Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber

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

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

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

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself

December 3, 2014 at 12:12 am | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Jacob finally gets a blessing he can believe this week, in the Torah portion Vayishlach (“And he sent”).

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, a blessing usually means a transmission from God that improves the recipient’s lot in life. When a human being blesses someone, it is a request that God will transmit that blessing. God’s blessings grant people eventual success in practical affairs, including numerous descendants, wealth, land, authority over others, a good reputation, and becoming a by-word for other people’s blessings.

Hands raised in blessing

Hands raised in  blessing of Temple priests

Before this week’s Torah portion, Jacob receives three blessings: two from his father Isaac (one while Jacob is impersonating his brother Esau, and one as himself), and one blessing from God. But he still does not feel blessed—partly because of his guilt over cheating his brother, and partly because of his habit of calculating how to take advantage of others. (See my posts Toledot: To Bless Someone and Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.)

During his 20 years working for his uncle Lavan in Charan, Jacob acquires two of the material advantages promised in the blessings by Isaac and God: many children (eleven sons and a daughter), and material wealth (abundant flocks, herds, and servants). He does not yet own land, but God reminds him he must return to Canaan.

Even though he appears to be blessed by God, Jacob is afraid to go. First he fears that his uncle Lavan will prevent him from leaving. After the two men make a peace treaty, he is afraid that his brother will kill him and his family. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob sends messengers to Seir, where Esau is living, as he travels west toward Canaan. When he reaches the Yabbok River, the messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him—with 400 armed men. Jacob frantically makes arrangements to prevent his whole family from being annihilated:

1) He divides his family and servants into two camps, hoping that if Esau’s men attack one camp, the other camp will escape.

2) He prays to God:

I am too small for all the kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I, I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children. And You, You said: I will certainly be good to you, and I will set up your offspring like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted in its abundance. (Genesis 32:11-13)

Here Jacob expresses his own unworthiness for blessing, admits that God has aided him, and reminds God of the blessing from 20 years before. He views the blessings he has received so far as temporary and easily wiped out.

3) He sends gifts of livestock ahead to Esau, hoping to appease him.

4) He takes his family and servants across the river, then returns to the other side of the ford to spend the rest of the night alone—because he senses that there is one more thing he must do. Jacob may not know consciously that the fourth and final thing he needs to prepare for Esau’s arrival is a new blessing, a fourth blessing that comes from neither his father nor his god. But he waits alone in the dark.

And Jacob was left alone, vayei-aveik, a man, with him until the dawn rose. And he [the “man”] saw that he had not prevailed against him, so he touched the hollow of his hip; he struck the hollow of Jacob’s hip during hei-avko with him. (Genesis 32:25-26) 

Rembrandt, "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel"

Rembrandt, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”

vayei-aveik (וַיֵּאָבֵק) = and he wrestled (?); and he kicked up dust (?)

hei-avko (הֵאָבְקוֹ) = his wrestling (?); his kicking up dust (?)

(The verb אבק occurs only here in the entire Hebrew Bible. It has been translated as wrestling for at least  two thousand years, based on the description in this passage. But the root of the verb is shared with the noun avak (אָבַק) = cloud of fine dust.)

Elsewhere in the Torah a “man” appears out of nowhere, and later turns out to be a malakh Elohim, a messenger of God (sometimes translated as an “angel”). For example, earlier in Genesis, three “men” appear when Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent, and they turn out to be divine messengers who announce that Sarah will give birth to Isaac. When a “man” appears to Jacob out of nowhere, we expect a divine emissary with a message for him.

The other “men” who appear in the Bible speak, walk, and appear to eat. But a “man” that wrestles is unique to this passage. Jacob and the “man” struggle all night without a victory.

Then he [the “man”] said: Let me go, for the dawn rises. But he [Jacob] said: I will not let you go unless you bless me. Then he said to him: What is your name?  And he said: Jacob. (Genesis 32:27-28)

For the first time, Jacob is asking for a blessing as himself, Jacob. Perhaps wrestling his opponent to a standstill has given him both courage and the feeling that he deserves recognition. In this case, both the message from God and the blessing he requests are a new name.

And he said: Your name will no longer be said “Jacob”, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with God and with men, and you prevailed. Then Jacob asked and said: Please tell your name.  And he said: Why do you ask for my name? And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:29-30)

Yisrael  (יִשׂרָאֵל) = Israel; probably yasar  = he contends for dominion, he rules + el = god; “He contends with God”, “God rules”. (Another possible etymology is yashar = upright, level, straight + el = god; “He is upright with God”, “God is straight”.)

sarita (שָׂרִתָ) = you contended for dominion; you ruled.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, “Because I saw God face to face, and my soul was spared”. And the sun rose for him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip. (Genesis 32:31-32)

Through the rest of the book of Genesis, Jacob sometimes acts decisively and correctly, living up to his new name. At other times he is fearful, hesitant, and calculating, like the old Jacob. He does not always prevail. However, he does proceed as if he expects God to be on his side. He also gives more blessings to others than any other person in the Torah.

Many of us are like Jacob before he wrestled. We can see our wealth and success in the material world, yet we do not believe we have received a divine blessing. We do not feel the peace of being blessed.

When we are alone at night, does a “man” come to wrestle with us? Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner wrote in Wrestling Jacob that the two clauses in “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose” (Genesis 32:24) could be read as happening at the same time. In that case, the man Jacob is wrestling with is himself.

Klitsner also suggested that when Jacob’s wrestling partner says “you contended with God and with men, and you prevailed” the “man” is identifying himself as both divine and human.

May each one of us be blessed to wrestle with our own inner divine force, and to emerge with a blessing we can believe in, a blessing of the peace and personal authority that comes from being Yisrael, upright with God—even when we walk into the sunrise with a limp.


Vayishlach: Message to a Brother

November 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 1 Comment
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Jacob and his uncle part for good after twenty years of devious power plays, when Jacob finally comes out on top with a family and wealth of his own. They mark the spot of their separation on Mount Gilead with a mound of stones, and Jacob heads down toward Canaan.

Now that he is free from his uncle Lavan, the first thing Jacob does, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (And he sent), is to send a message to his twin brother Esau.

And Jacob sent messengers lefanav to Esau, his brother, to the land of Sei-ir, the field of Edom. (Genesis/Bereishit 32:4)

lefanav = before himself, in front of himself; literally, “to his face”

Jacob anticipates meeting Esau face to face. He sends messengers “before himself” in order to prepare both Esau and himself for this meeting—and thus precipitates it.

Why is he in such a hurry to meet Esau? I looked up Jacob’s route into Canaan, which crosses the Jabbok and Jordan rivers, north of the Dead Sea; it goes nowhere near Esau’s territory. The hills of Sei-ir, where Esau has settled, are south of the Dead Sea, at least 90 miles away in a straight line, a two- or three-week march on foot. Jacob could easily travel to Canaan and settle down in a new home before Esau could discover his movements and come to meet him.

Moreover, Jacob fled to his uncle’s house twenty years before because his brother was threatening to kill him. Esau was enraged because Jacob had used trickery to take both Esau’s birthright (his inheritance as the firstborn) and their father’s first blessing.

Jacob fled to his uncle in Charan, and spent twenty years there accumulating wives, children, servants, and livestock. Although his mother, Rebecca, had promised to send for him when Esau’s anger cooled, the Torah does not report any messenger arriving in Charan.

Why is Jacob now so eager to meet Esau that he sends him advance notice? As far as Jacob knows, Esau still hates him. On the other hand, once when Esau was famished he willingly traded his birthright for a bowl of stew. Would such an impulsive man nurse a grudge for twenty years?

Jacob may feel so guilty about the way he cheated his brother that he cannot bear to go any longer without a resolution. On the other hand, he may feel his actions were justified, and now he just wants to deal with his remaining potential enemy before he settles down to a new life. Either way, if he resolves his relationship with Esau before he crosses the Jordan, he can come home to Canaan free of enemies, internal or external. So he dispatches messengers to Sei-ir.

He commanded them, saying: Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Lavan, va-eichar until now. And I have ox and donkey, flock and servant and maidservant, and I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes. (Genesis 32:5-6)

va-eichar = and I delayed, and I hesitated, and I lingered

Jacob gives Esau selected information about himself, without mentioning the past, or even his new family. Then he waits for his messengers to return with news of Esau’s reaction.

Why does Jacob say he delayed in Charan? According to 17th century Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, Jacob is explaining why he did not come to pay his respects to Esau sooner. Why does he mention his livestock and servants? Maybe he wants Esau to know that he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn.

And the messengers returned to Jacob saying: We came to your brother, to Esau, and moreover he is on his way to call on you, and four hundred men are with him. Jacob became very frightened and anxious. (Genesis 32:7-8)

We can only imagine how Esau feels. Does he still hate Jacob for cheating him twice? Or is he afraid Jacob might take advantage of him again? Does he view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language?

Here is one way Esau might interpret his brother’s careful message:

Thus said your servant Jacob—“Ah, he’s using the standard polite formula, instead of treating me like a brother.”

I have sojourned with Lavan—“He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. And Lavan probably taught him some new tricks.”

va-eichar until now—“Sure, he lingered. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father?”

And I have ox and donkey, flock and servant and maidservant—“Oh, so he’s rich now, and bragging about it. But he’s still coming back to collect his inheritance when Father dies. I wonder how many servants he has, and if they are armed for battle?

and I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes—“More polite language, pretending I’m his lord! I may be a few minutes older, but we both know he mastered me, long ago. I wonder if he only wants my favor so he’ll be safe ignoring me. Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, what Jacob doesn’t know is that I actually am a lord in Sei-ir now, with four hundred men at my command. If we start marching north today, we can surprise Jacob. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance to hold my own against him.”

Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But he does march north immediately with four hundred men.

Jacob never was good predicting other people’s feelings. If he could have imagined Esau’s response, he might have sent a different kind of message. What if Jacob had called Esau not just “my lord”, but “older brother”? What if he had said he wanted to see his brother again so he could make an apology? I doubt Esau would have mustered his four hundred armed men then. But Jacob was so cautious, he did not say enough.

When I am afraid of someone, I become careful about what I say to that person. If I think a confrontation is unavoidable, I censor my speech so much that I probably leave a false impression, like Jacob.

I pray that in the future, if I am afraid of someone, I will be careful in a different way. I want to be careful to consider what the other person might be feeling, and then risk saying too much, if it lets me address the real issue between two human beings.

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