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.

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 2

December 13, 2015 at 8:13 am | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 3 Comments
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Two more themes shared by the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are: “The hero is taken away from home and held captive” and “A court eunuch admires and helps the hero”.

*The hero is taken away from home and held captive.*

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

Joseph is sold in Dotan, bought in Memphis

In the first Torah portion devoted to Joseph, Vayeishev, Joseph’s ten older brothers can hardly stand him. (See The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—Part 1.) They take the family flocks to Dotan, about a hundred miles away from their home in Hebron, and their father sends Joseph to check on them.  When he arrives, his brothers throw him into an empty cistern and conspire to kill him.

But Judah said to his brothers: What profit [is there] if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites… So they pulled Joseph and they brought him up from the pit. Then they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:26-28)

The brothers believe Joseph will never return from slavery in Egypt.

While Joseph is singled out by his brothers, Daniel and Esther are removed from their homes merely because they happen to meet the criteria for a category of people the king summons.

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

King Nebuchadnezzar brings Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon

The book of Daniel opens when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captures Jerusalem. The king orders his chief eunuch to transport some young Israelite boys to Babylon. The boys must be:

…from Israel and descended from the royalty and the nobility; boys who have no blemishes, and are tovey mareh, and understand all wisdom, and have practical knowledge and some understanding of academic knowledge, and who have the ability to serve in the palace of the king, and to learn the writing and the tongue of the Chaldeans. (Daniel 1:3-4)

tovey mareh (טוֹבֵי מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (masculine form).

The boys will be educated for three years, and then will serve Nebuchadnezzar in some capacity. Young Daniel is taken away from home and transported to a foreign court merely because he fits the king’s description.

Similarly, in the book of Esther the king of Persia orders a certain class of girls to be rounded up and brought to the royal residence in Shushan. King Achashveirosh wants a new wife, and his advisors respond:

Let the king appoint appointees in every province of his kingdom, and let them gather all the virgin girls tovat mareh to the citadel at Shushan, to the house of the women, to the hand of Heigai, the chief eunuch of the king, guard over the women… And the girl who is good in the eyes of the king will become queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:3-4)

tovat mareh (טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה) = good-looking (feminine form).

map Persian Empire

Esther is taken to the harem of King Achashveirosh (Xerxes?) in Shushan

Esther happens to live in Shushan with her cousin and guardian Mordecai, but she is taken out of her home and put under guard in the “house of the women”, i.e. the harem, simply because she fits the description:

…and the girl was beautiful in shape and tovat mareh… (Esther 2:7)

Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all good-looking adolescents when their stories begin. All three live in comfort, Joseph with his doting father, Daniel in the royal court of Jerusalem, and Esther with her fond and wealthy cousin Mordecai.  Then the earth shifts under their feet.  Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt. Daniel is deported for re-education in Babylon. Esther becomes a captive in the Persian king’s harem.

Yet all three heroes rise from the fall in their fortunes—with some assistance from a eunuch in the royal court.

*A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.*

And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt; and Potifar, a saris of Pharaoh, the sar of the tabachim, acquired him from the hands of the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. (Genesis 39:1)

saris (סָרִיס) = eunuch; court official. Plural=sarisim. (From the Assyrian title sa resi = royal official. In Assyria, as in many ancient Near Eastern empires, employees in the king’s house were often eunuchs, so later in the Bible saris came to mean any eunuch.)

sar (שַׂר) = head, chief, official in charge. (From the Assyrian sarru = king, chieftain, captain.)

tabachim (טַבָּחִים) = meat-handlers (butchers, meat cooks, and meat servers); executioners.

Joseph’s new master, Potifar, owns an estate and reports directly to the Pharaoh as the head of a group of servants.  He is also in charge of the prison where men are detained until their trials.

Since the Torah refers to Potifar as both a saris and a sar, the additional title of saris probably means “eunuch” rather than a repetition of “court official”—even though he is married. Traditional commentary speculates that Potifar was castrated at some point after his marriage.

And his master [Potifar] saw that God was with him [Joseph], and everything that he did, God made a success.  And Joseph found favor in his eyes, and he became his attendant. Then he [Potifar] appointed him over his household, and he gave everything he owned into his hand. (Genesis 39:3-4)

When Potifar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, Potifar has to take action to preserve her honor. Normally a slave would be executed for such an attempt, but Potifar appreciates Joseph so much, he imprisons him instead—in the prison for the king’s detainees, which Potifar manages.

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

Then Potifar appoints Joseph to wait on two detainees with high court positions.

Pharaoh became angry at two of his sarisim, the sar of the cup-bearers, and the sar of the  bakers.  And he placed them in the custody of the sar of the tabachim [Potifar], in the house of the round prison, the place where Joseph was imprisoned. Then the sar of the tabachim appointed Joseph to be with them, and he waited on them… (Genesis 40:2-4)

Like Potifar, these court officials are called both sar (chief official) and saris (eunuch). Joseph correctly interprets their dreams, and in the Torah portion Mikeitz, the head cup-bearer mentions Joseph when the Pharaoh needs a dream interpreter. Pharaoh calls for him at once, and Joseph’s career takes off.

Thus Joseph is helped along by two different eunuchs, the king’s head executioner and the king’s head cup-bearer.

In the book of Daniel, a Babylonian officer named Ashpenaz is called both the high saris, and the sar of the sarisim. I think the title sar covers his position as a captain, so the word saris gives the additional information that he and those he supervises are eunuchs. After Ashpenaz’s boss, King Nebuchadnezzar, has conquered Jerusalem, he sends his high-ranking eunuch on a mission.

The king said to Ashpenaz, his high saris: Bring some sons of Israel, descendants of the royalty and the nobility. (Daniel 1:3)

Nebuchadnezzar orders Ashpenaz to educate these foreign boys for three years and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine. But Daniel and his three companions from Jerusalem object to eating anything that is not kosher.

Daniel silently vowed that he would not make himself impure with the king’s fine food or with the wine he drank, and he sought to obtain [permission] from the sar of the sarisim that he need not make himself impure. And God disposed the sar of the sarisim to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. And the sar of the sarisim said to Daniel: As for me, I am afraid of my master, the king, who allotted your food and your drink; what if your faces look pitiful compared to the other boys your age, and they forfeit my head to the king?  (Daniel 1:8-10)

Daniel proposes a ten-day trial during which he and the other three boys from Jerusalem will eat seeds or legumes and drink water.  At the end of ten days, they look healthier than the others. So the chief eunuch lets them continue their religious dietary restrictions. When he brings them to the king at the end of their three years of training, Nebuchadnezzar is pleased with them and appoints them to entry-level jobs among his “wise men”.

In the book of Esther, the head eunuch, Heigai, is the guard over King Achashveirosh’s “house of women” or harem. Esther is delivered to him along with the other beautiful young virgins rounded up for the king.

And she was good in his eyes, and she inspired kindness in him, and he was quick to give her her massage ointments and her rations and the seven girls who were her due from the king’s house. And he moved her and her girls to a better [room] in the house of women. (Esther 2:9)

Esther Present to Ahasuerus. detail by Rembrandt

Each virgin is kept in the harem for one year while she gets beauty treatments, then taken to spend a night with the king. The virgin of the night is allowed any clothes and cosmetics she requests.  When it is Esther’s turn,

she did not seek to obtain anything except what Heigai, saris of the king, guard of the women, said. And it was Esther who inspired favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her. The king loved Esther more than all the other women… And he put a crown of royalty on her head, and he made her queen instead of Vashti. (Esther 2:15, 2:17)

*

The court eunuchs who help Joseph appreciate his competence. According to the Torah, God makes all Joseph’s work successful and gives him dream interpretations that are true prophecies.

The court eunuch who helps Daniel admires his fortitude and his adherence to his religion. Probably due to these qualities, the God of Israel later rescues him from lions and gives him his own dream interpretations and prophecies.

The court eunuch who helps Esther probably appreciates her respect for his advice. He responds by making her life more comfortable and advising her well.

All three young heroes accept their sudden enslavement without complaining, withdrawing, or rebelling.  They do their work and treat the eunuchs overseeing them with respect, making the best of it. Because of their good attitudes, the eunuchs help them to appear in a favorable light before the king.

May we all be blessed with the ability to ride out our misfortunes with realism, patience, and respect!

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther–Part 1

December 1, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Daniel, Esther, Vayeishev | 2 Comments
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Joseph is sold as a slave and becomes the viceroy of Egypt. Daniel is a war captive and becomes the viceroy of Persia. Esther is imprisoned in a harem and becomes the queen of Persia, while her cousin Mordecai escapes impalement and becomes the empire’s viceroy.

Each of these three rags-to-riches stories has a different plot and different characters. But many of the same themes emerge, appearing in a new light in each story.

The story of Joseph begins in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“and he stayed”), and continues through three more weekly portions. So this month I am writing a series of posts comparing seven dramatic themes in Joseph’s story, the book of Daniel, and the book of Esther:

          Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.

          The hero is taken away from home and held captive.

          A court eunuch admires and helps the hero.

          The hero is punished for refusing to obey an order because of religious scruples, but God rescues the hero.

          The hero gets a foreign name.

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

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

 

Vayeishev, the first Torah portion in the Joseph story, introduces the first theme:

*Resentful rivals conspire to kill the hero.*

Joseph’s story in Genesis/Bereishit begins with jealousy.

Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a child of old age to him, and he made him a special long-sleeved tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him most out of all his brothers, so they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:3-4)

Upright sheaves

Upright sheaves

Joseph has two dreams in which his brothers (symbolized first by sheaves of grain, then by stars) are bowing down to him, and he makes the mistake of telling them his dreams.

…we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and hey! My sheaf stood up and actually stayed [upright], and hey! Your sheaves circled around vatishtachavena my sheaf. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:6-7)

vatishtachavena (וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ) = and prostrated themselves to, bowed down to the ground toward.

After hearing that, his brothers hate him even more.

When the ten older brothers take the family’s flocks far to the north, their father Israel (also known as Jacob) sends Joseph out to find his brothers and report back.

They saw him from afar, before he reached them, and they plotted against him, to kill him.  And they said to each other: Hey! The master of dreams is coming! Now let’s go and kill him, and we will throw him down into one of the pits, and we will say a wild beast ate him.  Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams! (Genesis 37:18-20)

They do throw Joseph into an empty cistern, though instead of killing him they sell him as a slave to a caravan heading for Egypt. Their intense jealousy causes Joseph’s downfall—down into a pit, down into slavery, and down to Egypt.

Daniel, on the other hand, rises from being a foreign captive to being the viceroy of the Babylonian empire without offending anyone’s pride. King Nebuchadnezzar makes Daniel his chief magician.  A later Babylonian king, Belshazzar, appoints Daniel as one of three administrators over all the provinces in the empire. When Darius conquers the empire, he appoints the same three administrators as supervisors over the 120 district managers.

This man Daniel surpassed the other ministers and satraps by virtue of his extraordinary spirit, and the king considered setting him over the whole kingdom. The administrators and managers looked for some fault in Daniel’s conduct in matters of state, but they could find neither fault nor corruption…

Daniel's Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Daniel’s Prayer, by E.J. Poynter

Then those men said: We are not going to find any fault with this Daniel unless we find something against him in connection with the laws of his god. (Daniel 6:4-6)

Daniel’s fellow administrators and managers are determined to bring him down. Like Joseph’s brothers, their resentment is so extreme, they want him dead. So they persuade King Darius to issue an edict that for the next 30 days, anyone who petitions any man or god other than Darius will be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel continues to kneel and pray to God three times a day in front of his windows. His rivals rush into his room, then go and inform the king, who reluctantly obeys his own written edict and throws Daniel into the lions’ den, placing a rock over the mouth of the cave so Daniel must spend the night inside.

The book of Esther has two Jewish heroes: Esther, and her cousin and guardian Mordecai. King Achashveirosh makes Esther his queen; Mordecai merely becomes one of the elders who sits in the gate of Shushan and judges minor cases. Meanwhile the king promotes Haman, one of his advisors, to viceroy.

Mordecai refuses to bow

Mordecai refuses to bow

And all the servants of the king who were in the gate of the king were kneeling umishtachavim to Haman, because that was what the king ordered. But Mordecai would not kneel and lo yishtachaveh. …Haman saw that Mordecai was not kneeling umishtachaveh to him, and Haman filled up with rage. (Esther 3:2, 3:5)

umishtachavim (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = (plural) and bowing down to the ground.

lo yishtachaveh (לֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = he would not bow down to the ground.

umishtachaveh (וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה) = (singular) and bowing down to the ground.

Haman learns that Mordecai is not bowing because he is a Jew. Commentators generally conclude that he refuses to bow—either because Haman expects the kind of full bow (kneeling, then touching one’s head to the ground) that is reserved for God; or because Haman is a  descendant of Amalek, God’s enemy in every generation.

…Then Haman sought to exterminate all the Jews that were in all the kingdom of Achashveirosh—Mordecai’s people. (Esther 3:6)

He persuades Achashveirosh that “a certain people” in his empire do not obey the king’s laws, and should therefore be eliminated. The king (who is fairly brainless throughout the story, perhaps because of all his drinking feasts) does not question Haman, but immediately gives him permission to issue a royal edict.

So thanks to jealousy and wounded pride, Joseph is thrown into a pit, Daniel is sealed into a lions’ den, and all the Jews in Persia are threatened by an edict of destruction.

Is this theme a warning on the part of the Biblical authors that it is dangerous, even deadly, to threaten the pride of others?

If so, the Joseph story offers a lesson, since Joseph wounds his brothers’ pride further by telling them his dreams of overlordship. If he had considered his brothers’ feelings and kept silent, he would not have been enslaved—but his brothers would still have held a grudge against him because of their father’s favoritism.

In the Daniel story, Daniel is promoted only because of his own excellent work, not because he is lording it over anyone. Although he is caught praying and thrown into the lions’ den, he does not brag about his god, or try to convert anyone else. Sometimes nothing can be done about the jealousy and pride of others.

In the book of Esther, all the Jews in Persia are put under a death sentence because Mordecai insists on following a religious scruple to the letter. Haman is clearly the villain, yet Mordecai is also responsible for the threat to his people. Perhaps Mordecai is emulating Daniel, whose prayers affect only his own fate.  He fails to take into account that when one member of a group offends a prideful person, that person is likely to consider everyone in the group offensive. Prejudice is always dangerous.

Sometimes it is better to be silent in the face of enemies. Sometimes it is even better to bow when everyone else is bowing.

*

The danger of wounding someone’s pride is only one of the themes that the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther have in common.  Watch for my upcoming blogs on the twists and turns of other themes!

 

 

 

 

 

Vayechi and Vayeitzei: No Substitute

December 28, 2014 at 9:02 am | Posted in Vayechi, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Am I tachat God? (Genesis/Bereshit 50:19)

tachat (תַּחַת) = underneath, under the authority of; instead of, a substitute for, in exchange for.

Two people in the Hebrew Bible ask this question. Jacob says it to his favorite wife, Rachel, in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (“and he went”). Almost 60 years later, their son Joseph says it to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).

Jacob instead of God

from "Jacob and Rachel" by William Dyce

from “Jacob and Rachel” by William Dyce

Jacob throws the question at Rachel right after she has spoken for the first time in the Torah, more than ten years after Jacob first sees her and kisses her. Their romance is not smooth. Jacob serves her father Lavan for seven years as Rachel’s bride-price, and then on his wedding day, Lavan tricks him and marries him to Rachel’s sister Leah. Jacob’s wedding with Rachel follows a week later, once he commits to working an additional seven years. Leah has four sons before Rachel speaks up.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and she was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me children!—and if not, I am dead. Then Jacob was angry with Rachel, and he said: Am I tachat God, who withheld from you fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:1-2)

Rachel’s demand makes Jacob angry for more than one reason. When she says that without children, she is dead, Rachel implies that Jacob’s devotion is not enough to make her life worthwhile. Naturally Jacob’s anger flashes. And it is not his fault that Rachel is infertile. So he demands: Am I tachat God?

He cannot be a substitute for God. Only God can “open the womb” of an infertile woman.

It does not occur to Jacob to pray to God, as his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebecca to conceive. But his rebuff does lead Rachel to take her own action. She gives her slave-woman, Bilhah, to Jacob as a wife, then adopts Bilhah’s two sons as her own.

Through this human solution, Jacob actually does give Rachel children, tachat—instead of—God.

Joseph instead of God

After Rachel has two adopted sons, God does open her womb, and she gives birth to Joseph. The family continues to be dysfunctional; Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him and sell him as a slave bound for Egypt. When they are reunited twenty years later, Joseph tells them not to worry about their past crime, because God planned it all in order to get him to Egypt and elevate him to viceroy so he could feed everyone during the seven-year famine. The whole clan, including the patriarch Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, and their families, immigrate to Egypt under Joseph’s protection.

But after Jacob dies, we learn that Joseph’s brothers are still worried about retribution. Like Rachel, they “see” a problem.

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: If Joseph bears a grudge against us, then he will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we did to him! (Genesis 50:15)

They assume that their father’s words would carry more weight with Joseph than their own, and they send Joseph what they claim is a deathbed request from Jacob:

Please sa, please, the crime and the offense of your brothers, when they did evil to you; now sa, please, the crime of the servants of your father’s god. (Genesis 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up. (To lift up a man’s head was to legally pardon him.)

And Joseph sobbed when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:17)

Unlike Jacob, Joseph is not angry when he asks: Am I tachat God? Instead, his brothers’ clumsy and obsequious request makes him cry. Perhaps he cries because his brothers cannot speak to him directly. Or perhaps he cries in frustration, because he thought everything was settled, and now he has to deal with the issue all over again.

And his brothers also went and flung themselves down in front of him, and they said: Here we are, your slaves. (Genesis 50:17-18)

Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again.  His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my  post Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.)

joseph_receives_his_brothers_cameoAnd Joseph said to them:  Do not be afraid. For am I tachat God? While you planned evil against me, God planned it for good, in order to accomplish what is today, keeping many people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph said something similar seventeen years before:

And now, do not be worried and do not be angry at yourselves because you sold me here; because God sent me ahead of you for preservation of life. (Genesis 45:5)

Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg made the case that the first time Joseph tells his brothers their crime is part of God’s plan, he is suddenly seeing the big picture. His enslavement was a necessary step to reach his present position as the viceroy, enabling him to save his own family and many other people from starvation. Joseph drops his own resentment against his brothers, and he hopes that sharing his vision of big picture will let his brothers drop their guilt.

But years later, when their father dies, Joseph finds out that his brothers still feel guilty. And he still does not realize that what they need is forgiveness, or at least a pardon. (See my  post Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.) Instead, he once again declares that their evil deed turned out to be part of God’s plan. Joseph continues:

And now, do not be afraid; I myself will sustain you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:21)

Joseph’s brothers are comforted because his promise to sustain them—to keep them alive and well—implies that he no longer hates or resents them. Even though they do not get the relief of explicit forgiveness, they know that at least they do not need to worry about future retribution from their powerful brother.

Targum Onkelos, written around 100 C.E., translated Joseph’s statement “For am I tachat God?” as: “For I am subordinate to God”. In other words, this time tachat means “under” instead of “a substitute for”. In the 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno took this interpretation further by explaining that Joseph considered his brothers God’s agents. It was not his place to judge God’s agents, just as it was not his place to judge God’s plans.

Nevertheless, Joseph acts almost like a substitute for God. As viceroy of Egypt and distributor of food, he decides who will live and who will die.

Two substitutions

When Jacob tells Rachel he is no substitute for God as an opener of wombs, she finds another way he can give her the children she wants.  When Joseph tells his brothers he is no substitute for God as a judge of men, they do not find another way to get the human pardon or forgiveness they want.  They still cannot speak to Joseph directly. But he offers them a substitute for forgiveness: the reassurance that he will not punish them.

Am I tachat God?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves today. Am I trying to do something no human can do? If so, is there another way to achieve a desirable outcome? Or am I acting like God when I should be acting like a human being toward someone? If so, how can I come down off my pedestal and have a true heart-to-heart conversation?

Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber

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

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

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

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

Bowing to the ground in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Identity Crisis

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

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

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

Vayeishev (“And he stayed”)

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

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

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

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

hakker (הַכֶּר) = recognize, identify.

na (נָא) = please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

detail by John Singer Sargent

detail by John Singer Sargent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikeitz (“In the end”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayiggash (“And he stepped forward”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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