved his people south to vicinity of Hebron, “and he settled” (Vayeishev, the name of this Torah portion) there instead.

This Torah portion begins the story of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph.  His older sons hate 17-year-old Joseph, for three obvious reasons:

–Joseph brings bad reports about his brothers to their father;

–Jacob loves Joseph more than the rest, and gives him a special garment;

–Joseph tells his brothers, and his father, about two dreams that predict his brothers will bow down to him.

After the second dream, his father observes the situation, and his brothers go out again to pasture the flock.  “And Israel said to Joseph: Aren’t your brothers pasturing in Shechem?  Come and I’ll send you to them.”  (Genesis 37:13)

Now, Jacob, also known as Israel, is a smart man.  Even in his old age, he should know how dangerous it is to send his favorite son, alone, to a place far away from Hebron, to check up on 11 men who hate him.  It has to be worse when the far-away place is Shechem, the scene of the brothers’ atrocity.

The Zohar says Jacob doesn’t believe his older sons are capable of doing violence to Joseph, no matter how much they hate him.  Maybe in his old age, broken by the death of Joseph’s mother Rachel, Jacob does descend into denial.

Or maybe he is wiser than he appears.  After all, when he asks Joseph to go to Shechem, he speaks not as the doting father Jacob, but as “Israel”, Yisrael.  This is the name he was given after he wrestled with god and man (Genesis 32:29) and was touched by the divine.

As Israel, Jacob may realize that Joseph needs to grow up.  A young man who tells his jealous brothers he dreams that they will bow down to him is either narcissistic or dangerously naive.  Jacob, the doting father, spoiled Joseph; Israel, the sadder but wiser father, sees Joseph’s psychological problem and sends him to Shechem.

Shechem represents the place of decision between good and evil, blessing and curse.  When Joseph reaches Shechem, his brothers have moved on.  But a “man”, ish–unnamed, like the “man” who wrestled with Jacob– finds Joseph “going astray” (to-eh) in the field.  If a mysterious man finds you at the place of decision and asks you “What will you seek?”, you can bet your answer will affect the rest of your life.

Joseph’s fateful reply is: “My brothers I am seeking.”

Is his choice good or evil?  Blessing or curse?

Vayiggash: Reuben the Jerk

April 15, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on December 20, 2009.)

These are the names of the sons of Israel, the one coming to Egypt, Jacob and his children:  the bachor of Jacob, Reuben.  (Genesi/Bereishit 46:8)

bachor () = firstborn.

Throughout the book of Genesis, the firstborn son, who is supposed to be the future leader of the clan, is portrayed in a bad light.  Avraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, is exiled for inappropriate “playing with his younger brother Isaac.  Esau, Isaac’s firstborn son, is portrayed and easily duped, stupid, and impulsive compared to his brother Jacob.  Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben, comes across as a shmendrick,  an ineffectual jerk.

Right after his father Jacob’s second and favorite wife, Rachel, dies in childbirth, Reuben lies with Bilhah, who is Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine.  (Genesis 35:22)  Jacob is not at all happy about this, and brings it up years later on his deathbed.  (Genesis 49:4).  Is Reuben overcome with passion, and unable to see the obvious consequences?  Or is he making a foolish attempt to become the family’s leader through the ancient custom by which the new ruler assumed his office by having sex with the old ruler’s concubines?

The next time we see Reuben, he is arguing with his brothers about what to do with Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn and their father’s favorite son.  Joseph’s older brothers hate him, and now that he is approaching them in a place far from home, far from Jacob’s protection, the brothers conspire to kill him and throw him into a pit.

But Reuben says, “Let’s not strike down his life.  Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.”  (Genesis 37:21-22)  The Torah adds that Reuben says this “in order to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father”.

If we take Reuben’s words at face value, he does not mind if Joseph dies in the pit—which Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) said was filled with scorpions.  He just does not want to be responsible for breaking the taboo against shedding a brother’s blood.

On the other hand, if we believe the explanation the Torah adds, Reuben does want to save Joseph’s life; he just doesn’t have the guts to directly contradict his brothers.  He is the bachor, and therefore the eldest, but he is afraid to stand up to the brothers he should be leading.

It gets worse.  Reuben goes away for some unspecified reason.  In his absence, the brothers, led by Judah, sell Joseph to a passing caravan as a slave.  The early rabbis invented reasons for Reuben’s absence; Rashi said either it was his day to go home and wait on his father, or he was fasting in penitence for lying with Bilhah.  But neither explanation exonerates him from a charge of criminal neglect.

Reuben returns to the pit, sees that his Joseph is gone, and asks his brothers, “And I, where will I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)  Reuben does not ask what happened to Joseph; he is only concerned about what will happen to himself, once his father finds out Joseph is missing.

The brothers trick their father Jacob into believing that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.  While Jacob mourns, Reuben does not say a thing to alleviate his father’s pain or expose the truth.

The next time Reuben shows up in the story, the ten oldest of Jacob’s twelve sons have gone to Egypt to buy grain during a famine.  The governor of Egypt (whom the brothers do not recognize as their long-lost little brother Joseph) accuses the ten men of being spies.  He imprisons Simon, then orders the rest of the men to go home and bring back their youngest brother, Benjamin.  The brothers decide this must be divine punishment for selling Joseph into slavery.  And Reuben says, “Didn’t I speak to you, saying— Don’t sin against the boy— but you didn’t listen.”  (Genesis 42:22)  As if Reuben were innocent!  As if it did any good now to say “I told you so”!

It gets worse.  When the brothers go home and explain the situation to Jacob, he refuses to part with Benjamin, his favorite son since Joseph disappeared.  Reuben tries to persuade Jacob by saying, “You can kill my two sons if I don’t bring him (Benjamin) back to you.  Put him in my hands, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

In this one sentence, Reuben shows that he is both callous about his own sons, and stupid about human relationships.  He is callous because he cannot be sure of Benjamin’s safe return, no matter how carefully he guards him, yet he is willing to risk the lives of his own sons anyway.  And he is stupid because he assumes Jacob would consider killing two of his own grandsons a satisfactory revenge!

That is the last time Reuben speaks in the Torah.  But his name comes up again in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped forward), in a genealogy.  (Genesis 46:8).  Like the genealogy right after Reuben lies with Bilhah in 35:23, the Torah specifically refers to Reuben as the firstborn, though none of the oldest sons in subsequent generations are listed that way.  In fact, many other genealogies in the Torah don’t use the word bachor, firstborn, at all.

This may be a clue to the reason why Reuben is a jerk.  He is Jacob’s firstborn; he is supposed to inherit the mantle of authority, to be the leader of his generation, to serve as the family’s religious leader after Jacob is gone.  But he just does not have the personality traits of a leader.  When Prince Shechem offers to marry Dinah (see my blog on Vayishlach), Simon and Levi speak for their brothers and lead the action.  When Benjamin is in danger, Judah speaks for the brothers and becomes their leader.  Reuben knows he should act like the firstborn son, but he cannot; he is either too afraid of his younger brothers, or too self-centered to care about the lives of others, or too stupid to see the big picture and the consequences of his actions.

What happens today, when someone is given a leadership role but does not have what it takes to succeed?  Some people can rise to the occasion and grow into leaders.  But some cannot, no matter how good their intentions are.  I know people who are too self-centered to be fair parents or bosses, perhaps because they suffered childhood trauma beyond their control.  I know people who simply were not born with the mental ability to make complicated long-term decisions.  I know that in the past I myself have failed other people because I was too afraid to stand up for them.

The world is full of Reubens.  Once again, the Torah shows us that no human being is perfectly good, and no human being is completely evil.  We are all shmendricks sometimes.

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