My 80th – The Pearly Gates Are Within Sight

My 80th – The Pearly Gates Are Within Sight


Howard Adelman

On Saturday evening, my wife, Nancy, threw an eightieth birthday party for me. Thank you, Lynne; the food was terrific It was a wonderful event. Sixty family and friends attended. There would have been more, but colds and the flu kept many away. Further, most of my children and their children were scattered around the world. Nancy, thank you from, not the bottom of my heart, but from my brain.

Archimedes, and Greek philosophers in general, thought that feelings and thoughts were both housed in the heart and that as the heart filled with blood, it came out of the top. Thus, what came from the top was surplus blood. It was shallow. However, if you wanted to plumb the depths of thought and emotion, you said, “from the bottom of my heart.”

The problem is that the Greeks never knew or recognized the theory of the circulatory system understood fully by the Egyptians who had done their anatomy. The brain is the real seat of thought and emotion.

On Wednesday evening, we had returned from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. We had been visiting my son, Daniel, his wife, Jess, little Leo and his adorable newly-born baby sister and my new granddaughter, Maren. On Thursday, I attended the funeral of my cousin, Gil, who died earlier that week, Birth and death were clearly on my mind. Saturday afternoon, when I clued in that there might be some speeches to honour me, I thought I should prepare a few notes. I decided I would talk about my 80th year as my last rite of passage before the finish line to which we will all arrive and none of us will cross. I thought I might talk about E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, and the verses of Walt Whitman’s poem from which the phrase had been drawn.

I will save those notes for a future blog.

When my eldest son, who had flown up from Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife and three kids, gave a speech telling everyone present what he had learned from his father, I had to interject and tell them the story of how, when I helped this illustrious historian write an essay in high school, he received the lowest mark he ever got in History. When his three children, Sadie, Jo-Jo and Sammy, told everyone what they had learned from their saba – how I taught them to win at cards and chess – I began to have serious doubts about the notes I had prepared. Then Natalie Fingerhut, a former student, offered an encomium on how important an influence I had been on her life. (see attached) Again I interjected. Because she had not sufficiently learned the principle of truth, I would take back the A I had given her on an essay.

Then James Nguyen spoke saying how important I had been to him and other Vietnamese for my work with the Boat People. For he had been a 7-year-old in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Malaysia. His wife, Francine, had also come to Canada as a child from a refugee camp. If not for me, he declared, their 18-month-old daughter, whom they had brought to the party, would not likely be here.

I was overwhelmed. I knew I could not talk about a rite of passage when James had just talked about the treacherous passage he and his family had made by boat to escape Vietnam and the several hundred thousand who never made it. Then Anton, the young son of my niece, Debbie, stood up and sang a song about dreamers. I did not recognize the song. But it was not from La La Land, or so I thought. As I racked my small musical brain, I thought of how many songs were about realizing your visions

Not just dreams about another – “Dream a Little Dream of Me” – or of escapism – “All I have to do is Dream of You” or “Dreamin’ of You” – or the classic of all time, “Over the Rainbow.” There are impossible dreams, unreachable dreams, utopian dreams – John Lennon’s “Imagine” – dreams of frustration, “Sweet Dreams” and sour dreams, nostalgic dreams and dreams of inability to recover a lost love – “Some dreams are made of this” – emotion or friendship – “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”

“With haunted hearts through the heat and cold

We never thought we would ever grow old

We thought we could sit forever in fun

But our chances were really a million to one.”

But this was a song about realizing and enacting one’s vision. And I knew what I would talk about – a dream that is part of our culture, one with which everyone is familiar, but few know. I had been thinking long and hard recently about the Pearly Gates – really, twelve gates each made of a huge pearl. George Bernard Shaw called them “the visions of a drug addict.”

The vision is included in Revelation, especially chapter 21.  In Christian lore, they are the gates to heaven; human sinners are judged before they are allowed to pass. If one has sincerely accepted Jesus as one’s saviour, if one has surrendered one’s soul to Christ, then only via the intercession of Jesus could one be saved for a life ever after in heaven.

In Jewish lore, however, and if you read the plain meaning of the text in Revelation, the gates are not openings to heaven, but to the New Jerusalem on earth. Further, the gates offer a paradox. They are always open. They are never closed. But somehow, no one ever passes through the gates. For passage requires both that the nephesh, the soul, the spirit of the person who approaches the gates, to be pure. He or she cannot be sullied by the mendacious, the rapacious and the salacious. One must be true to oneself and thereby truthful with others. One cannot treat others as an object, a thing to be used for self-satisfaction. And one cannot treat the relationship of self-to-other other than with clean hands, a clean heart and a clean mind. One cannot be a sinner, even one who confesses and accepts Jesus as his saviour.

But the shortcomings of the self are not the only problem. The New Jerusalem must be built on this earth. It is a city always bathed in light with the streets paved with gold. Whether one is righteous or unrighteous, all those who die approach the gates. They are now in Sheol, the realm of the dead awaiting the construction of the New Jerusalem.

The Sheol is distinctive. If the New Jerusalem is bathed in eternal light, the land before the gates is wrapped in darkness. Light does not penetrate. Rather, it is like a Black Hole that sucks up all the light around. There is nothing to see even if one could see. And there is nothing to hear, only a deathly silence. Surprisingly, it is a place without memories. That is important, for the judgments of the dead will not be made by others who died. For to judge these souls, one must have memories. The jury will consist of those who knew you in life and can truly remember who you were and what you did. The jury consists of those who knew you and live after you. Therefore, those in the room constituted my jury. They were akin to an Athenian court or a Jewish Sanhedrin. Those who remain on earth must judge my soul when it gets to Sheol.

The mistake most readers make is to interpret this vision as located in space. And interpret one must. For there are almost as many interpretations as there are souls residing in Sheol. Certainly, the metaphor is a spatial one. The walls which the gates cut through is made of jasper – red, orange, green and red – polished silicone gems, but neither rare nor valuable stones. The gates themselves are the valuable jewels – rare and fine. They are always nacreous and iridescent in the darkness of the Sheol. They are mammoth pearls, platelets of laminated aragonite reflecting each year of one’s life, but not one’s virtues or achievements.

That is the surprise. For pearls are an immune response to a foreign element that contaminates the purity of the mollusc. The mollusc forms a pearl sac to wall off the infestation. Pearls are analogous to the huge painting that hangs in my former library painted by my daughter, Shonagh. It is a painting of a phagocyte capturing an antigen to enwrap it in a cloudy and milky white haze.

Therefore, we are not to be judged primarily by our achievements, as the encomiums I received seemed to believe. The pearls reflect and hold fast the foreign bodies that prevent us from passing through the pearly gates. Instead we are hurled back into the darkness of the Sheol. We become after death the rephaim, not the giants of the past, but the shades, the shadows that haunt your presence and your future, that impact your lives because the foreign, alien and impure elements have been captured in the pearls to allow the rephaim to shadow the next generation and even the next until the rephaim gradually fade away forever.

For nothing unclean, nothing dirty, nothing untruthful, nothing vicious must pass through the pearly gates. Since we are indeed all sinners, we are obligated to use and transfer and imprint on the next generation our virtues. And that can only be done when our sins are expunged by those pearly gates and we are sent back as shadows to haunt those coming next. My legacy will not be the memories of me left behind, but of me expunged of sin by the pearly gates and, if I truly am to have an impact, of those expunged sins. That means that it is more important to recognize my sins rather than my accomplishments. The imprint by myself on the lives of others, by myself cleansed of sin and raised on a pedestal is not as important as recognizing the sins I committed that are captured and reflected in the pearly gates.

It is not me that is worthy of praise, but they who have absorbed the purified virtues and applied those virtues to constructing a better future. As I pass in the deep darkness before the pearly gates, they must reflect on the light reflected in those pearls of the captured and enwrapped vices that belong to the darkness, and allow the purified virtues to guide their lives.

That is not me. It will be the shadow of myself expunged of sin. But we must not forget the sins.


An Encomium by Natalie Fingerhut


As some of you know, I had the privilege of being raised by two Canadian giants, the late Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and Professor Howard Adelman.

Last night, I had the honor of speaking at Howard’s 80th birthday.


Every Tuesday for two years, when I was 22, I spent the morning at Holy Blossom Temple working with the late Rabbi Plaut on a book about the moral foundations of refugee law. At precisely 11:00, Rabbi Plaut would call to me from his office on the second floor to the then library where I did my reading: “Miss Fingerhut, you had better leave now or you will be late for the professor.” Never one to argue with Rabbi Plaut, I dutifully packed up my books, waved goodbye, walked to the Eglinton West subway, north to the last stop, and got on the York University bus which dropped me off in front of York Lanes and up to the 3rd floor to the Centre for Refugee Studies and begin my afternoon work as Professor Howard Adelman’s research assistant.

Those Tuesdays were quite the education. But it was an education that I did not fully appreciate at the time. It is only now, as I approach 50, that I can fully grasp what it meant to have these two Canadian heroes in my life, to have access to their unique minds when my own mind was still forming, and most important, to watch them do. And watch Howard I did. In meetings where a tough decision had to be made, he would listen to opinions and then actually make a decision himself thereby illustrating to me the benefits of benevolent dictatorship. I watched him take on all intellectual comers and noted the confidence he had when holding court because he knew that he had done his homework and that taught me that if I wanted to be taken seriously by people like Howard Adelman, I had to be very prepared. And I watched him take on people like a leader of the Heritage Front who he disarmed without raising his voice. I learned through Howard that research, confidence, and a big personality equaled getting big things done. That I was in awe of Howard is an understatement.

To this day, I’m not quite sure what inspired a pretty nutty decision on my part to take a graduate philosophy class with Howard during my MA. I was a struggling history student at U of T and figured I had nothing to lose. So, in I walked into a class filled with philosophy graduate students in a course entitled: The Philosophy of Refugees. I knew nothing about philosophy. Nothing. But I knew that I wanted Howard to think I was a smart kid, and so rather than shutting down the bars on Queen St like I had so many times in past, I shut down Robarts Library.

I wound up getting an A in Howard’s class. I was so shocked that I showed the York University bus driver the mark to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

But the most significant lesson that I learned from Howard was simply this: You can’t just talk. You have to act. It likely drives my husband and kids crazy that I have taken this to be my motto in life, but given the teacher, how could I not. When someone is suffering, when a good cause needs a hand, I channel Howard, and I act.

Howard: it has been one of the greatest and unique privileges of my life to have known you as I did, as a lost kid who has tried as an adult to give what you gave to me to others. There is little that I have done that does not have your imprint on it.
Thank you.


Names and Games: Joseph’s Politics

Names and Games: Joseph’s Politics – Mikeitz Genesis 41-44


Howard Adelman

After Joseph was made Prime Minister of Egypt by Pharaoh and was renamed Zaphenath Pa’neah, and after he married Asenath (“she who belongs to the goddess Neith”) who was the daughter of the governor of On, Poti-phera (“whom Ra has given”), why does Joseph name his firstborn son, Manasseh (“God caused me to forget all of my father’s house,” ch. 51) and his second son, Ephraim (“God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Ch. 52)? After all, Manasseh is about the past, forgetting that past. Ephraim is about the present, the wealth and power Joseph currently enjoyed in Egypt. But Joseph came to power, not because of his past, but in spite of it, not because of his status at the time, for he achieved that status suddenly and precipitously after being a prisoner in a dungeon. He came into his position of power and wealth because he could interpret dreams and read the future. He was a diviner. Yet his first son was named in relationship to the past and his second in relationship to the present.

Naming is always very significant in the Torah. In terms of Joseph’s new name, scholars have suggested that Zaphenath is an early transcription error and that the name was probably Zat-en-aph. It means, “He who is called,” though other commentators have suggested that the name means “a revealer of secrets.” Since “Panea” is probably derived from the Egyptian word, “aneah,” ankh or ankhu, meaning “is alive,” Joseph’s new name, “Zaphenath Pa’aneah” is usually interpreted to mean, “he who is called Anakh” or “God speaks and he lives.”

It is God who was responsible for saving Joseph’s life through the serendipity of Judah suggesting that he be traded for money rather than allowed to be torn apart by wild animals. It is God who is responsible for the serendipity of the chance passing of the slave traders who were off to Egypt. It is God who is responsible for the attempt of Potiphar’s wife to seduce him and his rejection of her advances, either because he was not attracted to her or because he felt a strong loyalty to her husband or because he feared the consequences or a mixture of all three or because he was uninterested in women altogether. That rejection and her trumped-up charges led to his being thrown into prison.

It is God who is responsible then for Joseph’s chance meeting with the butler and the baker and his interpretation of their dreams. The butler survives, is released from prison, gets his old job back as a cup-bearer, hears of Pharaoh’s dream and informs Pharaoh of Joseph’s unique gift of divination. Though Pharaoh calls Joseph to explain his (Pharaoh’s) dreams about the fat and the thin cattle, the healthy wheat and the shrivelled stalks, Joseph would not be in that place at that time without God’s efforts to raise Joseph up and give him a new name and a new life as a wealthy and powerful Prime Minister of Egypt. Further, Joseph then insists that, “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:16) Later, he will forget God as the source of his well-being.

What about Asenath? She belongs to the goddess Neith, the Egyptian god of war and hunting. One thinks back to Esau and envisions Joseph marrying a female version of his uncle. But if Esau was easy going, Neith is fierce. She carries the symbol of those Hebraic twins in the form of two bows that face one another on her shield. Neith has a fiery fury and is associated with rapids and the primordial waters of creation. She carries the scepter that is the symbol of power and authority. Like Joseph, she is the protector of the royal house of the Pharaoh. She is also a goddess who can give birth without having had sex, important because Joseph may have been gay and uninterested in having sex with Asenath. Neith is also the symbol of ankh, life that is part of Joseph’s new name.

The couple have two sons. Manasseh is the eldest, the first of a long line of successors bearing the same name, beginning with the son and successor to King Hezekiah (Kings 21:1). According to Matthew, Manasseh was an ancestor of Jesus as well as of men who divorced their foreign wives in bursts of Jewish puritanism. In the final descent, Manasseh was the patriarch of dissident idolatrous priests. It should be no surprise that future generations largely avoided the name Manasseh.

Joseph in his new life has all but forgotten his nine brothers who sold him into slavery, forgotten Reuben, his oldest brother who failed to save him, and even his younger beloved full brother, Benjamin. Not once did Joseph when he was all powerful inquire into the well-being of his father, Jacob. One can imagine that, as he became more powerful, he became even more narcissistic. And Manasseh was the symbol of that forgetting, for the name is derived from the verb נשה (nasha) meaning forget. If Joseph in his new life was given a new name and a new life and a name that meant life, his first son’s name was connected with נשם (nasham) meaning to breathe or gasp for life. If Joseph was the epitome of life lived to its fullest in an exhibition of power and authority, his eldest son found it difficult to breathe in a world in which Joseph’s past had been forgotten and even buried.

At least until his brothers were sent down to Egypt in search of food during the famine, Joseph had moved upward and away from his life as a shepherd to fulfill the destiny set out in his early dreams. But he had not yet witnessed his success through his brothers bowing down before him. He had moved away. He had moved up in the world. Manasseh was the symbol of that. For נשׂא (nasa’) means precisely moving up and away. Joseph had accomplished this because he had proven to be an oracle, משא (massa). But had he lifted himself up through his powers of divination or been lifted up? Did he hold his head up in independence and pride or, alternatively, in supplication? In carrying the enormous responsibilities of state, did he also carry a huge burden of guilt for his forgetfulness? Was Manasseh the projection of that forgetfulness?

But there is another side to Manasseh. Joseph takes a personal interest when he learns that his brothers have come down to Egypt to buy food. But they have come without Benjamin for Jacob would not risk the departure of the youngest son of his beloved Rachel. So while Joseph takes an inordinate interest, נשׁא (nasha), in these lowly Hebrews, he enters into a long family drama to both beguile and deceive (נשׁא – nasha) them, just as his mother deceived her father, Laban, when she stole his idols, as his father deceived Isaac when he stole Esau’s blessing. Joseph comes from a heritage of deception. As he espies his brothers, he charges them with being spies.

But נשה (nasha) also means to lend on credit. When Abraham first came down to Canaan, he refused to accept a gravesite as a gift. He insisted on paying for it. The brothers too come down to Egypt to pay for food. But Joseph ordered his minions to put the money of his brothers back into their sacks unbeknownst to them. And when they returned a second time, with both the original money as well as new money to once again pay for their food, Joseph had insisted that he would not acknowledge them unless they brought their brother with him on a second visit. This time, they came with Benjamin in tow in order to free Simeon and prove their honesty.

Once again, Joseph tricks them and not only puts back all their money into their packets, but puts his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then, after they leave, he sends his men after them to accost them and discover the goblet in Benjamin’s pack, but only after his brothers echo Jacob’s pledge to Laban when he sought his stolen idols. “Whichever one of your servants with whom it is found shall die, and also we will be slaves to my master.” (44:9) So Manasseh becomes the symbol not only of forgetting, but using all the variegated meanings of his name to connote a special way of re-enactment, remembering and recalling.

What about Joseph’s second son, Ephraim, the son whose name stands for and evokes the present wealth and status of Joseph? For Ephraim derives from פרה (para), to bear fruit or be fruitful. Joseph had been fruitful and bore two sons. Joseph enjoyed the fruits of his divining and management skills and had become wealthy and powerful. But there was a dark side. Joseph had forgotten his God and his father. When his brothers arrived, he remembered. He inquired after his father’s welfare after the passage of so many years. His father was still alive and still in mourning – for his wife Rachel who died in childbirth and for his favourite son whom he had come to believe had been eaten by wild animals when sent on a spying mission for him to look at what his brothers were up to.

The name Ephraim comes from פרס (paras) which also means to break in two or divide, a breach as in an agreement or covenantal arrangement with God. Joseph had violated his covenant with God as he became caught up with his status, with his position, with his wealth and with his power. Joseph had forgotten his father and his God. His two children were reminders both of the forgetting and the new idolatry into which he had sold himself and become enslaved. This is the core of the story, built on the multiple meanings of the two names of his children and the divide between the forgetting of the past and the glorying in the present. The text is also a series of twice-told tales as signs of the cosmic importance of what is being told. (In the appendix, I include Act 3, scene 4 of one of William Shakespeare’s lesser historical plays, The Life and Death of King John, to emphasize the importance of twice-told tales and repetition in literature and what they signify.)

Jacob repeats his words: “And take your brother, and get up, go back to the man. And may the Almighty God grant you compassion before the man, and he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin, and as for me as I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” [my italics] (Genesis 43:13-14) As Joseph told Pharaoh when he first met him and after Pharaoh told him his two dreams, “And concerning the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh twice, that is because the matter is ready [to emanate] from God, and God is hastening to execute it.” (Genesis 41:32) Because of the importance, because of the immanence, all must be a twice-told tale and each told in two different ways but saying the same thing, and each an echo of an earlier tale that, rather than becoming hackneyed through the repeated telling, gains breadth and depth.

Look at the number of twice-told tales in this one section:
1. Pharaoh’s two dreams – of the seven healthy and seven emaciated cows and the seven ears of healthy grain and then the seven thin and withered stalks.
2. There is a butler and a baker, each with dreams, but opposite interpretations and outcomes.
3. Pharaoh retells his two dreams twice to Joseph, the second time with a bit of elaboration – “I have not seen such ugly ones throughout the entire land of Egypt.”
4. There are two political authorities, that of Pharaoh and that of his second in command, Joseph. The latter is given a raiment of fine silk, a signet ring, a golden chain around his neck as symbols of his authority, as well as a chariot of the second rank. And we recall Tamar, the foremother of King David, taking Judah’s signet ring, his leader’s staff and belt as identifiers as surety for his promise of payment of a goat in return for sexual favours.
5. Joseph has the two sons mentioned above who mirror the present facing but forgetting the past.
6. When his ten brothers come down to Egypt and prostrate themselves before Joseph to buy grain and do not recognize him, we readers recognize the repeat of Joseph’s vision of the ten sheaves of whet bowing down to an eleventh.
7. Then there is Joseph’s accusation that the brothers are spies which adumbrates the story of the twelve spies, each from the tribe descended from one of the brothers, who were sent by Moses to spy on the land of Canaan; in this case, the accusation of coming from Canaan to spy on Egypt is a false charge.
8. Then there is the irony of the guilt the brothers felt when their brother Simeon is kept in prison and they all recognize that, “we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.” But it is that very brother, live and well, who is now causing them so much stress.
9. Reuben, just as he was when he believed that Joseph had been killed by wild animals, is distressed the most. He remonstrates his other brothers: “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his [Benjamin’s] blood, too, is being demanded!”
10. Just as Joseph went to prison when he first went to Israel, so Joseph put Simeon in prison. Recall from last week’s blog, it was Simeon along with Levi who kill all the adult males of Shechem in revenge for the “rape” of Dinah. Simeon was the rashest of the brothers, but very strong and fearless. He was also the one who was probably most jealous of Joseph. Did Simeon propose Joseph be killed? Did he push Joseph into the pit? There is much speculation on this given Simeon’s character and his relationship to Joseph. And this is an instance of what goes around comes around.
11. Putting their money secretly in their sacks echoes and should remind his brothers that they sold Joseph into slavery so they could put money in their sacks.
12. They keep repeating that they are honest, and Joseph insists on their proving their honesty, reminding us how they lied to their father about Joseph’s death.
13. In the meanwhile, Jacob is even more bereaved than ever. He lost Joseph – so he thinks. He lost Simeon who is now in jail. And he believes he might now lose Benjamin. This is an echo of Judah who lost two sons and withheld the third from Tamar only to have the breech in customary law reverberate against him so that it is he who fathers the child by his son’s widow.
14. The brothers travel twice to Egypt to purchase food. Two times, the money they paid was put back in their sacks. On the second trip on their return, twice the last payment was put there. Everything is a sign of double trouble and a message of the seriousness of each event.
15. Jacob prays: “may the Almighty God grant you compassion before the man, and he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin, and as for me as I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” (Genesis 43:14)
16. Twice the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph just as Joseph dreamed twice that they would.

The whole of the parshat is an echo chamber. What is the connection between this doubling down and Joseph’s rising up out of the pit and going away? As Medici says twice in the first two segments of the Netflix series, deception is right if it serves a higher good. Unlike his father, Joseph did not practice deception out of self-interest, but in order to give his brothers time to become conscious and confess the error of their ways. He wanted them to discover and admit the truth about themselves instead of his confronting them directly with it. Joseph is the one who abandons political practice radically among the Israelites, shifting from the appeasement and cowardice of Abraham, the impotent politics of Isaac, a man suffering from PTSD, the politics of deception of his own father. He becomes the progenitor of a politics based on foreseeing and planning for the future where dreams foretell reality and deception is used to achieve a higher good. Finally, the Hebrews have developed, through Joseph’s example, a politics in which deceit is only used for lofty purposes. The nation finally has an ethical foundation to its spirit.

That is why Joseph is named, “God speaks and he (Joseph) lives.” And he lives on in us when we practice the art of honest politics.

Appendix: Act 3, scene 4 of Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John

The play is about the ethical beginnings of the British realm, the period when the Magna Carta was forged. In this scene, it is the French King, Philip, who is in despair. His fleet had been scattered into the winds. Angiers has been lost. Arthur Plantagenet, son of John’s elder brother, Richard, has been taken prisoner. Pandulph offers false comfort. Lewis, acknowledges that the loss is unprecedented. To be unique, however, in this sense is to be ashamed and to be unable to discover meaning in the loss.

K. Phi. So, by a roaring tempest on the flood,
A whole armado of convicted sail
Is scatter’d and disjoin’d from fellowship.
Pand. Courage and comfort! all shall yet go well.
K. Phi. What can go well when we have run so ill?
Are we not beaten? Is not Angiers lost?
Arthur ta’en prisoner? divers dear friends slain?
And bloody England into England gone,
O’erbearing interruption, spite of France?
Lew. What he hath won that hath he fortified:
So hot a speed with such advice dispos’d,
Such temperate order in so fierce a cause,
Doth want example: who hath read or heard
Of any kindred action like to this?
K. Phi. Well could I bear that England had this praise,
So we could find some pattern of our shame.

But then Constance, the mother of the captured Arthur, makes the King’s despair look feeble in one of the greatest passages of grief in literature:

Because my poor child is a prisoner.
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven.
If that be true, I shall see my boy again;
For since the birth of Cain, the first male child,
To him that did but yesterday suspire,
There was not such a gracious creature born.
But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud
And chase the native beauty from his cheek,
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an ague’s fit,
And so he’ll die; and, rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heaven
I shall not know him: therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.
Pand. You hold too heinous a respect of grief.
Const. He talks to me, that never had a son.
K. Phi. You are as fond of grief as of your child.
Const. Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, [my italics]
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

Constance exits followed by King Philip to check and ensure she will not harm herself. Lewis then comments:

There’s nothing in this world can make me joy:
Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, [my italics]
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man;
And bitter shame hath spoil’d the sweet world’s taste,
That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.

The speech is, of course, ironic, because it is the twice-told tale that is anything but tedious for the repetition reveals the cosmic import of the events.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Joseph: Power and Deception

Joseph: Power and Deception

Parshat Miketz: Genesis 43:16 – 44:11


Howard Adelman

I will summarize the story, but in my version of the lineal order and without the flashbacks that so enhance the suspense. Miketz means “at the end,” for we are coming to the end of the story of Joseph. And we are coming to the end of one cycle of deception and trickery in the exploration of the exercise of power. Instead of starting with the story and then providing an interpretation, the re-telling of the tale follows the revelation of the emotions at work and their meaning as I insinuate and introduce what I believe is the underlying sense of the story.

This is a story of loss, not simply famine in the land, but of famine in one’s heart. For although Joseph is given a wife by the Pharaoh, there is an emptiness, a longing. His heart is impoverished and he yearns to be reunited with his father and his brothers. Perhaps it is the incurable feeling of a boy whose mother died at the birth of his younger brother. It is a story that depends on fear, relieving the predisposition to fear when a stranger comes to a strange land and then escalating that fear. Then relieving it once again only to take that fear to an even higher level and greater degree of intensity.

By gradually increasing the strength of the apparent causes for that fear, without ever revealing the true underlying cause, the drama of the story follows the natural course of any tale of terror and story of fear and trembling. The fact that it is induced by a brother who was once sold into slavery, but is now in a position of power, the fact that the brother who is now in a position of power plays with his brothers and their fears as they do not recognize who he is, adds to the irony and terror of the tale. Joseph behaves as at once imperial and impressive and at other times as exhibiting the greatest self-effacement – than in itself an irony – and modesty. This only exacerbates the feeling of total confusion.

Joseph appears to be gratuitously cruel and merciless in his behaviour towards his brothers, adding to their misery by his capacious and beneficial treatment of them. The fact that the maliciousness appears to be unprovoked, that it seemingly has no roots in their behaviour, makes their suffering all the more intense, especially when everything Joseph seems to do does not seem to be rooted in any inimical motives. The unrestrained and excessive painful treatment plays against the luxuriant excess to which they are otherwise treated. To suffer such wanton orders, both in the direction of profligacy alternating with denial, to be so mean and at the same time, playful with one’s kin from a reader’s perspective, but subjecting them to the most ineffable behaviour, made all the worse by its alterations with mercy from above, is to offer a tale of trouble and turbulence.

Joseph is now in charge. He makes the choices. He determines the action. He is the agent of power. His brothers become putty in his hand, deprived of any control over their own actions. The once precocious, precious and preeminent gleam in his father’s eye has come into his own. Yet Joseph’s actions do not seem to be motivated by spite or an accumulation of vitriol. His actions do not seem heinous, but, upon understanding, seem even more ignominious. He creates situations which justify his actions as if dictated by the objective truth, whereas, personally, he has always behaved towards his brothers with kindness. Of course, this exaggerates their confusion. Rather than vitiating the horror of Joseph’s treatment of his bothers, the sense of their discomfort and then dread is increasingly enhanced as the vicissitudes of fortune and misfortune shift back and forth.

Note that the only truth in the tale is the truth of dreams, the truth of prophecy. The everyday experience of the brothers is of deception when they do not even know they are being played as fools. Veracity is sacrificed for a higher plain of revelation. And the actions are carried out, not by the Pharaoh who will one day visit the same treatment on the Israelites when they try to escape Egypt four hundred years later, but by their own flesh and blood, who, if he has not usurped the authority of the Pharaoh, simply uses and abuses that authority and power for his own playing with the emotions of his brothers. This is really The Tempest, the stormy story of emotional storm emerging from a parched land.

Joseph’s behaviour is far more reckless than that of his brothers who first set out to kill him and then sold him into slavery. Their actions were direct and unabated. They no sooner decided what to do than they carried out their act of villainy. But if their actions were foolhardy and reckless, what of Joseph’s now? After all, why should the brothers be willing to sacrifice Benjamin possibly just to get Simeon back? They could all be taken hostage once they returned with Benjamin. As Joseph now acted in such an audacious and overbearing manner, as he acted in total disregard of his brothers’ emotional fluctuations, and indeed exacerbated them, as he had the effrontery to flout any risk of danger to them suggesting he felt absolute power over the situation, as he, as was his character when he was a boy who so irritated his older brothers, behaved indifferent to propriety and convention, indifferent to any sense of prudence that stood in such extreme contrast to how he behaved in saving for the common good in preventing starvation in a period of famine, Joseph’s impudence and arrogance, his showmanship and effrontery had only grown more extreme with his ascension of power as the overlord or vizier of Egypt. That expression was not an aberration but the expression of the full flowering of his personality.

So he behaved with a smile and a wink, with perfunctory orders while exuding charm and consideration as his brothers shrivelled before him. I realize the text says nothing of this, that it concentrates on laying out the bare facts of what took place, and that I have had to surmise what takes place in the hearts and minds of the main players. But, in that sense, this is precisely how a movie works, and this tale is more like a movie than any other selection in the Torah, a perfectly appropriate after his disappearance, response to a section that is about a dream world that is sometimes filled with nightmares. After his disappearance, Joseph re-appears on the scene as his brothers’ worst nightmare.

The concision of the narrative is so at odds with its emotional richness as each verse is suffused with one dramatic overlay after another so enriched by fluid and liquid colour that was once stitched into Joseph’s technicolour overcoat. Why is Joseph so unperturbed by how he treats his brothers, by the pain his father must feel when he has to send his final and most innocent son forth with his brothers to redeem Simeon? By keeping his motive in his treatment of them so recondite so that they are unable to plumb the meaning of their treatment, their confusion and disorientation mounts. How could a man of such power who, against all norms, stoops to eat with them, how could a man capable of such grandiose hospitality and apparent rectitude possibly be mistreating them? The situation is so literally queer, so unexpected, so unpredictable, that, given everything that has preceded, one cannot help but suspect that Joseph himself is queer, that his propensities are as repressed and hidden as his motives. That he is so punctilious and precise in everything he does just adds to the suspicion. Beneath that seemingly prosaic exterior there must be a promiscuous soul which the brothers cannot discern, but we, the readers, can.

As the story of Joseph continues, he is the effective vizier of Egypt having risen from a stripling of a boy sold off to slavery to become a master of the world’s then most powerful country. He had become the overlord of all of Egypt after both the Pharaoh’s butler and butcher told the Pharaoh of their experience with dream interpretation by a bondsman of the jailer, a Hebrew by the name of Joseph. And his prophecies about the meaning of their dreams had come true and they had both been let out of jail and returned to their positions.

Joseph is a puzzling character. Temperamentally abstemious – certainly with the wife of Porphyry – he is also a man who loves display and the grand dramatic gesture. While never seeming to be intoxicated with the power he has acquired, when he deals with his own brothers, he gets them drunk. Frivolity and excess are juxtaposed against his emotional restraint and control when he first encounters his cynosure, Benjamin, once again after a separation of so many years. His dishonest behaviour with his brothers may be totally reprehensible, but it pales into insignificance with the way they treated him. Joseph is now playing both his father, Jacob, and his uncle, Esau, combining blunt and even acerbic talk with dramatic over-the-top manipulation. This is far beyond the dissembling that any of the women in the Torah had previously practiced.

Is Joseph’s deceit of a very different order of magnitude than that of his brothers or the dissembling of his grandfather and grandmother, of his great-grandfather and great grandmother? For his trickery is not a singular ruse, but a novel in itself. Further, it combines all the intriguing qualities of various demonstrations of the “feminine ruse.”

So the Pharaoh called Joseph before him and told him of two dreams that his wisest advisers had not been able to unpack. It was the story of the seven fat cows which went down beside the river to be joined by seven thin and starving ones. In the second dream, there were seven rich and full stalks of grain beside seven withered stalks. In both dreams, the withered devoured the fat and healthy. Joseph said that they were both dreams about seven years of healthy crops and cattle to be followed by seven years of famine. The dream meant that during the seven fat years, food should be put away to be distributed during the lean years. Joseph told the Pharaoh to appoint an overlord to ensure the forced saving from the fat years. Convinced of Joseph’s brilliant discernment and how sagacious he was, the Pharaoh chose Joseph to be his overlord.

During the first lean year – Joseph would have been thirty-eight-years-old – ten Hebrew brothers came from the land of Canaan to buy grain from the Pharaoh’s grain stores, having been sent by their father to do so. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. He sold them the grain, but then stuffed the coins they paid back into their sacks without their knowing. His servants then accosted them just outside of town and then accused them, not only of theft, but of something far worse, of coming down from Canaan as spies. When they were brought back from the outskirts to Joseph’s house as supplicants, he ordered them to return to the land of their father and return with the youngest brother who was not with them. Joseph kept Simeon as surety for their return.

His half brothers, who sold him into slavery years earlier, return to redeem their brother. Did Joseph continue to keep his identity a secret lest his brothers come to believe that he was motivated in all he did by revenge and only interpret his behaviour as invidious? Simeon had been held hostage as assurance of their promised return. But they were all afraid. Something was not right. Why would a vizier of Egypt invite them to his personal home? Why had he sold them the grain they came for the first time, but stuffed their sacks with the very same coins that they had paid for that grain? Why had he accused them of spying? Why had they not been executed but asked to return with their youngest brother?

Jacob, their father, had sent waves and waves of gifts of sheep and goats to his estranged brother, Esau. Jacob had been very wary of Esau trying to fulfil the promise he made two decades earlier to kill him. The brothers were wary for a different reason; everything did not add up. They had not recognized their brother in his new position. If they had a hint that he was their brother, they would certainly be even more fearful, because they almost killed that brother but, instead, sold him into slavery. To get their money back for the grain they bought, to be invited to his personal home, then to be treated to a lavish banquet, wouldn’t you be suspicious? Would you not be quaking in your boots? Would you not be afraid that he would accuse you of theft and have all the brothers killed, especially now that they had returned with Benjamin as the vizier had ordered?  For, as we learn, this was the second time they had been caught and accused of theft.

The first time, they had been freed and Simeon held hostage. They had to return home as his emissaries. When the vizier had ordered that they could only redeem their brother if they returned with Benjamin, Reuben had pleaded with Joseph. We told you under duress that we had a father and a younger brother. We told you that the child left at home had been born when his father was old, that his only full brother had been killed, and that Jacob, their father, having lost his one son of his most beloved Rachel, would be devastated if they required that they return now with Benjamin. But Joseph was unmoved. Once again they pleaded. This would kill their father. Please do not ask this of us. Joseph was unrelenting and thoroughly unscrupulous.

Their father would greet them upon their return and he would be so distressed. For he had insisted that when they took Benjamin, if any harm befell him, his hair would turn totally grey and he would go to his grave in absolute sorrow. Judah offered himself up as a hostage instead of Benjamin. He did not want his father to die of a broken heart.

Nevertheless, they decamped and returned home. When they returned once again, Joseph greeted them at the door, assured them they did not need to be fearful since the God of their father had returned the money they had paid to them. Joseph’s servants washed their feet and fed their pack animals. These were not simply gestures fulfilling the commandment to welcome the stranger. However, instead of easing their worries, their trepidation escalated. They paid Joseph due homage.

When Joseph saw his younger full-blood brother, he could not contain himself. He was overcome with a paroxysm of emotion. However, he repressed his desire to hug his younger brother and ran off to his bedroom to weep lest his countenance betray him. After he had sequestered himself for awhile, once he had gotten his act together, he returned to the banquet self-possessed. But his brothers became even more disconcerted. This highest and mightiest Egyptian – for, of course, that is who they took him to be – this man who stood next to the Pharaoh’s throne in power, sat down with them to eat. A man of his aristocratic position eating with ordinary herdsmen, that was unheard of in itself. But an Egyptian eating with a Hebrew! Did not Egyptians regard that as an abomination?

But in spite of their rising fears, and perhaps because of those fears, they ate and drank, perhaps even more than usual, and made merry for this could be their last meal. Did they even notice that Joseph had plied Benjamin with five times the lavish food that they had piled onto their plates? If they had, and they must have noticed, that was even more cause for fear. So they said, we have returned with the money we found in our sacks. Further, we have returned with more money to buy more food.

But lo and behold, the same thing happened. When they left once again, their sacks were stuffed not only with grain. Both the money they had brought the first time and the money they had brought the second time had been placed back into their sacks.  But into Benjamin’s sack, a silver goblet was added. They knew nothing of this. Stupefied, they left the vizier’s house the next morning to return to the land of their father. But just outside the city, they were accosted by Joseph’s guards as Joseph had instructed them. The guards had sallied forth and accused them, as they feared all along, of not only stealing back the money they had paid, but the most precious piece of silver in the vizier’s household.

The brothers, of course, professed their total innocence. And as was the custom of such stories, they insisted that if anyone of them had been found with the governor’s silver, then he must surely be put to death. So Joseph’s servants went through the sacks, each in turn, from the eldest to the youngest. When they got to the last sack, what did they find? The silver goblet, of course. Of all the sacks to find such an object, to have it found in that of the youngest brother, the epitome of innocence, had to cause them real shock. I am sure that by the time the servants came to the sack of the youngest that they must have been fully relieved. For it was possible to imagine that one of the older brothers had done the dastardly deed. But never Benjamin!

All their mourning and rending their clothes did no good. They were now returned to Joseph’s house as prisoners and they feared the worst. Was this not a repetition of what had happened the first time when they had been caught outside the city with money in their sacks and ordered to return with Benjamin?  Genuflect all they could, they could not evade being remonstrated and castigated by Joseph for betraying his hospitality. They offered to be enslaved rather than be put to death. But Joseph appeared to be inclined to be lenient and would only keep Benjamin as his bondsman. The other brothers were ordered to go home and this third time, return with their father.  What were they to make of this behaviour, at once both so generous and so unexpected, and, at the same time, so unexpected?

Tune in again next week at the next episode in this series.