Ki Tavo & Vayigash: Tithes and Taxes

August 26, 2021 at 5:58 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

How does a theocracy support itself?

Governments today, both democratic and autocratic, levy taxes to pay for government programs that range from making war to feeding children.  But a few thousand years ago in the Ancient Near East, most countries were theocracies; gods were considered the ultimate rulers, and their deputies were anointed kings and priests.

Both Egypt and the two kingdoms of Israel conscripted soldiers for war and laborers for major building projects.1  But how did they fund the programs that kept at least some of their people from starving?

The book of Genesis credits Joseph, the pharaoh’s viceroy, with refinancing the government of Egypt.  The next four books of the bible state what Israelites must contribute when they have their own nation, their own king, and their own clergy.

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

Egypt in Genesis

Joseph stockpiles grain in Egypt during the seven years of plenty in the Torah portion Vayigash.  Then in the first year of the seven-year drought, he sells it (to Egyptians as well as Canaanites) for silver.  In the second year, he sells grain to Egyptians in exchange for their livestock.  The third year, when the pharaoh owns all of Egypt’s silver and livestock, the  farmers offer:

“Acquire us and our farmland for the food, and we ourselves will be Pharaoh’s slaves, and our land.” (Genesis 47:19)

Joseph agrees.  All the farmland of Egypt, except what belongs to the priests, becomes the property of the government, and the farmers become serfs.  Joseph gives them grain for planting and eating.  And from then on, the farmers have to give one-fifth of their produce to Pharaoh as rent.

Joseph does not create any means for them to buy back their former land.  In fact, he moves whole villages to other parts of the country.  This underscores the claim in the story that the pharaoh now owns all the land and the farmers are mere serfs.

Israel in Numbers and Deuteronomy

Moses, speaking for God, decrees a different plan for the Israelites to follow after they have conquered their own country.  God is the true owner of all the land, but God has assigned a landholding to every Israelite in every tribe.  Plots of land can be sold, but only for temporary ownership; all lands return to the original clans every fifty years.2

King Solomon, French 13th century

Kings throughout the Ancient Near East appointed tax collectors to make sure landowners paid taxes, mostly in the form of foodstuffs.  In the bible, King Solomon divides the united kingdom of Israel into twelve districts, each supervised by an official who had to provide food for the king and court one month out of the year.3

Landowners are also responsible in the Torah for supporting the kingdom’s two most important social programs: the state religion, and care for the poor.  While the priests and their households receive portions from individual offerings at the altar,4 and wealthier Israelites are obligated to extend loans to their poorer neighbors and kin,5 the primary method for supporting people without their own land is mandatory tithing.

The Talmud distinguishes three kinds of tithes in the Hebrew Bible.  The first tithe is brought to the temple for the resident priests and their households.  The second tithe is also brought to Jerusalem, but consumed on the spot in a feast for the landowner’s family, slaves, and employees; Levites and landless immigrants are also invited to feast.6  Every third year, the second tithe is replaced with a “poor tithe” stored in the towns and doled out to the local Levites, immigrants, widows, and orphans.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“when you come”), requires landowners to accompany their tithes both in Jerusalem and in their home towns with declarations that they owe their livelihood to God and they are tithing to obey God’s orders.  First Moses addresses the annual contribution of the best of the first fruits:

First Fruits, bible card by Providence Lithograph Co. ca. 1900

You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land, which God, your God, is giving to you, and put it in a basket.  And you shall go to the place where God, your God, chooses to let [God’s] name dwell.  And you shall go to whoever the priest is at that time, and you shall say to him: “I announce today to God, our God, that I have come into the land that God vowed to our fathers to give to us.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2-3)

The farmer then recites a brief history from Jacob’s descent to Egypt through his descendants’ arrival in Canaan.7  He concludes:

“And [God] brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And now, hey!  I bring the first fruits of the earth that you gave to me, God!”  And you shall leave [the basket] in front of God, your God, and you shall bow down in front of God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 26:9-10)

The baskets of first fruits are presented to God, then eaten by the resident priests and their households.

Then you shall rejoice in all the good things that God, your God, gave to you and your household—you and the Levite and the immigrant who is in your midst.  (Deuteronomy 26:11)

The summer pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem, Shavuot, is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” in Numbers 28:26.  But the Israelites must continue to bring the first fruits of each of seven species8 as they ripen through the summer, until the fall pilgrimage festival, Sukkot.  The Israelites are obligated to bring the first-born animals from their herds and flocks to the temple for the spring pilgrimage festival, Pesach or Passover.9

For all three pilgrimage festivals, as well as for other offerings at the temple, landowners are obligated to invite the Levites and immigrants from their own neighborhoods to accompany them to Jerusalem and join in the feast.10  Perhaps the participation of Levites and immigrants is why the Talmud calls this the “second tithe”.

barley

But a feast every few months is not enough to sustain life.  So every third year, landowners must bring the “poor tithe” to a central location in the nearest town.  This tithe includes foods that have a longer shelf life (grain, wine, and olive oil), and it is also accompanied by a declaration in this week’s Torah portion.

When you have finished laseir every maseir of your produce in the third year, the year of the maseir, and you give it to the Levite, to the immigrant, to the fatherless child, and to the widow, then they will eat inside your gates and they will be satisfied.  Then you shall say in the presence  of God, your God: “I cleared out the sacred [portion] from the house, and also I gave it to the Levite and to the immigrant, to the fatherless child and to the widow, as in your commands that you commanded me.  I did not bypass your commands, and I did not forget.”  (Deuteronomy 26:12-13)

laseir (לַעְשֵׂר) = tithing, assembling a tithe, collection one-tenth.  (From eser, עֶשֶׂר = ten.)

maseir (מַעְשֵׂר) = tithe.  (Also from eser.)

The Levites serve at the temple on a rotating schedule as administrators, guards, assistants, and musicians, and by God’s decree cannot own farmland of their own.  The third tithe also provides sustenance for immigrants who have not been able to buy land, and for two other categories of people who were often impoverished in ancient Israel: widows and children who have lost their fathers.

The grain and other foods set aside for the third-year tithe are considered sacred because they are prohibited for mundane use; they cannot be either sold or eaten by the owner’s household.  This tithe is also sacred because it serves God; giving food to those who do not have the means to feed themselves is a sacred obligation.

*

Today the citizens of most nations are required to pay taxes.  Portions of our taxes go to the military, though sometimes we also conscript soldiers.  In modern nations, no one is conscripted to provide labor for government building projects; they are supported by taxes (including roads and other infrastructure).  Our taxes are also spent on education, on health care, and on supporting those who do not have the means to support themselves—the elderly and disabled, minor children whose parents cannot take care of them, recent victims of disasters.

I believe we should treat the taxes we pay for these social programs as a sacred obligation.

  1. Corvée labor, called mas (מַס) in Hebrew, is imposed by both pharaohs in Exodus on the Israelites to build brick storehouses (Exodus 1:11-13. 5:6-9) and by the Israelite tribes on Canaanites (Josiah 16:10, 17:13; Judges 1:27-35). A list of King David’s top officials includes an officer in charge of mas (2 Samuel 20:23-26); so does the list of King Solomon’s top officials (1 Kings 4:6).  King Solomon imposes mas on 30,000 Israelites who spent every third month in Lebanon cutting wood and quarrying stone (1 Kings 5:27).  Then he imposes mas on resident Canaanites to build the temple, his own palace, a citadel, and city walls around Jerusalem, Chazor, Megido, and Gazer.
  2. Leviticus 25:10-24.
  3. 1 Kings 4:7-19, 5:7-8.
  4. Numbers 18:8-19.
  5. Leviticus 25:35-37.
  6. Except in Numbers 18:21-29, which describes an earlier system of tithing. In that system, the first tithe is given to the Levites, who then give one-tenth of what they receive to the priests.
  7. See my post Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean.
  8. Deuteronomy 8:8-9 calls Israel “a land of wheat and barley, of grapevines and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey/date syrup; a land where you need not stint on eating food …”  Mishnah Bikkurim 1:3 states that only these seven species are brought to the temple, and they are not brought before Shavuot.
  9. Exodus 13:11-13 and 22:28-29; Numbers 18:13-18. God assigns the first fruits of Pesach and the meat of the firstborn animals to the Levites (including the priests), as well as a contribution of five shekels for each firstborn son.
  10. In front of God, your God, you shall eat them, in the place that God, your God, choosesyou and your sons and your daughters and your male slaves and your female slaves and the Levites who [live] within your gates. And you will rejoice in front of God, your God, in everything you put your hand to. Guard yourself lest you abandon the Levite on any of your days on the earth.  (Deuteronomy 12:18-19)

Testifying to Divine Providence

February 24, 2021 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh, Vayiggash | 1 Comment

What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?

Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah.  God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.  In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1  After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.

Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God.  (Exodus 29:25)

The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2  Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.

Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words.  See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3

He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will.  Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4

The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5  Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:

I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;

          I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.

          I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.

You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;

          Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me.  (Psalm 40:11-12)

Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph.  But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40.  And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.

  1. Exodus 29:12-25.
  2. Exodus 30:1-9.
  3. Genesis 45:4-8.
  4. Genesis 45:15.
  5. We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.

Vayigash & Terumah: Silver and Slavery

February 18, 2021 at 5:42 pm | Posted in Terumah, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

Egyptian silver bowl, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Silver stands for both magic and money in the Torah.

Shining silver glimmers with beauty and mystery (as long as someone polishes it). In the book of Genesis, the viceroy of Egypt’s cup made of silver, and Joseph claims to use it for divining as well as drinking.1 In the book of Exodus, the Israelites make parts of the portable sanctuary for God out of silver.2

Silver was also used as money in Egypt, Canaan, and the rest of the Ancient Near East. The first example in the Torah is when Abraham purchases the cave of Makhpeilah for 400 shekels of silver.3 At that time, a shekel was a unit of weight, not a coin.4

The first time Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to purchase grain during the seven-year famine, each man brings a bag of silver pieces, probably molded into convenient ingots.  They use their silver to pay for the grain they bring back to Canaan, but the mysterious viceroy (actually Joseph) has their silver secretly returned to their packs, on top of the grain.5 At their first camp on the way north, one of them opens his pack.

And he said to his brothers: “Kaspi!  It’s been returned!  Hey, it’s actually in my pack!”  And their hearts left them and they trembled.  Each man said to his brother: “What is this God has done to us?”  (Genesis 42:28)

kaspi (כַּסְפִּי) = my silver.  (A form of the noun kesef, כֶּסֶף = silver.)

Spooked, the brothers are psychologically primed for further mysteries.  They return to Egypt for more grain the following year, this time bringing their youngest brother, Benjamin, as the viceroy requested. They are afraid they will be accused of stealing back their own payment, so they carefully explain what happened to the viceroy’s steward, who says their God must have done it.6

That night, Joseph has his steward repeat the trick—and this time he also has his own silver cup hidden in the mouth of Benjamin’s bag. He uses the apparent theft of the silver cup as a pretext to arrest all eleven brothers.7 Then he decrees that the rest can go home, but Benjamin must stay in Egypt as his slave.8 At this Judah, the ringleader who talked his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave 22 years before, steps forward and begs the viceroy to let him stay as the slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph now has proof that Judah and his brothers have changed, so he reveals his identity and unites the family.

Joseph brings his own family down to Egypt and promises to support them, but he continues to charge everyone else for the grain he stockpiled before the famine began.

And Joseph collected all the kesef to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan through the sale of grain, while they were buying grain.  And Joseph brought the kesef to the house of Pharaoh.  Then the kesef from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan ran out.  So the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: “Bring us food!  Why should we die in front of you, because the kesef is gone?”  Then Joseph said: “Bring your livestock and I will give [grain] to you for your livestock, if the kesef is gone.” (Genesis 47:14-15)

Now Pharaoh owns all the livestock of Egypt as well as all the silver of Egypt and Canaan. The following year, the Egyptians tell the viceroy that they have nothing left to buy grain with except themselves and their land. So he acquires them as slaves under a system of serfdom. Pharaoh now owns all the land in Egypt except for the allotments of the priests, and all the farmers must give a fifth of their produce to Pharaoh.9

*

This week, as I delve into the ethics of Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians for the book I am writing on Genesis, I am also reading about the call for donations of silver and other precious materials in the current Torah portion, Terumah.  Here is the blog post I wrote on the subject: Terumah: Heavy Metals.

The purpose of the donations is to supply the raw materials to build a portable sanctuary for God. But how do the Israelites, ex-slaves in the wilderness of Sinai, have gold and silver to donate?

When God strikes the Egyptians with the final plague, the death of the firstborn, the Israelite slaves pack up to leave the country.

And the Israelites had done as Moses had spoken and asked the Egyptians for objects of kesef and gold, and garments.  And God had given the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they let them have what they asked for.  So they plundered Egypt.  (Exodus 12:35-36)

All the Israelites had to do was ask, according to this story, and the Egyptians eagerly handed over their money and everything else made with precious metals.  They were desperate to see the Israelites leave the country so that the God of Israel would finally stop afflicting them with plagues.

*

Silver in the Torah, like money in the world today, does not circulate evenly.  It becomes concentrated in the hands of whoever has the most power.  When Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt he has power over all the stockpiles of grain, so the all the silver in Canaan and Egypt goes into Pharaoh’s coffers, and all the farmers of Egypt are enslaved.  About 400 years later, according to the Torah, the Israelites are enslaved and the Egyptians have silver.  After the Egyptians discover that the God of Israel has the most power, they hand over their wealth so God will leave them alone.  Now the Israelite ex-slaves have gold and silver.

In a moment of panicked insecurity, the Israelites donate some of the jewelry they extorted from the Egyptians to make a golden calf, hoping that then their god will inhabit something they can see.10 Meanwhile, God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion to have the people make a portable sanctuary for God to inhabit.11 After Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and the Israelites have been punished and redirected, they eagerly donate their plundered silver and gold to make the sanctuary.12

The silver in the sanctuary is taken out of circulation as money. The people donate their silver and other precious materials because they need to believe God is right there with them, inside the beautiful sanctuary they are building.  After all, they need to eat, just like the Egyptians and Canaanites in the book of Genesis who handed over their silver to Pharaoh’s viceroy, who controlled the grain supply. By the portion Terumah in the book of Exodus, the Israelites know that God has the power to give them manna to eat, or withhold it.  They hand over their silver and gold to God.

But this time the precious metals are not just money stored away in some strongman’s coffers.  The people can see the silver hooks holding up the cloth courtyard walls and the silver bands on its posts; the gold hooks holding up the richly colored cloths of the tent-sanctuary walls, the silver sockets securing the cross-pieces in the frame of the tent, and its gold-plated doorposts.13 These touches of shining metal add to the beauty and mystery of the enclosure, elevating the spirits of the Israelites as they worship God.

  1. Genesis 44:2-12.
  2. The walls of the sanctuary proper are cloth hung in wood frames whose sockets are silver (Exodus 26:19-25). The cloth walls of the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary hang from silver hooks, and the posts holding up the framework are banded with silver (Exodus 27:17).
  3. Genesis 23:15-16.
  4. One shekel was 8.4 grams. The oldest coins unearthed in the Israelite and Philistine region date to the late 6th century B.C.E., when the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians.
  5. Genesis 42:25-28.
  6. Genesis 43:18-23.
  7. Genesis 44:1-9.
  8. Genesis 44:17.
  9. Genesis 47:18-24.
  10. Exodus 32:1-4.
  11. Exodus 25:8.
  12. Exodus 35:21-24.
  13. Exodus 27:17, 26:19-25, 26:36-37.

Repost: Vayiggash

January 1, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

I went back to my 2014 post on Joseph as a “Serial Sobber”, and I could not resist tearing it in two and rewriting both parts extensively.  You can read the first part here: Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.  I’ll post the second part next week, after I finish rewriting it.

Unlike Joseph, I am a person who  does not cry easily.  I only break into sobs once every five to ten years, when I have been trying and trying to accomplish something, and I finally realize I have to give up.

There are also times when another person touches my heart and I feel moved, like Joseph, but the closest I get to weeping then is a small tightening of my throat.

My throat tightened a bit this week when I was walking around Split, Croatia.  Most of the other folks on the streets are Croatians, since this is definitely the off season.  It dawned on me that only people under 30 looked happy.  The faces of most older Croatians are engraved with lines of grim endurance, broken only when someone says hvala, “thank you”, and flashes a quick smile.

And then I remembered: Croatia used to be part of Yugoslavia under the totalitarian dictatorship of Josip Tito.  After his death in 1980 the country deteriorated further, and then war began: first between Croats and Serbs, then between an independent Croatia and the splintering Yugoslavia.  Croatia’s secession and independence were finally secured in 1995.  The Croatian economy began to recover around 2000, and the country became a member of the EU in 2013.

View from Narodni Trg, a popular plaza in old Split (photo by M.C.)

Now Split has a prosperous tourist industry.  Sunshine and a warm seashore help, but so do all the ancient stone buildings that nobody could afford to raze and replace during the second half of the 20th century, when so many other cities lost their architectural treasures to the brutal aesthetic of the time.  Now, thanks to the segments of “Game of Thrones” filmed in Split, the old city is more attractive to tourists than ever.

The young adults look relaxed and happy here.  But when I consider the older adults who lived through the war in the 1990’s, and some even through the Tito years, my throat tightens.  I respect them just for carrying on.

 

Vayiggash: Near a Narcissist

December 12, 2018 at 7:49 pm | Posted in Vayiggash | 1 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.  His purpose is to display his 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 | 4 Comments

Salachtikha; I forgive you.

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

Joseph in Prison,
by James Tissot

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

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

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

Joseph then interprets the chief baker’s dream:

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

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

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

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

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

When he sees his brothers again, Joseph is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt.  He now has the power to execute his brothers or to pardon them.

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

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

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his brothers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Embraces Benjamin,
by Owen Jones, 1869

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his father?

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

Joseph and Jacob Reunited,
by Owen Jones 1869

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by James Tissot

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness or pardon is not the only road to reconciliation.

*

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

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

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

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

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing

December 19, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash | 5 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 20 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 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 20 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.  (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
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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) 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 this northern kingdom no longer exists.  Yet God says one piece of wood will represent the descendants of its people, the chaveirim or companion tribes from the former northern kingdom.

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

For two centuries the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were uneasy neighbors—sometimes allies, sometimes enemies.  What they continued to have in common was their attachment to the same God (often called “the God of Israel”)—though they disagreed 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 recite this explanation:

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 boards cut from a tree can never become a tree again.  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.  We might make boards 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, would he write “Israel” on one piece of wood and “U.S.A.” on the other?

American and Israeli Jews feel a kinship, but are so dissimilar that there is only a trickle of emigration from one nation to the other.  Currently, American Jews are generally respected by their fellow Americans, while Israeli Jews are blamed by non-Jewish residents of Israel for poverty, suppression, and abuse.

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 their first 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 that God annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, during Abraham’s lifetime.  Presumably these villages shared the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yet 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 Shuvah.) 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.

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