Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Identity Crisis

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

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

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

Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)

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

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

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

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

hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.

na (נָא) = please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 making deals with other clans.  He commissions his steward to 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.

Abraham passes down gifts before he dies, at age 175.  But the Torah does not say he blesses anyone.

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.

Vayigash: Compassion

December 29, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Posted in Vayiggash | 1 Comment

(artist unknown)

Judah opens this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (“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.  Ten men stand behind Judah: his nine brothers and co-conspirators in the sale of Joseph, and the baby of the family, Benjamin, who is now a tall young father.  The viceroy’s assistant has found a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, but Judah knows Benjamin 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 has picked Benjamin, out of all the brothers, to persecute next.  He will let everyone else go home with grain, even Shimon.  But Benjamin has to stay behind as the viceroy’s slave.

How can 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 have transformed him from a slave in prison to Pharaoh’s second-in-command.  But he still does not trust his brothers.  Especially the smart one, Judah.

Let them all go back to Canaan with grain, all except for “little” Benjamin.  He will keep Benjamin safe in Egypt.  As for Jacob—well, Joseph was used to not thinking about his problematic 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 (Joseph), and he could not bear to lose the other one (Benjamin).  Then Judah describes his own position.

“And now, what if I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us?  And [Jacob’s] life is bound up with [Benjamin’s] life.  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 (לְהִתְאַפֵּק) = 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, Mikeitz, 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.  He dismisses all his Egyptian attendants, and breaks into tears.

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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