Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1

December 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayiggash, Vayishlach | 5 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

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 are recorded as breaking into sobs more often.

Joseph Cast into the Pit, by Owen Jones

Although Joseph is the most lachrymose character, he does not start crying in the Torah story until he is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt.  When he is 17, his ten older brothers throw him into a pit, argue about whether to kill him, then sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1  Later, the brothers remember that he pleaded for mercy;2 but nowhere does the Torah say he cried during that ordeal.  Nor does the Torah report any crying when Joseph, as a head house slave in Egypt, is falsely accused and thrown into prison.3

If Joseph does not cry when he feels frightened or sorry for himself, when does he cry?

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Egyptian relief of slaves bowing

First sob

The first time Joseph cries is in the Torah portion Mikeitz (“In the end”).  After a year of drought and famine, Joseph’s older brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain.  They bow down to the viceroy of Egypt, not recognizing him as their brother Joseph 20 years later.  Joseph speaks to them in Egyptian, using an interpreter so they will not suspect he knows their language.

He accuses them of spying, and they protest that they are all brothers, and honest men.  When the viceroy says no, they are not, the brothers babble:

“We, your servants, are twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan.  And hey!  The youngest is with our father now, and the other—is absent.”  (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph throws them into prison for three days, then confronts them again.  As they talk among themselves, they do not know he understands every word when they agree that although they are not spies, they deserve punishment because they did not listen to Joseph pleading from the bottom of the pit 20 years before.

And he [Joseph] turned away 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.  (From the root verb bakah, בָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)

Joseph is overwhelmed when he hears them admit, in effect, that they were wrong to leave him in the pit.  He steps out to break down in private, and returns only when he can control himself again.

When he recovers his composure he tells them he will sell them grain, but he will keep one brother hostage until they prove they are honest men by returning with their youngest brother, the one who stayed home in Canaan.

Maybe Joseph embarks on this elaborate game in order to punish his older brothers for their old crime.  But most commentary assumes Joseph is testing his brothers to see if they have truly changed.  The youngest brother is Benjamin, who was a small child when Joseph’s older brothers sold him, and the only one who has the same mother.  Will the older brothers treat Benjamin as callously as they once treated Joseph?

Second sob

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones

After a second year of famine, the brothers finally return with Benjamin.  When they arrive at the viceroy’s palace a servant brings Shimon to them, none the worse for imprisonment, and says the viceroy invites them to stay for a meal.

All eleven brothers prostrate themselves when the viceroy of Egypt walks in.  Joseph asks them whether their father is still alive and well, and they say yes.

Then he lifted his eyes, and he saw Benjamin, his brother, the son of his mother …  And Joseph hurried, because his compassion fermented, and he was close to bekot; so he came into the inner room vayeivek there.  Then he washed his face, and he went out and he restrained himself, and he said: “Serve the food.”  (Genesis 43:29-31)

bekot (בֶּכּוֹת) =  weeping.  (Also from the root bakah.)

This time the Torah attributes Joseph’s emotional ferment to a sudden feeling of compassion.  The sight of his brother Benjamin triggers the compassion, but who is the object of it?  Does he feel compassion toward all his brothers, for the ordeal he is putting them through now?  Toward his father, who had to let Benjamin go?  Or toward Benjamin himself, for growing up surrounded by brutal older brothers?  The Torah does not say.

Joseph resumes his game, giving Benjamin five times as much food as the others.4  The older brothers do not act jealous.  Next Joseph has a silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s pack before they leave, and sends his steward to catch them on their way out of town. The steward, following Joseph’s script, insists on searching their packs, and declares that the owner of the pack containing the missing goblet must return to the viceroy’s palace as a slave.  When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s pack, the ten older brothers are free to travel on without him.  But they choose to return with Benjamin to confront the viceroy.5

Third sob

The third time Joseph cries is during the confrontation at the beginning the next Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”).  Judah, the leader of Joseph’s brothers, steps up and volunteers to become the viceroy’s slave in place of Benjamin.  He says he is doing it 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.6

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 to bekhi, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.  (Genesis 45:1-2)

bekhi (בְּכִי) = weeping, wailing, sobbing; distilling water.  (Also from the root bakah.)

Once Egyptians are cleared out of the room, a tearful Joseph finally identifies himself to his brothers.  He excuses their old crime as the working out of divine providence, and tells them to bring their father and their own families to Egypt, where they will have plenty of food.7

The cause of Joseph’s sobbing this time is the shock of Judah’s revelation.  An enemy who despised and sold him 20 years before has become a moral paragon, sacrificing himself to spare two other people.  Perhaps Joseph’s compassion ferments again, this time toward Judah.

Fourth sob

Benjamin Returns to Egypt, by Owen Jones

Then he [Joseph] fell upon the neck of Benjamin, his brother, vayeivek, and Benjamin bakha upon his neck.  (Genesis 45:14)

bakha (בָּכָה) = he sobbed. (Also from the root bakah.)

For the first time, Joseph’s sobbing is reciprocated; Benjamin also sobs, in a mutual embrace.  The two full brothers are full of emotion at their reunion after 20 years.  They have no bad history with one another, so they simply weep tears of joy.  (Benjamin probably weeps with relief as well, since his status has just changed from prospective slave to honored brother of the viceroy.)

Fifth sob

Then he kissed all this brothers vayevek on them, and after that his brothers spoke with him.  (Genesis 45:15)

By kissing, embracing, and crying on the ten men, Joseph accepts them at last as his older brothers.  They are more reserved, because for them the situation is still unresolved.  Joseph appears to have forgiven them, but he does explicitly pardon them; he only excuses their past crime as God’s means for getting him, Joseph, to Egypt.  In their lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution, they remain suspended in a state of emotional tension.8  They do not embrace Joseph, but they do become able to speak with him.9

*

So what makes Joseph cry?  The first five times he breaks down and sobs, he is emotionally overwhelmed when he suddenly sees one or more of his brothers from a new point of view.

First he is moved when his older brothers realize they deserve punishment (Genesis 42:24).  Joseph thought his older brothers were irredeemable, but now he realizes they feel guilty.  Next he sees Benjamin for the first time in 20 years and feels compassion (Genesis 43:29-31).  Joseph had written off his baby brother, whom he thought was lost to him forever, but now he sees Benjamin in front of him.

The third time Joseph weeps is when Judah offers to become a slave to spare Jacob and Benjamin (Genesis 44:27-34 and 45:1-2).  He thought none of his brothers would sacrifice his freedom for the sake of another person, but now Judah volunteers to do it.  And the fourth time is when Joseph embraces Benjamin (Genesis 45:14).  Joseph was completely committed to his life as an Egyptian, determined to forget his whole family in Canaan, but now he embraces his relationship with his innocent brother.

Joseph cries for the fifth time when he embraces the rest of his brothers, even though they do not reciprocate.  He had considered them his implacable enemies.  Now he sees them as the instruments of fate—but also as men who blundered and later felt guilty and are trying to do the right thing now; as human beings and brothers.

Joseph sobs three more times in Genesis, all in the last Torah portion, Vayechi.  He sobs at his reunion with his father, when his father dies, and when his brothers plead with him afterward.  We will listen to those sobs in my next blog post.

*

Have you ever felt moved to tears, or to a “ferment of compassion”, when an important person in your life is suddenly revealed in a new and better light?  Did it change your relationship?

May we all be able to notice when things are different, and embrace relationships we had turned away from.

  1. Genesis 37:19-28.
  2. Genesis 42:21.
  3. Genesis 38:1-23.
  4. Genesis 43:34.
  5. Genesis 44:1-14.
  6. In the first Torah portion of Joseph’s story, Vayeishev, Jacob’s ten older sons noticed when Joseph was an adolescent that their father displayed extreme favoritism toward Joseph, giving him the “coat of many colors” and asking him to his older brothers’ misdeeds to him.  That is why, when they are away from home and Joseph shows up in his fancy coat to spy on them again, they throw Joseph into a pit and then sell him into slavery.  When they return home they tell their father that Joseph is dead, torn by a wild animal.  Jacob goes into deep mourning and refuses to be comforted by any of them.
  7. Genesis 45:9-11.
  8. See Genesis 50:15 for evidence that the brothers felt lingering anxiety about the possibility of future retribution for years.
  9. At the beginning of the Joseph story, when Joseph is 17, the Torah says:  “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace.” (Genesis 34:4)  Now, finally, they are able to do it.

 

Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself

December 3, 2014 at 12:12 am | Posted in Vayishlach | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , ,

After twenty years of devious power plays between Jacob and his uncle Lavan, Jacob finally comes out on top with a family and wealth of his own.  They part forever, and mark the spot of their separation on Mount Gilead with a mound of stones.  Then Jacob heads down toward Canaan.

Now that he is free from his uncle, 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. At that time 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 their mutual past, or  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. Maybe Lavan even 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 “my 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 that 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.

Powered by WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.