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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vayeishev: 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 naked and exposed in public? 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.

Jacob makes things worse by giving a special garment only to his favorite son, 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 Joseph knows his brothers could not speak to him in peace” (Genesis 37:4), he does not imagine that while they are watching 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 merchant 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, no money, and no 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 successful man, 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 working in the field naked 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 linen 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 a coarse linen shendyt 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.

*

Clothing still gives people visible status and identity today. 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.

453px-Babylonian_-_Cylinder_Seal_with_Three_Standing_Figures_and_Inscriptions_-_Walters_42692_-_Side_D

Cylinder seal (chotam)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Joseph and Pharaoh

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

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

The Glory of Joseph, by James Tissot

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

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

merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה= chariot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayeishev: The Question

April 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | 1 Comment

And [Joseph] came to Shekhem.  And a man found him, and hey!  He was going astray in the field.  And the man asked him: “What tevakeish?” (Genesis/Bereishit 37:14-15)

tevakeish (תְּבַקֵּשׁ) = do you seek, will you seek.

Joseph’s ten older brothers went to pasture the family flock at Shekhem, and their father, Jacob, asked Joseph to go and check up on them.  So Joseph gives the man the simple answer.

And he said: “My brothers I am mevakeish.  Tell me, please, where they are pasturing.”

mevakeish (מְבַקֵּשׁ) = seeking.

How would a man who happens to run into Joseph in a field outside Shekhem know who his brothers are, or where they went?

And the man said: “They pulled out from here, for I heard them saying: Let’s go to Dotan.”  So Joseph went after his brothers and his found them at Dotan.  (Genesis 37:17)

It might be an ordinary man, or it might be a “man” like the “man” who wrestled with Jacob in Genesis 32:25 and turned out to be a divine being.  Messengers sent by God also look like men sometimes–until they disappear.

So the question “What do you seek?” might be an inquiry from God.  And Joseph might have given a different answer.

1) He could have said: “I am seeking to find out what my brothers are doing wrong this time, so I can bring another bad report back to our father.”  The beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, introduces Joseph by saying he is seventeen, he helps four of his brothers as they tend the flocks, and:

Joseph brought back bad reports to their father.  (Genesis 37:2)

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

He knew his father loved him more than any of his brothers; that was why Jacob gave him, and only him, a fancy coat (Genesis 37:3-4).  Either Joseph thought the bad reports would keep him in first place, or he was so spoiled he had no qualms about tattling.

2) Joseph might also have answered: “I am seeking to find out what really happened here in Shekhem, since I was only nine years old when my family lived here.”

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob bought a plot of land outside the city of Shekhem, his daughter Dinah incautiously walked around the city alone, and the prince of Shekhem raped or seduced her, then came to Jacob’s camp with a marriage proposal.  Jacob’s older sons responded by tricking the men of Shekhem into circumcising themselves, then swooping in and killing them all, plundering the town, and enslaving 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 Shekhem.  So instead of trying to occupy the empty city, Jacob moved his people south to vicinity of Hebron.

He apparently did not object when his ten older sons headed back to Shekhem with the flock eight years later.  But he might have been remembering their past behavior when he sent young Joseph to check up on them.

And Joseph might have been curious about what his brothers did in Shekhem that caused an uproar and the sudden move south.

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James Tissot

3) Joseph might have said: “I am seeking an interpretation of those two dreams I had in which my brothers were bowing down to me.”  His brothers and their father thought that Joseph was fantasizing that he would become a king and rule over them all (Genesis 37:5-11).  But what if the dreams were prophecies from God?  Was there something he should know ahead of time?

In next week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Pharaoh has two prophetic dreams, and Joseph interprets them, then gives Pharaoh advice that prevents widespread starvation.

4) If he had been more aware of his family’s psychology, Joseph might have said: “I am seeking to know why my father sent me all the way out to an abandoned city to check up on my brothers who hate me, and might do me harm.”

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 forgets the atrocities those sons committed in Shekhem, and descends 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; but Israel, the sadder but wiser man, sees Joseph’s psychological problem and sends him to Shekhem so he can travel alone for a change and learn how to fend for himself.

If you encounter a mysterious man who 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.”  And the rest of the story of Joseph is about their revenge on him, his revenge on them, and the question of whether Joseph and his brothers can reconcile.

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

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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