Vayiggash: Near a Narcissist

December 12, 2018 at 7:49 pm | Posted in Vayiggash | Leave a comment

Vayiggash to him, Judah did, and he said: “Pardon me, my lord.  Let your servant speak, please, speak in your ears, my lord, and don’t be angry with your servant, since you are like Pharaoh.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 44:18)

vayiggash (וַיִּגַּשׁ) = and he came near, and he approached, and he stepped forward.  (A form of the verb nigash, נִגַּשׁ = came near, stepped up.)

Judah steps closer to the viceroy of Egypt.  He does not know this all-powerful man is his younger brother Joseph, whom he and his brothers sold as a slave 22 years before.  After Judah’s painfully polite introduction at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, comes a cascade of revelations: Judah’s empathy, Joseph’s identity, and the true extent of Joseph’s narcissism.

*

The trouble started with Jacob.  He had four wives but loved only one, Rachel.  After Rachel died in childbirth he had twelve sons but loved only Rachel’s two children, Joseph and little Benjamin.

At age seventeen, Joseph had become a tattletale and a narcissist —someone with a psychological condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others.   (See my posts Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy and Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?)

When Joseph came to report on them again, his ten older brothers stripped him and threw him in an empty cistern.  Then they talked about killing him and telling their father wild animals did it.  Judah convinced the others to sell him as a slave instead, to a caravan bound for Egypt.

Joseph heard everything from the bottom of the pit.

*

At age 38, Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt, with absolute power over stockpiled grain during a severe famine.  When his older brothers come from Canaan to buy grain he recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.  The Torah says he sets up a “test” for them.  Joseph imprisons one of the brothers, Shimon, and promises to release him only when the others return with their youngest brother.  (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.)

The Cup Found, by James Tissot

The opening of this week’s Torah portion is the culmination of the test.  When the family in Canaan runs out of food in the second year of famine, Jacob finally lets his older sons return to Egypt with Benjamin.  Joseph releases Shimon, shows favoritism toward Benjamin, and sells them more grain.  Then he arranges a trap: he has his steward hide a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, then follow them, “discover” the goblet, and let them know that the punishment for stealing it is slavery.  Will the ten older brothers head north and leave Benjamin behind as a slave?

They do not.  They return to Joseph’s palace and say they will all be the viceroy’s slaves.  When Joseph refuses this offer, Judah steps forward (vayiggash) and gives an eloquent and unselfish speech about how their father’s life depends on Benjamin.  He concludes:

“And 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 can I go up to my father if the youth is not with us?  Let me not see the evil that would meet my father!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

Judah has changed in the last twenty years;1 he is no longer callous or selfish, and he has empathy for his father.  Has Joseph also changed?

Joseph was not able to pull himself together before all those attending him, and he called out: “Clear out every man around me!”  So not a man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  And he wept aloud and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.  (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph weeps, by Owen Jones, 1869

Twice before Joseph was overcome and left the room to weep: once when his older brothers expressed guilt for their lack of compassion for Joseph in the pit2, and once when he saw his little brother Benjamin, all grown up.3  At the sight of Benjamin, the Torah says, Joseph’s rachamim (רַחֲמִים), his compassion or loving emotion, is kindled.  It is the first unambiguous empathy Joseph exhibits.  (See last week’s post, Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?)

Now Joseph cries in front of all his brothers.

And Joseph said to his brothers: “Geshu, please, to me.”  Vayiggashu.  And he said: “I am Joseph, your brother who you sold to Egypt.”  (Genesis 45:4)

geshu (גְּשׁוּ) = Approach!  Come closer!  (Another form of the verb nigash.)

vayiggashu (ו־יִּגָּשׁוּ) = and they approached, and they stepped forward.  (Also a form of the verb nigash.)

Joseph asks his brothers to come closer, and they do—physically.  But can they come closer emotionally?  Joseph’s next words are:

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

In Joseph’s explanation, his older brothers bear no guilt—and have no agency.  They are not responsible for their crime, because God made them do it.  Their deeds have no importance; they were only God’s means for bringing Joseph to Egypt, where he would become a hero.

Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt,
by James Tissot

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

Joseph’s moment of compassion and affection for Benjamin did not transform him.  His statement that God manipulated his brothers like pawns in order to make him the ruler of everything and the savior of his family is an undisguised expression of narcissism.

After delivering this statement and requesting that his brothers bring Jacob and the rest of the extended family to Egypt so Joseph can take care of them, he wants to exchange tears and embraces with his brothers.  It is an opportunity for them to express gratitude toward their savior.

Joseph Recognized, by Marc Chagall

The first embrace is successful.

And he fell on the neck of his brother Benjamin and he wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.  (Genesis 45:14)

Benjamin has no bad memories or guilt regarding his brother Joseph.  The ten older brothers do the best they can, but the Torah does not say they wept, or kissed him, or embraced him.

And he kissed all his brothers and he wept on them.  And after that his brothers spoke with him.  (Genesis 45:15)

Joseph may feel some affection for Benjamin.  For all we know, he also feels affection for his own Egyptian wife and sons.  But he exhibits more narcissism than empathy.

During the seven-year famine, his brothers have no alternative but to obey Joseph and bring Jacob and their own wives and children and grandchildren down to Egypt.

And Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and he gave them holdings in the land of Egypt, in the best part of the land …  And Joseph sustained his father, his brothers, and all the household of his father with bread, down to the mouths of the little ones.  (Genesis 47:12)

With his extended family members, Joseph acts like a benign God.  As long as they are completely dependent on him, he is generous and happy.

With the Egyptian farmers, Joseph enjoys a different aspect of his importance and power.  Sometime after the second year of famine they run out of silver to pay for the grain that Joseph collected and stored during the seven years of plenty.

Joseph, Overseer of the Pharaoh’s Granaries, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

And Joseph said: “Bring your livestock, and I will give to you in exchange for your livestock, if there is no more silver.”  (Genesis 47:16)

Soon the Pharaoh owns all the livestock in Egypt (except for the animals belonging to Joseph’s family and to the Egyptian priests).  The following year the Egyptian farmers tell Joseph that they have nothing left to trade for grain except themselves and their fields.  Joseph calls it a deal.

And Joseph acquired all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh, since each Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was so hard on them.  And the land became Pharaoh’s.  And he made the people cross, town by town, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other end.  (Genesis 47:20-21)

Joseph not only takes each farming family’s title to its land, but moves the family away from home to farm in another part of the country.

And Joseph said to the people: “Hey!  I have acquired you today, and your land, for Pharaoh.  There is seed for you, and you shall sow the land.  And it will happen at every harvest, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh …”  And they said: “You have kept us alive.  May we find favor in the eyes of my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 47:23-25)

Joseph’s motivation is not greed; he arranges for the Pharaoh to own everything.  He is motivated to display power.  Joseph, and Joseph alone, can rearrange the government and population of all Egypt.

*

One does not need to be a narcissist to lack empathy for members of a particular population.  Even today, many people who are unselfish, sympathetic, and caring members of their own community also speak and vote callously when it comes to foreigners and outsiders.  It is easier to blame the stranger than to love the stranger.

Joseph is a narcissist with his extended family as well as with the Egyptians; the only affection he exhibits in the Torah is for his younger brother Benjamin.  Sometimes he is cold and calculating, and other times he is a drama queen.  His narcissism makes him untrustworthy; even after his older brothers have lived for seventeen years living under his protection in Egypt, as soon as their father dies they are afraid Joseph will take revenge on them.4

You cannot really come close to a narcissist.  But you can approach your own soul, and ask yourself for whom you feel no empathy.

  1. Genesis 38:1-26.
  2. Genesis 42:21.
  3. Genesis 43:30-31.
  4. Genesis 50:15-20. Fortunately for the brothers, Joseph still believes God arranged everything so Joseph would be the hero.

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving?

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

Salachtikha; I forgive you.

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

Joseph in Prison,
by James Tissot

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

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

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

Joseph then interprets the chief baker’s dream:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his brothers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Embraces Benjamin,
by Owen Jones, 1869

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his father?

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

Joseph and Jacob Reunited,
by Owen Jones 1869

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by James Tissot

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness or pardon is not the only road to reconciliation.

*

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

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

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

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

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing

December 19, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash | 3 Comments

Someone harms you or your loved one.  There is no apology, no reconciliation.  Years later you are thrown together again.  What do you do?

Joseph sold as a slave,
artist unknown

Joseph faces his ten older brothers 21 years after they seized him, talked about killing him, then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1  During that time, thanks to his own intelligence and a prophetic gift from God, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s viceroy.  When Joseph sees his brothers again, they are bowing down to him and requesting permission to buy grain.

When the brothers last saw Joseph he was seventeen.  Now he is in his late thirties.  He has an Egyptian name, and wears Egyptian clothes.  He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him.  So he pretends to be the stranger he appears, and speaks to them through an interpreter.

At first Joseph accuses them of being spies.  (He wants to accuse them of something, and spying may occur to him first because when he was 17 he was a spy; he brought “bad reports” of his brothers to Jacob. See last week’s post, Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  The brothers protest:

“All of us are sons of one man.  We are keinim!  Your servants would never be spies.” (Genesis/Bereishit 42:11)

keinim (כֵּנִים) = (plural) upright, honest, virtuous.

Joseph knows that they were hardly keinim when they sold him into slavery.  But have they changed over the last 21 years?

He repeats that they are spies, and as the ten men from Canaan explain who they are, they mention that their father had twelve sons.

And hey!  The youngest is with our father now, and the [other] one is absent from us.  (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph uses this statement to test his brothers.  He says:

“In this tibacheinu, by the life of Pharaoh!  If you leave this place, then your youngest brother must come here.  Send off one from among yourselves, and he will take your brother; and you will be imprisoned.  And your words, yibachanu, [to see if] the truth is with you.  If not, by the life of Pharaoh, then you are spies.” (Genesis 42:15-16)

tibacheinu (תִּבָּחֵנוּ) = you will be tested.  (A form of the verb bachan, בָּחַן = tested.)

yibachanu (יִבָּחַנוּ) = they will be tested.  (Also a form of the verb bachan.)

Joseph throws all ten of them in prison for three days.  When he releases them, he overhears them speaking in Hebrew.

And they said, each man to his brother: “Alas!  We are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us for mercy, and we did not listen.  Therefore this distress came upon us.”  (Genesis 42:21)

This is the first evidence Joseph gets that his older brothers have changed.  When he was seventeen, his brothers were only concerned about getting rid of Joseph for good without being technically responsible for shedding his blood.  Now they remember Joseph as a human being with feelings, and they feel guilty.

Joseph’s Brothers Find the Silver,
Aunt Louisa’s Sunday Picture Book, c. 1870

The test continues.  Joseph decides to keep only one brother, Simon, as a hostage.  He sells grain to the other nine, and sneaks their silver back into their packs just before they leave for Canaan. Again he orders them to return with their youngest brother, threatening that they will not see his face unless they do.

The youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons is Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother—the only other son Jacob had with his beloved Rachel.  Their father, Jacob, always played favorites.  He loved Rachel more than his other wife or his concubines, and after she died he loved her elder son Joseph more than his other sons.  Joseph guesses that his father has become attached to Benjamin now, and he wants to find out if his half-brothers would treat Benjamin as badly as they once treated him.

He may also remember his baby brother fondly; he was an innocent child of six when Joseph’s older brothers could not speak a peaceful word to him.  Maybe Joseph wants to protect Benjamin in Egypt if their half-brothers turn out to be just as wicked as before.

Jacob, having already lost Rachel and Joseph, refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt.  He would rather leave his unloved son Simon in an Egyptian prison for life.  But the famine continues.  Judah (Jacob’s fourth son) points out that the whole family will starve to death if they do not return to Egypt for grain, and he pledges to be responsible for Benjamin.  Jacob finally lets him go.

When the brothers arrive in Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph releases Simon and invites them all to dine at his palace.  Nervously, the brothers tell Joseph’s steward that they found silver in their packs last time, and offer to return it along with more silver to buy more food.  This might show only that the brothers are smart enough to avoid being accused of theft; or it might indicate that they have become more honest.

At the feast, Joseph gives Benjamin five times as much food as the others, putting his little brother in the same position Joseph was in when Jacob gave him, and none of his brothers, an expensive tunic.  This time the ten older brothers do not react to the favoritism.

The Cup Found,
by James Tissot

Then the final test begins.  Once again, Joseph has the silver returned to the brothers’ packs.2  He also has his steward plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack.  Then Joseph sends the man to overtake the brothers on the road, make a show of finding the “thief” of the cup, and declare that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as a slave.

Instead of letting Benjamin take the blame, the brothers all return to Joseph’s palace with him.

And Judah said: “What can we say to my lord?  How can we speak, and how can we prove our innocence?  God has found out the crime of your servants.  Here we are, slaves to my lord, along with the one in whose hand the goblet was found.” (Genesis 44:16)

The older brothers’ solidarity with Benjamin might be the final piece of evidence Joseph needs.  But a lingering doubt makes him repeat that only Benjamin will stay as a slave in Egypt.

Then, at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”), Judah steps closer to the viceroy of Egypt and tells the story of Jacob’s love for Benjamin, predicting that if Benjamin does not return, their father will die.  He concludes:

“And now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord.  And let the boy go up with his brothers.  For how can I go up to my father if the boy is not with me?—lest I see the evil that would find my father!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

At that point Joseph’s test ends.  His older brothers have proven that they have changed for the better.

There is one piece of unfinished business.  Joseph has not had the opportunity to test his father, who never overtly harmed him, but did smother him with a narcissistic love, and did send him off alone and unprotected to find his hostile older brothers far away to the north.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father for two clues that Joseph blamed his father for some of his suffering.)

Joseph Recognized by his Brothers,
by Marc Chagall

Joseph has not forgotten his father.  Overcome with emotion, he sends all his attendants out of the room, bursts into tears, and says:

I am Joseph.  Is my father really still alive? (Genesis 45:3)

Having tested his older brothers, Joseph will not punish them, will not take revenge.  But will he forgive them?

Will Joseph be able to forgive his father without testing him?  I will address these questions in next week’s post, Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.

Testing people who once harmed you or your loved one is harder in real life than it is in the Torah.  A few times in my life I have withheld my true feelings, looking for signs of change in people who once attacked me, but the evidence has always been ambiguous.  If reconciliation is possible, it happens in a different way.  And if reconciliation is not possible, the injured person can still find an inner healing.

May all of us who have been harmed without a reconciliation receive divine insight, so that like Joseph, we can reveal our feelings, let go of our disguises, and become whole.

  1. Genesis 37:12-27 (in the Torah portion Vayeishev).
  2. Robert Alter points out: “Meanwhile, as in dream logic—or perhaps one should say, guilt logic—the brothers, who once took silver when they sold Joseph down into Egypt, seem helpless to ‘return’ the silver to Egypt, as much as they try.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 253)

 

Haftarat Vayiggash—Ezekiel: You Can’t Go Home Again

January 2, 2017 at 8:20 am | Posted in Ezekiel, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , ,
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayiggash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), and the haftarah is Ezekiel 37:15-28.

Cut a board into two pieces, then glue them back together. The glued board is not identical to the original board.

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Ezekiel, by Michelangelo

Yet Ezekiel, in this week’s haftarah, says two separate ethnic groups that once shared a religion will again become one nation.

And the speech of God happened to me, saying:  And you, son of Adam, take yourself one piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Judah and to the Children of Israel, its chaveirim”. And take another piece of wood and write on it “belonging to Joseph, the wood of Ephraim and all the household of Israel, its chaveirim”. And bring them close, one to the other, to [make] yourself one piece of wood; and it will be as one in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:15-18)

chaveirim (חֲבֵרִים) = comrades, companions, partners. (From the root verb chavar, חָבַר = allied, joined forces.)

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob has twelve sons and acquires a second name, Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, alienates his ten older brothers. Led by Judah, the ten young men sell Joseph to a slave caravan bound for Egypt. (Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, is still a baby at the time.) In this week’s Torah portion, the brothers are reunited after a final confrontation between Joseph and a reformed Judah. Their descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel—who escape from Egypt 400 years later, as one people called the “Children of Israel”.

All twelve tribes settle in Canaan, but they only become a unified nation called “Israel” under King David, according to the second book of Samuel. After the death of the next king, Solomon, the northern part of the country secedes.

circa 800 B.C.E.

circa 800 B.C.E.

The new northern kingdom calls itself Israel, since it includes the traditional lands of most of the original tribes. Its richest and most dominant tribe is Ephraim, which is the name of one of Joseph’s sons. In Ezekiel’s time the northern kingdom no longer exists, but one piece of wood represents the descendants of its people by listing Joseph, Ephraim, and the tribe’s chaveirim or companion tribes from the former kingdom.

The truncated southern kingdom calls itself Judah/Yehudah. It includes only two tribal lands: the large area of Judah and the small traditional territory of Benjamin. They, too, are Children of Israel.

For two centuries the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are uneasy neighbors—sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. What they continue to have in common is their attachment to the same God (often called “the God of Israel”)—though they disagree about the correct number of temples and how to furnish them.1

The Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 740-721 B.C.E. and deported its leading citizens, leaving only its peasants and a few puppet administrators. During several waves of deportation, some northerners escaped to Judah.map-assyrian-babylonian-deportations

The southern kingdom of Judah survived another 150 years or so by paying tribute to Assyria. Then the Neo-Babylonian Empire swallowed the Assyrian Empire and went on to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, in 601-586.  King Nebuchadnezzar’s army deported Judah’s leading citizens (including Ezekiel) to Babylon, leaving only peasants and puppet administrators.

God instructs Ezekiel to continue his performance art with the two pieces of wood until someone asks him to explain it. Then, God says, Ezekiel must answer:

Thus says my lord God:  Hey! I myself … will be making it one piece of wood. And they will be one in My hand…  (Ezekiel 37:19)

Thus says my lord God: Hey! I myself will be taking the Children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will collect them from all around, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them a single nation on the land, in the hills of Israel, and one king will be king for all of them. And never again will they be two nations… (Ezekiel 37:21-22)

Ezekiel can only hold the “Judah” stick and the “Joseph” stick together to make one piece of wood symbolically. But God promises to reunite the two peoples literally, making them chaveirim who are not merely allies, but a single, seamless kingdom as in the time of David. This kingdom will be a home for everyone who worships the God of Israel; one land with one king, one capital (Jerusalem), and one temple, greater than the first.

Yet in human experience, time is unidirectional. We cannot go backward; our world never returns to the way it used to be. We can only go forward, building with the material we have now. Boards cut from a tree can never become a tree again, but we might make them into a chair.

Ezekiel’s prophesy never came true. After the Persian Empire took Babylon in 539 B.C.E., some of the exiles from Judah did return to Jerusalem and build a second temple, and some of their descendants served as provincial governors of Judea. Other Judahites stayed behind, building a thriving Jewish community that eventually produced the Babylonian Talmud. Most of the exiles the Assyrians deported from Israel were assimilated and lost their identity and religion.

There never was another independent kingdom of Israel. The third “temple” in Jerusalem is a mosque. After millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, the nation of Israel was created in 1948 C.E., and its population now includes almost half the Jews in the world. Almost as many Jews live in the United States. If Ezekiel were here to prophesy today, he would write “Israel” on one piece of wood and “U.S.A.” on the other.

Yet the two groups of Jews are so dissimilar that only a trickle emigrate from one nation to the other. Currently, American Jews are generally respected by their fellow Americans; Israeli Jews dominate Israel and deal with entirely different issues. I cannot imagine the two groups forming a single nation in a single land, even if there were room for all of us.

*

May all human beings, of any religion or tradition, recognize that we can’t go home again; if we try, we find that our old home has changed. Change is the nature of this world, the world of the God whose personal name is a form of the verb meaning “to become”.2

I pray that we may all move beyond Ezekiel’s vision; that we may all find new ways to help our own identities, our communities, and our religions grow, wherever we live. And may we also find new ways to work together with people who were once strangers.

__

1 The opinion of Judah prevailed in the Hebrew Bible: that there should be only one temple, in Jerusalem, and the only statues allowed are the two keruvim, mythical winged creatures. (See my post Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.) The Bible criticizes the northern kingdom of Israel for maintaining temples at Dan and Beit-El as well as its capital, Samaria, and for the golden calves standing at the entrances of the temples in Beit-El and Dan (2 Kings 10:29).

2 YHVH = the Tetragrammaton or four-letter personal name of God that Jews consider most sacred. The name appears to be a form of havah or hayah (הוה or היה), the root of the verb “to be”, “to happen”, or “to become”, although it is a form that does not fit any standard Hebrew verb conjugations.

Haftarot Vayeitzei & Vayishlach—Hosea: A Heart Upside Down

December 7, 2016 at 9:26 am | Posted in Hosea, Vayeitzei, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and the haftarah is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Next week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) and the haftarah is Hosea 11:7-12:12. 1
Together, the passages from Hosea show us a God whose “heart has turned upside down”.

A punishment from God! That’s how the Bible describes almost every plague or military defeat the Israelites suffer, from the time they leave Mt. Sinai to the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. God gets a hot nose (the biblical idiom for anger) when the Israelites fail to live up to their covenant with God—by not trusting God to provide for them, by worshiping other gods, or by neglecting God’s ritual and ethical laws. Then God yells at them through a prophet, and lashes out with a deadly punishment.

Yet in the second half of Isaiah, God says the Israelites have suffered enough, and forgives them.  And in the haftarot for this week and next week, two contiguous sections the book of Hosea, God is torn between vicious anger and tender-hearted love.

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

The double passage begins with God saying:

            My people are stuck in meshuvah from me.

            Upward they are summoned—

            They do not rise at all. (Hosea 11:7)

meshuvah (מְשׁוּבָה) = backsliding, defection (to other gods), disloyalty.

The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (which Hosea also calls Efrayim, after the tribe of its first king, Jeroboam) remain trapped in their habit of worshiping Baal, even though prophets such as Hosea call for reform. When any of the people of Israel or Judah persist in worshiping idols, God usually becomes enraged and threatens destruction.  But this time, God says:

           How can I give you up, Efrayim?

            [How] can I hand you over, Israel?

            How can I put you in the position of Admah?

            [How] can I treat you like Tzevoyim?

            My heart nehapakh.

            It is altogether anxious, and I have had a change of heart. (Hosea 11:8)

nehapakh (נֶהְפַּךְ) = has turned upside down, turned around, been overturned.

Admah and Tzevoyim were villages annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, and presumably shared their immorality. Although the northern kingdom of Israel is engaging in the Baal-worship of its neighboring kingdoms, the thought of annihilating Israel turns God’s anger into anxiety.

            I will not act on the anger of My nose.

            I will not turn to destroy Efrayim.

            Because I am a god, and not a man;

            The holy one in your midst.

            And I will not come with agitation. (Hosea 11:7-9)

The book of Hosea implies that only a human man would reject his unfaithful wife in anger.  A god, unlike a man, is able to master emotional reactions. The God of Israel chooses the path of love instead—at least for a few more verses. Then God remembers:

            Efrayim encircled Me with false denials,

            And the house of Israel with deceit… (Hosea 12:1)

            It cut a covenant with Assyria;

            Then it brought oil as tribute to Egypt. (Hosea 12:2)

The book of Hosea, like the book of Jeremiah, urges the Israelites not to become vassal states of other empires, but to remain independent and trust God to protect them. The government of the northern kingdom is deceiving itself by pretending that an alliance with a foreign empire does not affect its service to God, but only leads to wealth and power. Israel, personified as Efrayim, says:

from Croesus by Nicholas Knupfer

from “Croesus” by Nicholas Knupfer

            How rich I have become!

            I have found power for myself.

            [In] all my labor they cannot find crooked activity

            That is a sin. (Hosea 12:9)

Efrayim knows his shady dealings are crooked, but tells himself that he is good as long as he does not break the letter of the law.  However, God knows better.

            And now they add sin to sin

            And they make for themselves molten images…

            They speak to them!

            Sacrificers of humans, they kiss calves! (Hosea 13:2)

God’s nose gets hot again, and God speaks of punishing the Israelites in various terrible ways, concluding:

            By the sword they shall fall;

            Their infants shall be smashed on rocks,

            And their pregnant women shall be ripped open! (Hosea 14:1)

Then Hosea advises the Israelites to pray for forgiveness and promise never to worship idols again. (See my post Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva.) Their words are enough to turn God’s heart upside down once again. God says:

            I will heal their meshuvah.

            I will love them nedavah.

            For my hot nose has turned away from them. (Hosea 14:5)

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = voluntarily, freely, as a gift, spontaneously.

A prayer and a promise are enough to change God from an angry punisher into a loving and forgiving healer. God’s love is not even contingent on the Israelites fulfilling their promise.

God predicts that the Israelites will be cured of their meshuvah, their habit of disloyalty and defection, in response to God’s freely given love.

            Efrayim [shall say]:  “What are idols to me now?”

            I Myself shall respond and I shall look at him with regard. (Hosea 14:9)

*

Parents and teachers are familiar with the conundrum God faces in these haftarot. After you have told children what they are doing wrong, and what they should do instead, do you wait for them to change their behavior before you reward them?  Or do you shower them with love first, hoping that they will then change in response to your trust in them?

I suspect the right answer is different for each child. And once in a while, when a child is testing you, you need to show that your temper has limits, and mete out an appropriate level of punishment.

In most of the Bible, God is not a wonderful parent or teacher. The anthropomorphic God has a hair-trigger temper, and “His” punishments include early and painful death for thousands of innocent people. But Hosea holds up a different model when he suggests that a god has more self-control than a man. The God of Israel need not act like a man who cannot overcome his anger against an unfaithful wife, Hosea says. God can stay calm and heal humans of their slavish devotion to idols and emperors—through love.

Today many adult humans try to meet the higher standards that Hosea set for God, behaving with self-control, good judgment, and love. It is not easy, since we seem to be made in the image of the old anthropomorphic God, full of both anger and love.

Underneath those feelings, can we come close to a more holy God?  I believe we can, if we spend enough time reflecting and turning our hearts upside down, as well as recognizing our self-deceit and denial and pushing through to deeper truths.

            You, you must return to your own god!         

            You must observe kindness and just judgments,

            And eagerly wait for your god, constantly! (Hosea 12:7)

 

1 (There is an alternate tradition of reading the book of Obadiah for next week’s haftarah, but Obadiah merely predicts the triumph of the people of Jacob (Israel) and the complete downfall of the people of Esau (Edom), without offering any reasons or any characterizations of God, Jacob, or Esau. Hosea 11:7-12:12, on the other hand, mentions Jacob wrestling with the mysterious being, a key feature of the Torah portion Vayishlach, as well as considering divine and human psychology.)
 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 5

December 27, 2015 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Mikeitz, Vayiggash | Leave a comment
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This is the final post in a series comparing three stories of Jews who rise from captivity to high positions in a foreign land: the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther.  After Joseph. Daniel, and Esther’s cousin Mordecai have all become viceroys of empires, all three stories continue with the themes “The hero gets revenge on the rivals who wanted him dead”, and “Thanks to the hero, the children of Israel prosper in a foreign land”.

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

Joseph’s revenge is the most complex and psychological. When he is seventeen, his ten jealous older brothers throw him in a pit, discuss killing him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.  Twenty-one years later, the brothers come to Egypt to buy grain during the first of what will be seven years of famine.  They bow down to the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnot-Paneiach, who wears Egyptian linens and a gold collar and speaks through an interpreter, without recognizing their little brother Joseph, all grown up and in charge of Egypt. But Joseph recognizes them.

Joseph and brothers in EgyptJoseph has absolute power; he could order his brothers’ execution and no one would question it.  Instead, he accuses them of being spies, and they explain they are ten of twelve brothers. He says he will keep one of the brothers in prison while the others bring grain back to their households in Canaan. But then they must bring back their youngest brother, Joseph’s innocent little brother Benjamin, to prove they are telling the truth.

Then they said, each to his brother: Ah, we are carryng guilt over our brother because we saw the tzarah of his soul when he pleaded with us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this tzarah has come upon us. (Genesis/Bereishit 42:21)

tzarah (צָּרָה) = distress.

They intuit that Joseph’s distress resulted, somehow, in their current distress—even without knowing that the Egyptian viceroy is Joseph (or that he knows Hebrew and understands their every word).

Joseph throws them all into prison for three days—an echo of when Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit. Then he sends off nine of his brothers with sacks full of grain (and the silver they paid for the grain hidden in the sacks).  He keeps one of his nastier older brothers, Shimon, in prison, and promises to release him only when the others return with Benjamin.

They do not return until the second year of famine; it takes that long before their father, Jacob, will let his beloved son Benjamin go with them. Then Joseph gets revenge for being sold as a slave—without actually enslaving anyone.

Joseph's Brothers Find the Silver Goblet in Benjamin's Sack, by Alexander Ivanov

Joseph’s Brothers Find the Silver Goblet in Benjamin’s Sack, by Alexander Ivanov

He releases Shimon and treats all eleven of his brothers to a feast. When their sacks are filled with grain, he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then he sends a servant after them, who finds the goblet, claims it was stolen, and declares that Benjamin—the one innocent brother—must stay in Egypt as Joseph’s slave.

This is a test to see whether the ten older men have reformed and will no longer abandon the brother their father loves best. The test causes the brothers further psychological distress, but they do get a passing grade. First they all volunteer to be slaves along with Benjamin, and then when they are brought before Joseph, a.k.a. Tzafnot-Paneiach, Judah volunteers to replace Benjamin and become the viceroy’s slave instead. Only then does Joseph tell them his true identity.

*

Joseph arranges his own revenge on his brothers, but in the books of Daniel and Esther the revenge happens at the king’s command, in the form of a simple tit-for-tat. The bad guys get exactly the same punishment they had intended for the hero.

Daniel in the Lions' Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by Briton Riviere

Daniel’s rivals for the post of viceroy set him up so that he will be sealed overnight into a den of lions. (See Part 3.)  Daniel survives, thanks to a divine miracle.

Then by order of the king, those men who had slandered Daniel were brought and, together with their children and wives, were thrown into the lions’ den. They had hardly reached the bottom of the den when the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones. (Daniel 6:25, Jewish Publication Society translation of the Aramaic)

In the book of Esther, the bad guy is Haman, whose pride is wounded because Mordecai the Jew refuses to bow to him when he is made viceroy of Persia. Haman persuades the king to issue an edict that everyone in the Persian Empire may kill all Jews on the 13th of the month of Adar. Haman also erects a tall stake so he can personally impale Mordecai when the day comes.

His plot is foiled when Queen Esther, Mordecai’s cousin, reveals that she is a Jew.

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Then Charvonah, one of the eunuchs before the king, said: Also there is a wood [stake] that Haman made for Mordecai, whose good words saved the king [from an assassination plot]. It is standing at the house of Haman, 50 cubits tall.  And the king said: Impale him on it! And they impaled Haman on the wood [stake] that he had prepared for Mordecai, and the anger of the king abated. That day King Achashverosh gave to Queen Esther the property of Haman, enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came before the king, since Esther had told what his relationship was to her. Then the king removed his signet ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and he gave it to Mordecai. (Esther 7:9-8:1)

Instead of Haman being viceroy and Mordecai being impaled, Mordecai is viceroy and Haman is impaled. The king’s edict permitting the massacre of the Jews cannot be rescinded, but Esther persuades the king to issue a counter-edict that on the same day, the 13th of Adar, the Jews of every city may assemble and fight anyone who attacks them. Between that edict and Mordecai’s new position, nobody dares to kill a Jew.

The enemies of the Jews hoped lishlot them, but the opposite happened, and the Jews shalat those who hated them. (Esther 9:1)

lishlot (לִשְׁלוֹט) = to gain power over.

shalat (שָׁלַט) = gained power over.

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

Goshen Rameses PitomJust as Joseph arranges his own non-lethal revenge, he arranges to move the children of Israel to a foreign land. After he ends his game of testing his brothers, he reveals his identity and tells them to fetch their father and their own families and move to a fertile district of Egypt called Goshen.

And I shall provide for you there, because there will be five more years of famine, so that you will not be deprived, you and your households and all that you own. (Genesis/Bereishit 45:11)

Pharaoh happily ratifies Joseph’s offer and sends wagons north to help Jacob and all his descendants move to Egypt. These original 70 children of Israel do not leave Egypt when the famine ends five years later. They stay on for four centuries, until a new dynasty rules Egypt and enslaves them to build Pharaoh’s cities. So although the children of Israel prosper during Joseph’s lifetime, eventually their lives in Egypt become intolerable, and they need God and Moses to rescue them—in the story that begins with this week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Names) in the book of Exodus.

*

The book of Daniel only implies that the Jews in the new Persian Empire benefit from Daniel’s prayers three times a day, which he continues even when his rivals trick the king into ordering that no one shall bow to a god for 30 days. Daniel emerges unscathed from the lion’s den, but when the king throws Daniel’s enemies into the den, the lions kill them at once. At this additional proof that a powerful god is on Daniel’s side,

King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language that inhabit the earth, ‘May your well-being abound! I have hereby given an order that throughout my royal domain men must tremble in fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God who endures forever …He delivers and saves, and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, for He delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.’ Thus Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and during the reign of Cyrus the Persian. (Daniel 6:26-29)

Although the book does not specifically say that all Jews in the empire prospered along with the viceroy Daniel, the official elevation of their god implies that their position also improves. The rest of the book of Daniel consists of a series of prophetic visions Daniel experiences, with no mention of any further discrimination against the children of Israel in the Persian Empire.

*

Triumph of Mordecai, by Jean Francois de Troy

Triumph of Mordecai, by Jean Francois de Troy

In the book of Esther, the new prestige of the Jews in the Persian Empire is an inseparable part of the revenge against Haman. First the king executes Haman and makes Mordecai the viceroy in his place—giving a known Jew great power. Then the king counteracts Haman’s edict urging everyone to kill Jews on a certain date by issuing a new edict permitting the Jews to assemble and kill their enemies on that day.

Due to both Mordecai’s power and the king’s new edict, people throughout the empire show deference to the Jews among them, being careful not to offend them.

…and many of the people of the land mityahadim because the terror of the Jews fell upon them. (Esther 8:17)

mityahadim (מִתְיַהַדִים) = were pretending to be Yehudim = Jews.

The Jews kill their few remaining enemies on the official day, the 13th of Adar, which becomes the holiday of Purim.

*

The stories of Joseph, Daniel, and the Esther and Mordecai duo put a different spin on each of the seven themes they have in common, including the final theme of Jews prospering in a foreign land.

The children of Israel prosper in Egypt (for several generations, at least) because Joseph moves his extended family to he fertile district of Goshen. The Israelites secure religious freedom under the first king of the Persian Empire because Daniel proves the power of the God of Israel. And the Jews acquire more status and power later because Esther (King Achashveirosh’s chosen queen) and Mordecai (who saves Achaveirosh’s life) identify themselves as Jews, and persuade the king to reverse every action of Haman, the prime enemy of the Jews.

Together, the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther demonstrate that it is possible for Jews to succeed in exile (galut), outside their former land.

What do you need to live successfully in a new place? A way to make a living and secure the physical necessities of life, according to the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. Freedom of worship, according to the book of Daniel. And the respect of the people around you, according to the book of Esther.

I pray that more and more nations in today’s world will let everyone within their borders make a living, follow their own religion, and live in peace and mutual respect.

Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 3 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Joseph cries eight times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, more often than any other individual in the Hebrew Bible. Only the Israelites as a whole break into sobs more often.

Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character in the Hebrew Bible, but he does not start crying until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt. When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, then sell him as a slave. His brothers remember later that he pleaded for mercy, but nowhere does the Torah say he cried. Nor is any crying reported when Joseph is falsely accused and imprisoned in Egypt.

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Twenty years later, in last week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph’s older brothers bow down to him in Egypt and ask his permission to buy grain. They do not recognize the viceroy, but Joseph recognizes them.  He accuses them (in Egyptian) of spying and throws them into prison.  Then he overhears them agreeing that they are guilty because they did not listen to Joseph’s pleading when he was in the pit.

And he [Joseph] turned around from them, vayeivek; then he returned to them and he spoke to them, and he took Shimon from them and tied him up in front of their eyes. (Genesis/Bereishit 42:24)

vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְּ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly.

Joseph breaks down in private, but when he recovers he knows he needs better evidence that his brothers have truly changed.  He devises a test, and tells them that he will keep one of them as a hostage until the rest return with the youngest brother, whom their father kept at home.

When they finally do return with Benjamin, Joseph runs out of the room to cry a second time.

And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot (sobbing); so he came into the inner room vayeivek (and he sobbed) there. Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself. (Genesis 43:30-31)

His emotional ferment is close to the surface, but he manages to resume the test. Before his eleven brothers depart for Canaan, Joseph plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack. He has his brothers stopped and searched.  When they return to the viceroy’s palace, he accuses the youngest of stealing, and commands that Benjamin stay in Egypt as his slave.

The third time Joseph cries is in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“and he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, makes a passionate speech and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin, in order to spare their father from dying of grief. Joseph is moved by the revelation that Judah, at least, has changed from a man who would sell his own brother into a man who would sacrifice himself for the sake of a father who does not even love him.

Then Joseph was not able to restrain himself in front of everyone stationed around him, so he called out: Remove everyone from me! And no one stood with him when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. And he gave his voice free reign in bekhi (sobbing), and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph identifies himself to his brothers, excuses their crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt.

Then he fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek (and he sobbed), and Benjamin bakha (sobbed) upon his neck. Then he kissed all his brothers, vayeivek upon them, and after that his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:14-15)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace. Their ten older brothers are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved. Joseph has excused their past sin, but he has not pardoned them. In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension. They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.

This scene is a variation of a scene between their father, Jacob, and his brother, Esau. Earlier in the book of Genesis (in the portion Vayishlach), Jacob returns to Canaan twenty years after he ran away because Esau threatened to kill him. Esau travels toward him with four hundred men, and Jacob sends generous gifts ahead to propitiate his brother. When he sees Esau on the road, he arranges his family with his favorite wife (Rachel) and child (Joseph) in back.

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, detail

Then he himself crossed over in front of them, and he bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came all the way up to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him, vayivku (and they sobbed). Genesis 33:3-4)

In both scenes, two brothers have been separated for twenty years. In both scenes, the two brothers sob. And in both scenes, the emotional displays are unequal.  Esau, who has more power in the first scene, runs eagerly, hugs his brother, falls on his neck, and kisses him. He has forgiven Jacob, and he cries from relief and the joy of reunion. Jacob bows to propitiate his brother, then stands nervously until Esau’s affectionate behavior convinces him he has nothing to fear for the present. Then he sobs in relief.

In the second scene, Joseph has the power. He sobs as he reveals himself and welcomes his brothers as friends instead of enemies. Next he is overwhelmed by relief and joy over his reunion with Benjamin, the little brother who never harmed him. He falls on Benjamin’s neck and sobs again. Benjamin reciprocates, but his primary relief and joy is that his own status has changed; instead of being considered a thief and a slave, he is now the viceroy’s favorite brother.

Then Joseph kisses all his brothers, as Esau kissed Jacob, and sobs over them. But the ten older brothers can only respond by speaking with him; their level of emotional relief does not match his. Joseph has excused their past crime as God’s means for getting him to Egypt, but he has not explicitly pardoned or forgiven them. Like Jacob when he was reunited with Esau, Joseph’s brothers are not sure their brother’s goodwill is going to last.

A third variation of the scene occurs when Jacob and his extended family travel to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection. Joseph rides his chariot to meet his father on the road.

And he fell upon his neck, vayeivek (and he sobbed), still, upon his neck, as Israel (Jacob) said to Joseph: This time I would die, after I have seen your face, for you are still alive. (Genesis 46:29-30)

Maybe Joseph sobs because the sight of his aged father floods him with emotional memories.  Or maybe he sobs because his long and difficult relationship with his father is suddenly resolved. (See my posts Vayeishev: Prey, and Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy.) Now Joseph is the one in charge, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to his now-dependent father. What a relief!

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, does not sob. He mourned over Joseph’s apparent death for years, and even when he switched to doting on Benjamin, he frequently predicted his own death. Although seeing Joseph alive and well (and rich and powerful) is the best thing that has happened to him since Rachel was alive, Jacob is emotionally worn out. He has no tears left.

In my own life, I have sometimes been the eager, loving one, and I have sometimes been the wary but hopeful one. And I have sometimes been the one who is too worn out to feel what the occasion requires.

When two people meet, they never have the same experience inside. Even when they are both weeping in an emotional release, they have different reasons for their tears.

May we all be blessed with awareness and acceptance of these differences between ourselves and the people we are connected with. And may we all be blessed with tears of relief.

 

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Identity Crisis

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

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

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

Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)

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

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

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

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

hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.

na (נָא) = please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

detail by John Singer Sargent

detail by John Singer Sargent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Old Age and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash: Compassion

December 29, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Posted in Vayiggash | Leave a comment

Judah opens this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he stepped close”), by stepping forward and making a speech to the viceroy of Egypt.  Even at close range, he does not recognize the viceroy as his own brother Joseph, whom he sold into slavery twenty years before.

The two men face one another.  Behind Judah are his nine brothers and co-conspirators in the sale of Joseph, as well as the baby of the family, Benjamin, who is now a tall young man.  The viceroy’s assistant has found a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, but Judah knows his youngest brother is not a thief.

Behind Joseph are his Egyptian attendants, including an interpreter; Joseph has been speaking only Egyptian, hiding the fact that the language of Judah and his brothers is also his own native tongue.

Judah sees an Egyptian nobleman wearing fine linen and gold, a man with absolute power in Egypt, a man who has unaccountably, capriciously decided to play a sadistic game with the brothers from Canaan, feasting them one day and accusing them of crimes the next day.  The previous year, when the ten oldest brothers went down to Egypt to buy grain, the viceroy imprisoned one of them as a hostage until they returned with their youngest brother.  Fortunately, the viceroy picked Shimon (Simeon), whose penchant for violence made him unpopular back in Canaan.  Nobody in the family had been in a hurry to redeem Shimon.

But the famine continued, and only Egypt had grain for sale.  Jacob kept refusing to give up his youngest son.  He had never stopped grieving for Joseph’s presumed death, and Benjamin was the only other one of his twelve sons that he cared about.  But when Judah personally pledged to return Benjamin to his father no matter what, Jacob gave in.

And now this sadistic viceroy of Egypt had picked Benjamin, out of all the brothers, to persecute next.  The viceroy would let everyone else go home with grain, even Shimon.  But Benjamin had to stay behind as the viceroy’s slave.

How could Judah negotiate with this madman?  Somehow, he has to crack the viceroy’s hard Egyptian heart.

Meanwhile, Joseph faces his brother Judah, the ringleader who talked the rest of his older brothers into selling him to a caravan headed for Egypt.  Sure, slavery was better than death, and if Shimon had had his way, the brothers would have murdered the 17-year-old Joseph on the spot.  And sure, Joseph’s adventures in Egypt had transformed him from a slave in prison to Pharaoh’s second-in-command.  But he still did not trust his brothers.  Especially the smart one, Judah.

Let them all go back to Canaan with grain, all except for “little” Benjamin.  He would keep Benjamin safe in Egypt.  As for Jacob—well, he was used to not thinking about his father.

The two men face one another.  Judah begins his speech to the viceroy by reviewing what happened during the brothers’ first visit to Egypt, without Benjamin.  He explains that his aged father is still grieving for the loss of one of his beloved late wife Rachel’s two sons, and he could not bear to lose the other one.  Then Judah describes his own position.  (For clarity, my translation adds proper names in parentheses.)

And now, what if I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us?  And his life (Jacob’s) is bound up with his life (Benjamin’s).  When he sees that the boy is no more, he will die; and your servant (Judah) will have brought down the gray head of your servant, our father, in anguish to the grave.  (Genesis 44:30-31)

Perhaps Judah pauses, looking for a sign of human compassion in the viceroy’s face.  But he sees nothing, so he makes his offer.

So now, please, let your servant stay, instead of the boy, as a slave to my lord, and the boy will go up with his brothers.  For how can I go up to my father when the boy is not with me?  —lest I see the evil fortune that will find my father!  And Joseph was not able lehitapeik …  (Genesis 44:34-45:1)

lehitapeik = to control himself, to restrain himself, to hold himself together.

Joseph has savored his role as Pharaoh’s viceroy.  In last week’s Torah portion, he exulted:

God has caused me to forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.  (Genesis 41:41)

During his long and convoluted game with his brothers, Joseph played the part of an Egyptian nobleman with ease.  His inner identity was locked away deep inside.

But when Judah expresses his own compassion for Jacob, the father who never loved him,  then Joseph’s heart cracks.  He can no longer avoid thinking about his distant father.  His own hidden identity returns to him simultaneously with his connection to his father.  He dismisses all his Egyptian attendants, and cries.

And Joseph said to his brothers:  I am Joseph.  Is my father still alive?  And his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were in sudden terror before him.  (Genesis 45:3)

As long as Joseph maintained his self-control, his ego led him to play one trick after another on his brothers.  Whether his purpose was revenge, or merely to test his brothers to see if they had reformed, Joseph kept thinking up and carrying out one more trick, one more test.  If Judah had merely told Joseph that he had pledged himself to return Benjamin to their father, Joseph would have received the strongest evidence yet that Judah, at least, was no longer the sort of man who would sell his own brother.

But would that additional piece of evidence have made Joseph drop his mask and end his game?  I doubt it.  It is Judah’s description of their aged, grieving, broken-hearted father that breaks Joseph’s heart, that makes him no longer able to control himself.

In my own experience, compassion is a fickle emotion.  I am not the only person I know who can feel compassion for someone—perhaps a starving child in a distant land, whose photograph appears when I open my mail—and yet do nothing about it.  And I am also not the only person who can doggedly go on doing the right thing even when my heart is not moved.  Sometimes I wonder if compassion is all it’s cracked up to be.

The story of Joseph reminds me that we humans tend to keep on doing whatever we’ve been doing, whether it’s ignoring someone or manipulating someone or trying to prove something.  We do not like to change our minds.

But if compassion suddenly touches someone’s heart, there is a moment when you lose your self-control.  The ego loses its grip.  A forgotten identity wells up.  Yes, you may harden your heart and recover your old mask and your old game.  But you may also have a change of heart, and rise to become a better person.

I find I am grateful that humans are capable of feeling compassion.  Because you never know what will happen when someone’s heart is moved.

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