Archive for December, 2012

December 27, 2012 4:42 am CDT

Vayehi–In the Interests of Peace

[After Jacob’s death] Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and  pays us back for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they sent this message to Joseph: “Before his death, your father enjoined us, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers  and the wrong they did in harming you.’  Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”  (Gen 50:15-16)

There is no prior description of this injunction by Jacob, leaving many interpreters to suspect that the injunction is the creation of the brothers, born out of fear of a revenge Joseph might still encompass.  If so, the Rabbis of the Talmud had no problem with it.  One ruled that, in view of this text, “it is permitted to modify a statement in the interests of peace”; another added that indeed, it was a sacred responsibility (mitzvah) to do so.  (Yebamot 65b)

December 27, 2012 4:39 am CDT

Vayehi–Full Circle

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely take notice of you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and  to Jacob.” So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, “When God takes notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”  (Gen. 50:24-25)

Previously, when Joseph told his story, his coming to Egypt is presented as saving his family and the lives of many others as well (Gen 45:7, 50:20).  Now, at his death, he returns to the narrative of Israel and the land, where leaving Egypt becomes identified with deliverance.  Joseph asks that, in death, his bones share in that return.  His words prove prophetic in Exodus 3:16, where God uses the same words “take notice” to announce the deliverance to Israel.

Moses himself takes the bones of Joseph up to Canaan (Exodus 13:9).   The Mishnah  (Sotah 1:7,9) sees this as an illustration of the principle “by the measure you mete out to others, it shall be meted out to you,” since Joseph had previously undertaken the trip to Canaan to bury his father Jacob (Gen. 50:2-14).   “Ultimately, those bones were buried in Shechem (Josh 24:32), the very city to which Jacob had sent Joseph, then a brash teenager, at the beginning of this astonishing tale of discord and reconciliation in the family that bears God’s promise (Gen 37:13).” (Jon Levenson, Jewish Study Bible)

December 19, 2012 11:55 pm CDT

Vayiggash–A Somber Happy Ending

“Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” (Jacob to Pharaoh, Genesis 47:9).

“Jacob’s somber summary of his own life echoes with a kind of complex solemnity against all that we have seen him undergo. He has, after all, achieved everything he aspired to achieve: the birthright, the blessing, marriage with his beloved Rachel, progeny, and wealth. But one measure of the profound moral realism of the story is that although he gets everything he wanted, it is not in the way he would have wanted, and the consequence is far more pain than contentment. From his “clashing” (25:22) with his twin in the womb, everything has been a struggle. He displaces Esau, but only at the price of fear and lingering guilt and long exile. He gets Rachel, but only by having Leah imposed on him, with all the domestic strife that entails, and he loses Rachel early in childbirth. He is given a new name by his divine adversary, but comes away with a permanent wound. He gets the full solar year number of 12 sons, but there is enmity among them (for which he bears some responsibility), and he spends 22 years continually grieving over his favorite son, who he believes is dead. This is, in sum, a story with a happy ending that withholds any simple feeling of happiness at the end.”  Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 273.

December 19, 2012 11:52 pm CDT

Vayiggash–Volunteered slavery

[The Egyptian farmers say to Joseph] “‘Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.’ So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh.”  (Gen. 47:19-20)

Joseph thus becomes the agent of Egypt’s program of centralization of power and ownership.

A number of modern commentators defend Joseph’s actions by placing them “in the context of the ancient near Eastern world, by whose norms Joseph emerges here as a shrewd, successful, and highly admirable administrator.” Perhaps.  But the arrangement here seems not too distant from the forced labor in the service of the state that the Israelites will be subject to after Joseph’s death. So I find Joseph’s actions troubling, and I wonder if the writer of the story did as well.

We have just survived an election campaign in which the specter of excessive state power was raised on both the right and left. This story illustrates both the need for a strong state and the abuse of its power. On the one hand, the centralized food relief campaign got Egypt through the seven years of famine. On the other hand, we see the state commandeering the farmers’ surplus grain during the seven years of plenty and then selling it back to the people who grew it at the price of their land and their freedom.

December 13, 2012 11:19 am CDT

Miketz—Assimilated Joseph

They served [Joseph] by himself, and [his brothers] by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.  (Gen. 43:32)

My friend Mem Movshin introduced me to a fascinating angle on the Joseph story: Joseph is the prototype of the assimilated Jew.

He lives in Egypt.  He not only works for the Egyptian government, but has risen to a position of exceptional prominence there.   He speaks Egyptian (indeed, he pretends not to know Hebrew; 42:23).  His dress is Egyptian.  His wife is Egyptian.

The point here is not to disparage Joseph or lessen his stature in the patriarchal pantheon.  The point is that assimilation has been part of the Jewish story for a very long time.

So in 43:32, we find the Egyptians eating at the Egyptian table.  The sons of Jacob are seated at the separate Canaanite table, on account of an Egyptian food taboo*.  And Joseph is at a table by himself.  Does his isolation stem from his Hebrew origins?  Or from his newfound social status in Egypt?  Either way, the awkwardness of his position is one that will become familiar to many assimilated Jews.  At the same time, this position not only insures not only Joseph’s survival, but the survival of the family who had long since left him for dead.


*variously explained by commentators ancient and modern.  Targum Onkelos: “the Hebrews ate the cattle that the Egyptians worshipped.”  Sarna:  “Egyptian particularism asserted itself here because the Hebrews were shepherds—an abhorrent profession (46:34)—and because they ate sheep—an abomination to Egyptians (Ex. 8:22).”

December 13, 2012 11:16 am CDT

Miketz—Feeling His Way

Then Joseph made haste, for his heart yearned for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there.  (Gen. 43:30)

We know that Joseph, while maintaining an outward composure, is overcome by strong emotions.   His encounter with his older brothers (see previously at 42:24) and now with Benjamin, moves him to tears.   We can put various names to these emotions: regret, loss, loneliness, love, hate, anger, and so on.  He has a superfluity of reasons to weep.

We don’t know what he’s thinking, though.  His decisions to accuse his brothers of espionage, to hold Simeon hostage, to return their money in secret, and to plant the goblet on Benjamin, are all presented without any indication of Joseph’s intent.  Together, they create the conditions for a kind of test which the brothers pass (in next week’s parsha).   Interpreters are therefore free to conclude (and many have) that Joseph knows what he’s doing in all this, that he is orchestrating events to bring this specific test about.

For my part, I’m inclined to attribute less control to Joseph.  He’s not orchestrating, he’s improvising.  In the throes of his strong emotions, he concocts circumstances that both bind the brothers to him and incriminate them, circumstances which mirror his past history with them and his present ambivalence towards them.  Out of this embodiment of their relationship, the reconciliation emerges—because, deep down, that’s what everyone wants.

December 6, 2012 1:50 pm CDT

Vayeishev–Joseph in the Koran, Part One

She [Potiphar’s wife] made for him [Joseph], and he would have succumbed to her if he had not seen evidence of his Lord.  Sura 12, Joseph, v. 24.

This week’s parsha begins the story of Joseph, which happens to be the biblical story that is told most thoroughly in the Koran.  While the Koran contains many references and statements about biblical figures, this chapter, Sura 12,  is the only time an entire story is told. There are many unusual details in the Koran’s version; most of these are paralleled in Jewish midrashim.

One motif paralleled  in some Jewish sources is that Joseph is sorely tempted by Mrs. P’s advances. In the Koran, unspecified divine “evidence” is provided to strengthen Joseph’s resolve, with the further explanation that “We did this in order to keep evil and indecency away from him, for he was truly one of Our chosen servants.”

In some early Jewish interpretations, Joseph is protected at this moment by Jacob’s teachings.  This would explain why Joseph describes adultery as “a sin against God,” and not merely a sin on the social level.  Ancient Jewish interpreters (who in general assumed that the patriarchs must have had full access to all of Torah) held that Joseph would have learned this “Ten Commandments” view of adultery from Jacob.  In  Joseph and Aseneth (a 1st century retelling of the Joseph story) we are told that Joseph “always had the face of his father Jacob before his eyes, and he remembered his father’s commandments.”

In the Midrash and Talmud, Jacob literally appears before Joseph’s eyes in a vision at the height of his temptation. “”He saw the image of his father and his desire departed.” (Genesis Rabbah) “At that moment the image of his father Jacob appeared to him in the window. He said to him: Joseph, your brothers are destined to have their names written on the priestly breastplate, and yours is amongst theirs. Do you want it to be erased?” (Sotah).

December 6, 2012 1:44 pm CDT

Vayeishev–Joseph in the Koran, Part Two

In the end they thought it best, after seeing all the signs of his innocence, that they should imprison him for a while.  Sura 12, Joseph, v. 35.

A wonderfully cynical little verse.  It conforms with some of the Jewish traditions which assert that Potiphar actually knew his wife’s accusation was false, and therefore he did not have Joseph killed; however he had Joseph imprisoned to save the honor of his wife and children.

How did Potiphar know his wife was lying?   In the Koran, the very garment that she holds up as evidence of Joseph’s crime vindicates Joseph upon closer inspection.  “A member of her household suggested, ‘If his shirt is torn at the front, then it is she who is telling the truth and he who is lying, but if it is torn at the back, then she is lying and he is telling the truth.'” (v.27)

But when the women of the court deride Mrs. P for her attraction to Joseph, she orders Joseph to show himself to them.  They swoon over his great beauty.  Joseph, for his part, decides he would be safer in jail, as a kind of protective custody.  Joseph said, “My Lord! I would prefer prison to what these women are calling me to do. If You do not protect me from their treachery, I shall yield to them and do wrong,’ and his Lord answered his prayer.” (v. 33-4)