Jazz and Deep Wells

Jazz and Deep Wells

by

Howard Adelman

Today is Black Sunday. I know there is no such thing, but I wanted to convey how I see the day by playing off this past Friday of widespread deep discounts and sales and yesterday’s experience. Today I have not simply a two-for-one offer but a two-for-two-for-two offer. What could be better? On the other hand, what could be worse – not only receiving two long missives on the same day, but the second about two entirely different topics and each topic about two different events. The blog will clarify.

Yesterday morning as I was leaving for Torah study, I saw a peregrine falcon eating its prey on the front lawn. I presume that it was an unwitting squirrel. I had never seen a peregrine let alone one up close. I had read that they had been sighted in Toronto, but it was startling to see such a huge bird in front of me. I thought it was the male that I saw, for the mate which appeared was somewhat smaller. But when I read up on falcons this morning, I learned that it must have been the female for females are significantly larger than their masculine mates.

From the rear – the angle from which I watched it – it seemed to have a huge back of thick blue-grey feathers and a black head. The male – the smaller of the pair – had more distinct white markings on its chest. Did you know that the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, in a dive reaching over 200 mph? Its highest measured speed is 242 mph. But if peregrines now nest in tall buildings in urban areas, its nest must have been blocks away.

I took the sighting of the peregrine to be a sign – a sign of a positive tale on the human propensity to destroy our planet and other species. For the peregrines were once endangered because of the widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT. However, with the banning of DDT, their numbers have rebounded enormously. I also took the sighting in a different sense, for in Torah yesterday morning, before we even started our textual examination, I opened the volume to initially read the tale of Jacob’s ladder that comes immediately before Jacob met Rachel at the well.

Needless to say, I had never read the short account through the eyes of a falcon. If you recall, Jacob was fleeing towards his uncle Laban because he believed Esau was in hot pursuit given that he, Jacob, had deceived Esau out of his father’s blessing to double the act of treachery in the story when he got his brother to give him Esau’s birthright in exchange for a mug of soup. In his dream, (Genesis 28:12-15), Jacob envisioned a ladder or a stairway reaching upwards into the sky. Angels of God were traipsing up and down the stairs – if they were coming from heaven why not down first and then up? God then promised Jacob that his descendants would spread everywhere over the earth, north and west, east and west. God also promised to protect him wherever he went and “bring you back to this land.” Further God said, “I will not leave you until what I have done what I have promised you.” (28:15)

If God had made that promise to falcons, He clearly kept his word. Falcons, once on the verge of extinction, are now everywhere. Further, falcons are like angels rising on the upward drafts of the wind and then diving down for prey. Falcons have superb vision. An excellent capacity for survival has been intertwined with a theme of destruction, preying on other species necessary for survival and repeatedly being faced themselves with species genocide.

The story that was the subject of yesterday’s Torah study was the one that followed, Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. Jacob continued on after his visionary dream. What did he see first. Verse 2 of chapter 29 reads: “There before his eyes was a well in the open.” The vision was not a dream sequence, but a real sighting. It was not of soaring and diving angels, but of a “well in the open,” also translated as in the “field.” Vision is now grounded. It is focused on earthly things, not long-range promises. And the focus is a well.

As Rabbi Splansky pointed out in comparing three “well” stories, the one where Jacob’s father, Isaac, or his emissary, encountered Rebecca, and the one where Moses came to a well were the daughter of Jethro, the Midianite, had been chased away from watering their sheep until Moses’ intervention, in each case a well is a symbol of overcoming scarcity, scarcity of water and scarcity of progeny. For the women are barren, either because they are virgins or because they seemingly cannot bear children. In the case of both Rebecca and Rachel, the continuity of the generations through time, a necessary correlation to spatially spreading over the land, seems at first to be denied them. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are all barren when first encountered. In each case, the opening of the wombs of the women is attributed to God.

Hence, the well Rabbi Splansky introduced to the group as a basis for a dialectic of correspondence yet difference in all three stories. (The tale of the competition between the first-born and a younger brother was not a topic of focus.) Verse 2 in English and Hebrew reads:

And he looked, and behold! a well in the field, and behold! three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because from that well they would water the flocks, and a huge rock was upon the mouth of the well. בוַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹֽבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָֽעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר:

בְאֵ֣ר

Be-ayr or Beer, as in Beersheva, is a well or pit. A well is a source, not simply of physical water, but of God’s word, of His spirit, of His promise. A well is not a natural spring. It is built by humans. It is an artifice of human labour and ingenuity. When Abraham confronted Abimelech after the latter’s servants denied him access to a well Abraham had dug, Abraham insisted on buying it back with money to define in contractural terms what had been promised by God in a covenant. When Moses travelled to Beersheva, he was promised water. “And from there to Beer, which is the well where the Lord said to Moses: “assemble the people that I may give them water.” (Number 21:16) And all of Israel sang a song: “Spring up oh well; sing to it.”

The well and the water in it offer a voice from God. It is not just a wishing well, but a well of promise. In particular, it is a promise of bringing waters to the womb and breaking those waters to deliver progeny. A well is a source of fecundity. It is from the waters of that well that the flock of sheep, that God’s flock of Israelites, though certainly not exclusively, are offered drink. However, in Jacob’s vision of the staircase to heaven, Jacob worried that it portended destruction and death. For he believed Esau was following him, intent on killing him in revenge for what he had stolen. A well is also a pit, that into which Joseph was thrown, that into which we are all tossed when we die. God in that sense is not only the source of life, but the deliverer of death and from death. When a hole lacks water, it is a pit. Which will it be?

In the Gospel according to John in chapter 4, Jesus was travelling north rather than east like Jacob. Outside the town of Sychar, he sat beside Jacob’s well. The story inverts the original. Jesus asked a woman to give him water from the well. She did, but wondered why he would ask a Samaritan girl? Was he proposing? Jesus then offered the Samaritan from whom he asked for a drink “living water.” The suggestion is that the water on offer had been dead, as dead as the water in the Dead Sea. It had become saline. Jesus was offering, not just to Jews, but now to everyone, to all human kind, “fresh water,” sweet rather than bitter water. The point is not to endorse the message of the Christian narrative as recorded by John, but to indicate and understand a well as a symbol.

The well is covered by a large stone. It will be moved by Jacob. It will be moved by Moses. They as founding fathers move the heavy stone that blocks access to the spirit of creativity, the spirit of procreation which itself is a structure constructed by humans. When a well runs dry, we find only dry bones and not the vital source of life. In Genesis, wells with water recur 25 times.

Wells are built by humans. Wells are accessed by human labour. Humans, as in the Moses tale, can also deny access to the well. In the Jacob story, to save the well from evaporation, the shepherds wait until all the flocks arrive and then remove the rock that covered the well. In the Moses story of the well, access was denied the Midianite women. Moses intervened to provide access. In the Jacob story, Jacob acts without the involvement of the other shepherds to move the stone and provide water for Rachel’s flock.

Why did Jacob do that? Why, when he saw Rachel, did he kiss her and break into tears upon meeting a relative he had never seen? Water flowed out from him instead of into him. It was tears of joy, of happiness. The serenity and unexpressed emotion of Abraham was now left behind. The reticence and passivity of Isaac had been left behind. In place we now have an openly emotional, and, as we soon learn, mentally scheming forefather who dramatically pushes the plot forward just as he intervened to move the stone.

Yesterday evening I went to hear jazz at Koerner Hall. The program featured the much younger Alfredo Rodríguez Trio in the first half and, in the second half, the brilliant jazz pianist, Danilo Pérez with Ben Street on bass & Danilo’s sister, Terri Lynne Carrington, on drums. It was a great performance, but it was akin to hearing the story of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven after one had read the story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well as our initiation into one of the greatest love stories in literature.

In the second half, the music of Pérez truly soared up to the heavens and back down to earth, but after hearing the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio, it sounded like dinner music. For the Rodríguez trio was truly brilliant. It took us down into the well of creativity in cyclonic waves of poetic repetition. For Pérez is correct in his comments about jazz. It is global music. It is about freedom. It is about improvisation on repetitive themes.

The most powerful structural element in the biblical text is repetition. But also, the riffs on that repetition. The Torah in the literary world is the foundation of jazz in the world of music and it too plays on sounds, on words, on phrasing and on clauses, and translates the combination into stories. The ingenious variations in each are about identity and difference. The parallelisms challenge us to compare and reflect and to do so at various levels. Both literally and figuratively, Rodríguez took the audience down into the deep well of creativity in one of the greatest jazz performances I have ever heard. Sometimes it was just a fascinating variation on a very familiar tune, and, in the case of the last number the trio played, on a very simple melody from his childhood in Cuba.

I write only about the most haunting number. I believe, if I caught him correctly, it was called Yoruba. His CDs were all sold out when I went to buy one or two, so I had to look it up. I believe it is the one called, “Oye Afra Yoruba-Son,” but I will only know when I hear the song again. The number came from the deepest well of all. I would call it haunting jazz, in-depth ethnic jazz rather than global jazz. Hopefully, in a future blog when I hear the trio again, I myself will write with greater depth.

On a day that started with renewed life diving down to earth and feeding on prey on the ground, I was taken deeper into the ground, into wells of feeling and emotion rarely touched. With Yoruba I went back earlier before my ancestors in the Middle East to the Yoruba in West Africa whose music I happened to hear there. It had the same resonance captured in Rodríguez’ number and offered an older oral history deeper than the written word even if Rodríguez probably got his inspiration from Lucumí/Santeria in Cuba from descendants of African slaves brought to that island. Yoruba culture is based on divination and a search for wells, for the invisible beneath us as well as the invisible above us in the air. It developed as a culture of art and beauty rather than a culture which emphasized ethics and law, but one which both complements and haunts the latter.

In Rodríguez’ interpretation, it does do so by a kind of cyclonic activity that thrusts you down into a powerful inward circulation of notes and phrasing and repetitions that rotate, first downwards and finally upward so that one can once again breath freely. Hearing his music was like being thrust into a low-pressure chamber. He not only moved the stone from the top of the well, but dived down into it. And took the audience with him.

From peregrine falcons to cyclonic trips down wells – what could be better? Especially when you emerge unscathed and still breathing.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day

Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day

by

Howard Adelman

It is Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen. Tonight, the celebration of Israel’s independence begins. In yesterday’s blog, I referred to three sources of discussion of Israel – one by Emanuel Adler on the drift in Israel towards illiberalism, one on the Torah justification for an independent Jewish polity in Israel and a third, the sermon in my synagogue by the Israeli Consul in Toronto. Today I will concentrate on the most basic one, the justification in the Torah, the one considered irrelevant to most Canadian Jews and most others, except for evangelical Christians. The reference to archeology, history, political realities, what Israel has accomplished in Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, need based on security and humanitarianism as justification for the State of Israel and its domination by Am Israel (the Jewish people) awaits another discussion.

Torah study began with Rashi’s well known question of why the Torah, if it is the constitution of the Jewish people, begins with cosmology. Why does the text not start with Genesis 17:1 when God initially forges a covenant with Abram, renames him Abraham and promises that he will be “a father of a multitude of nations,” not just the Israelites or the Jewish people, but many nations. (17:4) Further, in chapter 8, Abraham is promised that, “I will give the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession.”

The answer usually given for starting at Genesis 1 rather than Genesis 17 is that it was necessary to establish that the whole earth was made by and belonged to God and that God was totally free to distribute the land to whomever He chose. Nations are not owners of the land, only trustees. Further, if the Torah is to be followed, there is no prior right to a land by people long settled there before another group of people arrived.

But there is a prior question – why refer to the Bible as a source of authority for establishing a state? Rashi comments on the first Psalm, “But his delight is in the teaching (in Hebrew, the Torah) of the Lord, and, in his teaching, he studies day and night.” Psalm 1 reads:

Psalm 1
1 Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in His law doth he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf doth not wither; and in whatsoever he doeth he shall prosper.
4 Not so the wicked; but they are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
5 Therefore, the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
6 For the LORD regardeth the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Verse 2 makes it clear that the function of studying Torah is critical to forging an ethical life. Verse 3 declares that an ethical life is sustained by planting oneself in a land where one can be fruitful and creative, implying possibly both a physical land and a land of learning. Whatever else it will be, the land will be one based on the rule of law that must serve the development of an ethical life.

The principle of Judaism, as distinct from the reference points of other nations, including other nations descended from Abraham, is that the Torah, which initially is a possession of (not necessarily written by) God, becomes a possession of Jews when they study Torah. Jews may infer that they have rights to live in the land from their studies, but not (thus far) that they are entitled to a state of their own. Further, there is no suggestion that other nations should not live in accordance with the rule of law for the sake of forging an ethical life and do so in the land of Israel. There is no guarantee that the land of Canaan should be the exclusive territory for Jews or that it is a land on which a Jewish state should be constituted and developed.

Genesis 12:1-7 says:

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. 6 And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. 7 And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land’; and he built there an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.

In Genesis 13:14-17, the Bible says: “The Lord said to Abram, “Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, southward, eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever… Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to thee.” In Genesis 15:18, the land promised becomes very extensive. “18 In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”

The covenantal promise is repeated in Genesis 17:4-8:

My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee. 6 And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. 7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. 8 And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

There are many promises in these quotes. First, the land is promised to all the nations that spring from the seed of Abraham and not just Jews. Second, the extent of the land promised varies, sometimes extending well into Iraq and through the Sinai desert right up to the Nile River. Since various tribes of Canaanites lived on both sides of the Jordan River, the promise can even be seen to include Jordan. This is confirmed in Deuteronomy 9:1-4:

“Hear, O Israel: You are to cross over the Jordan today, and go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourself, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the descendants of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you heard it said: ‘Who can stand before the descendants of Anak?’ Therefore, understand today that the LORD your God is He who goes over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and bring them down before you; so you shall drive them out and destroy them quickly, as the LORD has said to you.” (Deuteronomy, 9:1-4)

On the other hand, with respect to specific parts of that territory, there is no promise in the Torah that the seed of Judah will reside in Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is not even mentioned once in the Torah though it is referred to approximately 600 times in the rest of the Bible.

There is a more disturbing part of the covenant stated above and repeated elsewhere in the Torah: the settlement of the nations that stem from the seed of Abraham will occupy the land by means of war and not simply ethnic cleansing, but genocide, for the existing nations of Canaan will be expunged from the land: the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.” (Deuteronomy, 7:1-2)

Quite aside from the extent of the land promised and those to whom it is promised, in addition to the land of Canaan, quite aside from the means of acquisition, the land of Israel is promised, not just as a place to live, as a place to thrive, but as a place to study Torah and as a place to raise ethical individuals. Further, Israel is a land where the bones of the seeds of Israel that flow through Isaac and Jacob are to be buried. In Genesis 50:4-14, Joseph keeps the promise made that the bones of his father will be returned to Canaan to be buried next to his first wife, Leah, who bore him his eldest four sons. Even, Joseph, who lived most of his life in Egypt, has his bones disinterred and brought back to the land of Canaan to be buried in Shechem (Hebron). (Exodus 13:15)

In Genesis 50:24-26, just after Joseph had ensured that his father Jacob’s bones would be buried in Israel, Joseph told his brothers and made the sons of Israel swear that, like Jacob, “you shall carry my bones up from here.” This suggests that even more importantly than living an ethical life in accordance with the rule of law on a land promised by God is the promise of burial in that land even if one is raised and achieved success in the diaspora. The fight over burial rights is not exclusive to Israel. In Canada, we recently went through the Oka crisis, a land dispute instigated by Mohawk aboriginal peoples over an allegedly sacred burial site. Near my cottage on Georgian Bay in Ontario, there was a fight over Grave Island claimed by some Ojibway as a sacred burial ground. One reason we fight over land, in addition to the right to live on it, is to die and, more importantly, be buried in that soil.

Israel, therefore, is a land where the “ghosts of the past meet the ghosts of the future,” where one’s deep seated longings are satisfied, where “my father’s store was burned there and he is buried here.” In the “port on the shore of eternity” in “the Venice of God.” (Yehuda Amichai, “Jerusalem 1967”), there shall I be buried insists the ardent Zionist.

But none of the citations of sacred text justifies a Jewish state in Israel or Jerusalem as its capital or Israel as an exclusive state for the Jewish people. Israel is a place for Jews to live, a place for Jews to die and be buried. What else justifies the independence of Israel in a specific boundaried territory? Whatever it is, the state must be governed by the rule of law and dedicated to raising an ethical people if the Torah is to be a guide.

 

To be continued: Historical and Political Justifications

Burying Fathers and Blessing Children

Blessing Your Children and Burying Your Dad: Vayechi Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

by

Howard Adelman

I never buried my father. When he died, he left his body to medicine. It was not only a snub to Judaism, for which he had little use in his hedonistic life. It was akin to a last act of irresponsibility towards his children whom he had deserted at a fairly young age.

My oldest brother was a cardiologist and helped my father end his life long before the assisted dying law was promulgated in Canada. Unlike myself, my brother always treated my father kindly. My father was then near the end. His kidneys had failed or were failing, a likely consequence of his long love of Seagram’s Canadian Rye. He would not have been eligible for kidney transplants. And his heart kept signalling that the pump needed extensive repairs. He was going to die and asked that my brother grant him one last blessing, that he be spared further pain. A hedonist to the end, when he was no longer able to pursue pleasure, he could still seek to avoid suffering. And you had to give him credit; he went with a smile on his lips. He was sixty-two years old.

That was over forty years ago. My brother was only a year older than I. He would also die at sixty-two years of age. He has been a terrific doctor. He really wanted to be an engineer. But I was a dominating younger brother and insisted that he apply to medical school. We had gone through high school together; we should also be together in university, went my illogical argument. In medical school, when we did rounds, he would quickly come up with a diagnosis. I would resist and insist that there were too many options possible with that set of symptoms. We could not possibly draw a definitive conclusion. His reply was always the same: “Don’t worry, my answer is correct.” And it was. Always.

He introduced the procedure known as angioplasty to Canada. The very procedure would kill not only him but another doctor and nurse who worked on the same apparatus. They all died of neuroblastomas. It was a vicious and vengeful form of cancer, attacking the precursor cells, the very embryonic material from which our bodies are derived. The death dragged out over almost eighteen months and was horrific. My mother suffered so much watching him die. He could save my father from pain lasting weeks and even months. But he could not save himself.

After my father died, my older and younger brothers left for a canoe trip and I was left to make the arrangements for the transfer of my dad’s body to the University of Toronto Medical School. But I do not remember doing a thing. I do remember walking all night through the streets of Toronto in total distress. Why was I so upset when I had detested my father for years? Why was I not home with my wife and four children?

Is there anything more important than how and where you bury your father and the very act of blessing your children?

The Parshat Vayechi ends the Book of Genesis. Chapter 47, verse 28 begins with a recounting of Jacob’s long life to the age of 147. I have always estimated that any one year in biblical accounting was 2 years in the way we measure a year, so Jacob had lived to almost 74 years of age. When Jacob was about to die, he made his sons pledge not to bury him in Egypt, but to swear by all that they stood for that he would be buried with his forefathers in the Land of Canaan. He was. Some of the verses of this section are taken up with the most elaborate funeral procession and depiction of a burial ritual in the whole of the Bible and stand in stark contrast with the one verse depicting Joseph’s funeral.

The Parshat and the whole Book of Genesis end with chapter 50, verse 26, “And Joseph died at the age of hundred and ten years [at only 55 in my calculation], and they embalmed him and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (my italics) What an ending! What a beginning! The whole foundation story of the Israelites and their creation as a nation ends with the first diaspora Jew being buried, not according to Jewish custom, but in accordance with Egyptian practice.

Jewish tradition, as I understand it, prohibits embalming. If you embalm someone, you drain out that person’s blood and replace it with embalming fluid. That means that blood, the life circulating system of the body, is not buried with the corpse. What a contrast with watching Jewish religious figures after a terrorist attack in Israel gathering up every last hair and every last speck of blood to be buried with the body. When I read this section, I think of the corpse of Joseph, as the great Vizier of Egypt, being put on display as Egyptians march past by the thousands. But there is no depiction of the funeral and disposition of Joseph’s body. The depiction is extremely terse, in stark contrast to the elaborate description of Jacob’s funeral procession and burial, though Joseph ordered that his father be embalmed as well, presumably in preparation for the long trip and in acknowledgement of local customs, but not at Jacob’s request.

If your parents die, you owe them, more importantly, you owe yourself, you owe life, a proper goodbye. There is no worship of death. The focus is on the living, on dealing with loss even when a parent is despised, even if that relative was not a loved one. There is no more important function of a rabbi that presiding at a funeral. But Joseph was embalmed.

The major part of this section is taken up with the blessing of children. We had already read how important not only the birthright but, even more significantly, the blessing was to our forefathers. Jacob literally cheated his brother out of that blessing. And Jacob’s father, Isaac, had even been blessed directly by God. My oldest son named after the Prophet of Peace, Jeremiah, was, at my request, literally blessed by Linus Pauling in a small living room of our apartment located on Spadina Avenue just opposite the University of Toronto. Pauling was one of the few figures in history to win two Nobel prizes. And that son has been a great blessing to the academic world. I always thank Linus.

Most people, as I understand them, think a blessing is intended for the one blessed, to favour and protect them, to guarantee them a long and beneficial life. After all, if you asked for a daughter’s hand in marriage traditionally, you first asked her parents for their blessing, for their endorsement of the match, for their well wishes for their daughter’s well-being and happiness. And when we say the blessing for wine and bread on Friday evenings when we welcome shabat as a wife once more into our lives, the English translation of the prayer goes as follows:

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe
who finding favuor with us, sanctified us with mitzvot.
In love and favor, You made the holy Shabat our heritage
as a reminder of the work of Creation.
As first among our sacred days, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.
You chose us and set us apart from the peoples.
In love and favour You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.
Praise to You, Adonai, who sanctifies Shabbat.

Baruch atah, Adonai
Eloheinu, Melech Haolam,
borei p’ri hagafen.

Baruch atah, Adonai
Eloheinu, Melech haolam,
asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’ratzah vanu,
v’Shabbat kodsho
b’ahavah uv’ratzon hinchilanu,
zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit.
Ki hu yom t’chilah l’mikra-ei kodesh,
zecher litziat Mitzrayim.
Ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta,
mikol haamim.
V’Shabbat kodsh’cha
b’ahavah uv’ratzon hinchaltanu.
Baruch atah, Adonai, m’kadeish HaShabbat.

A blessing is intended primarily, not to protect us, not to defend ourselves against trouble and tribulation, but to allow us to go forth and do good in the world, to perform mitzvot, to be part of the process of creation rather than destruction. And in so doing, we do not recall our own coming into being as a nation living in Egypt, we do not recall the splendour and the glories and the pleasures and the power the Israelites had in Egypt. Instead, we recall the Exodus, the leaving and the return to the land of promise. We recall the Exodus from Egypt, the exodus from being embalmed and glorified by the masses but instead the burial by our children.

It is not as if Jacob wished the best for his children. Instead he claimed to know who they are and what the character of each of them was and how each would or would not contribute to the well-being of the world. He did not offer them protection and well-being, but asked of them to contribute to the protection and well-being of others in the best way their personalities allowed.

Look at the blessings Jacob offered his various children. Reuben, his firstborn, whom he said should have been superior in strength and power and rank, instead was characterized by restlessness, the restlessness of water. That meant he could not become what he was supposed to become. Instead he profaned his father’s bed. And, though he would regret it, he was not there to direct his brothers when they decided to kill their brother Jacob and it was left to Judah to negotiate on behalf of Joseph’s life. Reuben was the epitome of that basic element of life, water, that Heraclitus of Ephesus declared embodied the essence of living – flux and change, a lack of stability and incapable of serving as a point of reference, as a guide to the people, to his people. He lacked, as the speaker, a Deputy Minister said at lunch yesterday, a North Pole as a reference. Jacob, in blessing Reuben, was not offering him God’s well-being and protection, but measuring him against the standards of well-being and protection.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers, stolen instruments are their weapons.” (49:5) It is they who betrayed the men of Shechem and slaughtered them all after they had agreed to become circumcised and join the Israelites, while they were still in pain and suffering for that ordeal undergone in adult life. Did Jacob mean to say that those who live by the sword will die by the sword? At the very least, his blessing was a rejection of the doctrine that might is right. He, and his name, would not be associated with forbidden actions. So the children of Simeon and Levi were scattered among the Israelites and could not live together in their own province lest they use the doctrine of might is right to prevail over the people and the land of Israel.

And what about Judah? What about the archetypal negotiator and mediator, the man not of pure ideals, but of practical politics, the man washed in the art of the possible? “Judah, [as for] you, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies, [and] your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you.” (49:8) One might have thought that this is a blessing that would go to Joseph, for at the time were not Joseph’s own brothers bowing down to him just as Joseph had once dreamed? Was it not Joseph who held his countryman, indeed, all of Egypt and all of the surrounding peoples, by the nape of their necks?

Precisely because Judah was destined to only hold enemies by the napes of their necks, was Judah to be blessed with a leadership role, a leadership role not bestowed by nature and primogeniture nor by physical force, but by diplomacy and negotiating skills. “A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah. From the prey, my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him?” (49:9) A negotiator watches and waits for opportunities and then springs into action. And he does so, not to demand the prey for himself, but to ensure that the prey is available for all of the pride. The lion is a watcher, an observer, a protector – of both territory and of those under its charge.

That requires courageous, not rash action, the ability to choose when and where to spring into action with the most force and effectiveness. Unlike Simeon and Levi, Judah did not pick fights but sought to avoid them, even by offering his own life as a pledge. He was chosen by history to negotiate out of an impasse when his own brothers wanted to kill another of their own kind. And behind the willingness to bargain and even fight if necessary, was a willingness to die for what he believed. An animal lion is a hunter of prey seeking to take advantage of the weak. A human lion protects the weak and prevents the strong from feeding off them. This does not mean that he does not retain his scepter at his side; it does mean that he will always be “a student of the law between his feet” (49:10) that will constitute the ground on which he walks. He does not contribute to the divisions among peoples, but to their reconciliation and collaboration.

Judah “binds his foal to a vine, and to a tendril [he binds] his young donkey. [He launders] his garment with wine, and with the blood of grapes binds his raiment.” (49:11) What does it mean to wash your clothes in wine and bind your vestments in the blood of grapes? What does it mean to tether your ass to a tendril of a vine? The latter is usually associated with a positive evaluation of acquiring wealth, of acquiring abundance and not with idealizing poverty or self-sacrifice. As a colleague in Torah study insists, look at the root. The three-letter root of a donkey or an ass – chamor – is the same used in reference to the material nature of the world. But why bathe your clothes in wine and bind your vestments in the blood of the grape?

Look at the blessing for wine printed above. We acquire wealth so that we can clothe ourselves with good deeds, with mitzvot. The material world is not an end in itself. We acquire wealth to do good works, to make the world a better place. This is Judah’s mission. That is why Judah will be red-eyed from wine, not because his eyes are bloodshot, but because they weep and wail at the suffering of mankind, of humanity. And his teeth are “white-toothed from milk.” Because instead of the gristle of meat stuck between his teeth, the teeth of a human lion glisten with the milk of human kindness.

And what of the other brothers? The descendants of Zebulun will be fishermen. Fishers of just fish or fishers of souls? Isasachar will not stand on the law as the ground of his being, but his descendants will carry the law on their backs and become the bearers of the law, the courts, the prosecutors, the judges, the defenders of the accused. It is on their backs that the fulfillment of the rule of law will rest. And law will be made in the bony cleft between the left and right protuberances in case by case by case.

Dan will be an avenger standing always alert on the high ground ready to spill his wrath and blood on those who would injure the children of Israel. But Dan will also be a viper, a serpent on the path ready to bite the horse’s heels, ready to go behind the lines and wreck havoc among those who threaten Israel. Gad will make up the infantry in defence of the people. Asher will provide the food to nourish everyone. Naphtali will be a writer, a poet, a spinner of tales, a wordsmith.

And Joseph, the charmer and the dreamer? What blessing did Jacob bestow upon his favourite? He obviously knew his son well. For he foresaw that a charismatic leader initially brings about a unity of spirit, but it soon disintegrates into bitterness, jealousy and results in a quarrelsome polity riven with bitter strife. For Joseph, as brilliant as he was as a visionary, as efficient as he was as an administrator, was incapable of reconciling or even giving recognition to differences. But he would sustain the rock of Israel through the power and wealth he acquired. He would serve as a conduit from past to a more secure future, as an intermediary between man and God, so that the blessings of the divine can be bestowed on his people. He would be the guarantor of survival, even if he was left embalmed in a foreign land.

Why Jacob blessed Ephraim before Manasseh requires itself a full blog.

Blessed are all of my children. May each in his or her own way, and in accordance with his or her own character, be a blessing unto the world.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Lordship and Bondage: Recognition and Divine Cunning

Vayigash (וַיִּגַּשׁ‎ — he drew near) Genesis 44:18–47:27
Lordship and Bondage: Recognition and Divine Cunning

by

Howard Adelman

Last Shabat, in Torah study, our rabbi said that Hebraism in comparison to Hellenism was relational rather than solipsistic. Everything happens in relation to another, especially the development of self-consciousness. It could be said that the main theme of the Torah is recognition.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked and were ashamed after they had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Sexual intercourse introduced mutual recognition of the other even as it also introduced shame of one’s bare self, of one’s material self, of a self propelled by drives and passions. In the Cain and Abel story, the two brothers vie for God’s recognition as they sacrifice the best of their labours, whether the fat of his animals in the case of Abel, or the richness of his crops in the case of Cain, the farmer. God grants recognition to Abel. In envy and rage, for what is a man worth if he is not recognized as being near to God, and a sense of injustice, Cain kills Abel. Cain effaces Abel from the surface of the earth.

Skip ahead, though there is much on recognition in between. Jacob wrestles with a stranger/God and afterwards insists that he had come face to face with the Divine. Jacob is then able to come face to face with his brother Esau whom he had cheated out of his father’s blessing and was meeting him for the first time in twenty years. Esau, instead of having held onto his wrath all those years, embraces his brother in joy and rapture even as his brother comes near to him in fear and trembling.

The three patriarchs did what they were told to do or what they needed to do to come nearer the projection of a family legacy, from dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Joseph is the first of our original set of ancestors that does things for their own sake, for his own sake. Joseph is NOT a patriarch. In his narcissism, in his self-centred behaviour, in his knowledge of himself as a dreamer and an aesthete, he will be the first to become a Lord, the first to achieve true greatness in the world of public affairs. When Joseph had a dream prophesying that his brothers would bow down to him as their Lord, and even his father and mother would do so as well, recognition is once again invoked, but it is not the mutual recognition of a man and a woman, it is not the recognition of the Lord of a supplicant, and it is not the reverse recognition of man of his Lord as his equal as when Jacob wrestled with the stranger. It is recognition that combines all three elements – mutuality, lordship and bondage, and self-recognition of the divine within any human.

First and foremost, came the recognition that they are all brothers in one family, equal in stature in the family, in spite of Jacob’s explicit favouritism for the sons of Rachel. The clear responsibility for this was not the father, but the pact between the two sisters who had become Jacob’s wives and were as different as Cain and Abel, and in as different circumstances within the politics of the family. “We your servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.” (Genesis 44:13) And one is not. Not, we are eleven brothers. Not, we are twelve brothers but one died. But an ambiguous reference to a twelfth brother, who ironically stood lording it over them. For Joseph had not been treated with brotherly love. Though initially intended for death, Joseph was cast out. He “was not” because he was no longer among them. Though they could look him in the eye, he “was not” because they did not recognize him. And the irony. He was above not among them.

Thus, second, there is the recognition of the superiority of one over the many, first of Joseph over the other brothers in terms of wealth and power, and, second, the superiority in a very different sense of Judah over the others in taking responsibility for his deeds, for his thoughts and for others. Without being a saintly figure, Judah saved Joseph’s life, sending him into slavery instead of death. It is Judah who recognized that the loss of Benjamin would be the final straw in breaking their father’s heart, while Joseph, in contrast, and almost in sheer selfishness, insisted that his youngest and only full brother be brought to see him, even though that separation might kill his father. Joseph insisted that his half-brothers bring his younger full brother, Benjamin, to Egypt even when Judah warned him that doing so would kill their father, for Jacob’s soul was “bound up” with Benjamin’s. So, it seemed, was Joseph’s. And the loss of Benjamin to his father would kill Jacob because he did not draw Benjamin near to him, but suffocated him with his love.

Third, Judah offers himself as a bondsman as surety for Benjamin. In contrast, Joseph went too far. Lordship had gone to his head. Joseph dreamt that his father would become his servant and bow down to him. That dream too had to be fulfilled. And it was. In contrast, Judah lived in a rough world and adapted well to it. But, unlike Joseph, Judah was a natural giver. He gave of himself. More than that, when he perceived an injustice, he responded, not by taking a position of moral purity. Nothing he did was morally pure. He was the epitome of morality by coming up with a pragmatic solution that would acknowledge and respect others while turning their efforts into a different direction, even if that direction was far from an ideal one.

Compare Judah to Reuben. Reuben felt the responsibilities of his position in the birth chain. He tried to exercise those responsibilities in the midst of a world of jealousy and envy, competition and regard with the honours owed to one’s father. He was much closer to a purely good man than Judah, even though his father gave him no respect or recognition for who he was and what he did for the family. But, on the ground, he was less successful than Judah who knew somehow almost instinctively how to blend his sense of responsibility to the other, not only the other in need, but the other who denied and refused to recognize that need, and combined it with his own willingness to sacrifice.

This is one of the weirdest parts of the Torah. The ostensible hero, the one whom we read about for four weeks – the only one who surpasses him is Moses – is Joseph. But the real hero, the unsung hero, is Judah. Without Judah, there would be no Joseph.

But look at Joseph’s behaviour. I already pointed out that Joseph was willing to sacrifice his father’s life so that he could be reunited with his own full brother. Quite aside from this indifference to a father who favoured him, who had doted upon him, he treated his father with the greatest disrespect. It is one thing to dream of having your father bow down to you. It is quite another to allow, to even expect him to do so when once again they meet after so many years of separation, after such a long period of his father mourning for his loss. But perhaps it was because Jacob, ever the self-centred calculator, mourned for his loss only because Joseph was the child of his dearly and deeply beloved Rachel. Perhaps Joseph felt his father had never loved him for who he was, but simply because he was his mother’s son. Perhaps this was behind Joseph’s ambitious desire for recognition, for power, for lording over an Other.

Look at how the parshah begins. Not with Joseph coming near, but with Judah coming near. “Then Judah approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.’ (Genesis 44:18) Judah begins by asking to come close to Joseph at the same time as he flatters him and says that Joseph is close to Pharaoh and, in effect, Judah is unworthy of coming close to him. Look at Judah’s cleverness in soothing Joseph lest he become uppity and insulted that his office is not being respected and he unleash his anger at the brothers.

Joseph may be Prime Minister or Vizier of all of Egypt. But Judah is the real politician – a person oriented to the Other, oriented to the public good and with the sensibilities and mastery of rhetoric to convince the Other that what they must do is for their own benefit. Further, as Rashi noted, claiming that Joseph was akin to Pharaoh was not only flattery, but an underhanded insult. The Hebrews, after all, did not really have the highest respect for Pharaoh’s lordly ways even as they paid him all the lip service needed to get by. Their Lord was, after all, far superior to His Lordship.

Can you possibly imagine what happens next? Just think of you being a lowly Canadian or American and being introduced to the Prime Minister or the Speaker of the House in Washington and the first question he asked about you is, “Have you a father or a brother?” (44:19) Not, do you have parents? Not, do you have siblings? Given his sensitivity to others, Judah had to clue in that this situation was distinctly abnormal. Judah and his nine other brothers reply in chorus that we have an old father, a very young brother back home and that his full brother is dead. Now the answer is not the ambiguous, “is not” this time. Joseph is pronounced dead even though the brothers knew he had been sold into slavery. Better dead than red, better dead than a life of perpetual enforced service.

Rashi likes to point out how the answers aroused Joseph’s suspicions. But my attention was drawn to Judah and how he was going to handle it. For I cannot believe, as Rashi does, that Joseph suspected that his brothers had gone down (the Israelite perspective) or came up to Egypt (the view of the Egyptian court) for a nefarious purpose. It just does not make sense to me that Joseph is suddenly concerned about their ambitions – to acquire Egyptian wives. But perhaps. It is possible that Joseph projected on his brothers’ motives for glory and honour and wealth and public recognition desires similar to his own. I, personally, do not have such a cynical view of Joseph as Rashi.

Then comes the very revealing and unveiling line uttered by Joseph. “And you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, and I will set my eye[s] upon him.’” (44:21) The New Testament is full of allusions to eyes. For Matthew, the eye is the lamp of the body. (6:22) By looking into someone’s eyes, you can read their character. But Joseph was not looking to read Benjamin’s character, but to feast his own eyes upon him. Was he also asserting that he, Joseph, was not concerned to see what Benjamin looked like, but was akin to God in wanting to see what was in Benjamin’s heart? (I Samuel 16:2) Was it, in the end, as black as his own and that no one recognized?

I doubt it. One never gets the idea at this stage of the story that Joseph compared himself or saw himself in God’s light. Rather, he portrayed himself as the reflection of the Pharaoh’s. Joseph was more akin to wanting only the most worthy to appear before him. Though he was a brilliant politician and public servant in not only recognizing but anticipating the needs of the people and how they could and should be filled, he was always even more interested in expanding the wealth and glory of the Pharaoh. Hence Joseph’s brilliant efforts, however morally heinous, to give food to the needy middle class, but only in exchange for their lands, for their cattle and for their perpetual serfdom.

If he, as Psalm 101 commanded, only wanted o appear before him what delighted his own eyes, and what delighted his own eyes was not the inner soul of the Other, surely Judah would have picked this up and become suspicious. For Joseph was not asking for his eyes to be opened so the wonders of the world could be open to him. He, after all, was the dreamer, the seer, the wonder of the Egyptian world. Further, unlike Jesus who aspired to open everyone’s eyes in that way, the Israelites were more concerned with whether their tongues spoke the words of their God. For, in the end, it is really through a man’s words that you can read him. Israelites by and large did not believe that eyes were the window into the soul. And Joseph certainly did not, so caught up was he with that which delighted his eyes. He was truly an aesthete.

It is Judah who tests Joseph about his motives. Was he suspicious that Joseph may not only have been gay, but was a man who loved boys, a pedophile? Judah on behalf of his brothers pleaded with Joseph. If we take Benjamin away from his father, it would kill their father. Judah did not betray his suspicions, only his fears. How did Joseph reply? He gave them an ultimatum. “If your youngest brother does not come down with you, you will not see my face again.” (44:23) Not simply you will not see me. You will not see my face. Joseph was assuming the position of the Hebrew God and saying that he would remain hidden from them. Of course, if he did so, they would not get the food and the provisions that Jacob had sent them down to Egypt to buy. Would they surrendered to Joseph’s blackmail in spite of their, especially Judah’s, suspicions.

Their father was devastated. As far as Jacob was concerned, his soul had become totally wrapped up in Benjamin. It was Jacob, not as a pedophile, who would not detach himself from his son just as once he would not let go of the Lord with whom he had wrestled. But all their lives were at stake. Jacob gave in, especially when Judah pledged his own life as surety for the boy’s return. (44:32) But these same words were first offered up to Joseph. (44:30) Joseph would have none of it. He showed little compassion for the situation into which he had put both his brothers and especially his father. While Joseph had expressed the desire to delight his eyes, Judah wailed, “Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!” Joseph needed and wanted to satisfy his eyes. But Joseph, the deep moralist, the one most concerned for the other, could not stand the anticipation of watching his father wail.

Then in Chapter 45, Joseph suddenly changed course. He revealed who he was to his brothers. Why then? Because it was clear that it was Judah’s gauntlet that had won the day. Joseph had threatened them with sending them home without provisions and never allowing them to come to Egypt again to get food. But even at that, Judah would not give in lest his father’s heart be broken.

The most interesting part is how Joseph revealed himself. He cried. He wailed. He broke down so even his servants who had been sent out of the room could hear. So much for maintaining appearances! Joseph gave in to his inner voice and set aside his preoccupations with seeing and being seen. And Joseph uttered those powerful words with which the parshat began. “”Please come closer to me,” and they drew closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” (45:4) One cannot help but weep when you read this verse.

Here is the epiphany. This is where Joseph once again becomes a Hebrew. For he comes to recognize that it is not his skills, it is not his attributes of seeing into the future, but only that he was an instrument of God’s will. He returns to the beliefs of his forefathers. You are not to blame for selling me into slavery. I am not to be credited for achieving such a high position in the world. It is all part of God’s will and how God reveals himself. It is the cunning of history. It is the cunning of the divine spirit. “God sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve [it] for you for a great deliverance.” (45:7)

This, in the end, is what Judaism is about. No matter whether you are a lowly serf or someone who has achieved the highest honours, you are but an instrument of history, an instrument of God’s will. The rest of the parshat is but the unpacking of this self-discovery, this self-revelation, this coming to recognize God as the ultimate Other, while, at the same time, working His will through our various hearts.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Names and Games: Joseph’s Politics

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

by

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

Joseph – Parsha Vayeishev (Genesis 37)

by

Howard Adelman

This parsha is but the first of four (Miketz, Vayigash and Vayeh as well) telling the story of Joseph, a story which Andrew Lloyd Weber told in one musical evening in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. That was not quite the interpretation of the story I would tell. My version is told in the shadow of Jacob wrestling with the stranger, perhaps the same stranger who would redirect Joseph’s search for his brothers from Shechem to Dotham. It is also the story told against the much fainter shadow of the treatment of Dinah, someone also effectively cast out by her brothers. And it is a story that, after this parsha, will be interrupted by the tale of Tamar and Judah.

“This, then, is the line of Jacob,” begins the parsha. But verse 2 which effectively ends the period of the three patriarchs, though Jacob would live many more years after Joseph was sold off to slavery in Egypt, does not, in fact, tell us about the entire lineage of Jacob, only of his twelve sons, including the late-born Benjamin who arrived after Jacob’s return from his uncle Laban. For in addition to the twelve sons that headed the twelve tribes of Israel, there was Dinah. Dinah was the seventh child of Leah after she gave birth to six sons. She was still young, probably a teenager, when the family returned and likely the youngest sibling except for Benjamin. She was probably just a year or two younger than Joseph who was seventeen when this week’s parsha begins.

Further, we are told that Jacob favoured Joseph. Not Benjamin who was indeed the youngest, but also the one Jacob may have partially resented for his beloved wife, Rachel, died in giving birth to him. Not Dinah who was about the same age as Joseph and Jacob’s only daughter. And why not? Don’t fathers usually dote on their daughters? Is it not strange that Jacob does not?

Dinah is clearly adventurous and perhaps a fun-loving teenager. Perhaps she was in search of a father figure. In Shechem, she goes out “to visit the women of the region.” Curiousity? To make friends her own age and get away from the stodgy old adults she felt suffocated her? Or, perhaps, even to get into some hanky-panky, where visiting the women of the region becomes an association with prostitutes rather than the wives and daughters of the local inhabitants. She goes out alone, unchaperoned. That was both dangerous and certainly contrary to standard practice. “Girls out alone are looking for trouble.” So the saying goes, however untrue.

Further, in the next portion, Tamar as a widow plays the role of a prostitute in order to get her father-in-law to sleep with her so she can conceive a child in his line. She does it when he went off to shear his sheep. Tamar is a widow. Judah is a widower. Thus, there is nothing wrong with their having sex. Tamar does not engage in intercourse for money, for bargaining for an ewe in return for sexual favours was a ruse, not the intention of making herself available. The only point here is that Dinah was never an adulteress – adultery was strictly forbidden. Nor was she a prostitute simply for “wanting to have some fun.” She would only have been a prostitute if she exchanged her sexual favours for money.

Dinah finds the “fun” she is looking for in Shechem. The spoiled local prince, used to having his way, espies her. Presumably he tries to woo her. Perhaps she resists. He rapes her. Or did he? The text reads that he took Dinah by force. But the precise Hebrew is that Shechem “saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.” (34:2) The force follows taking (as in taking a bride) and lying with her – וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ. The text does not say he forcefully took her. Further, the root,עָנָה , does not suggest coercion, but a response, a reaction, reciprocity and not that Dinah was taken by force. It suggests that she possibly responded and acceded to Shechem’s seduction.

Shechem was smitten. He not only wanted Dinah sexually. He fell in love with her and wanted to wed. He asked his father, Hamor, to pay the bridal price. Jacob heard that his daughter had been defiled, meaning, perhaps only that she had lost her virginity and not that she had been raped, but she had lost it to a man who was not a member of the tribe. To be defiled is something different than being a prostitute. This is explicitly made clear in reference to the High Priest. He (the high priest) “shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or one divorced, or a woman who has been defiled, or a harlot, these he shall not marry; but he shall take to wife a virgin of his own people, that he may not profane his children among his people; for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.” (Leviticus 20:13) Jacob learns that his daughter had lost her virginity to a man who was not a member of the tribe, presumably at the same time as he learned that the supposed “rapist” wanted to marry his daughter, a situation which usually allowed a perpetrator of rape to get off free of any reprimand.

Jacob, ever the cautious calculator, bides his time until his sons return from their shepherding duties. He is then told that the brothers were incensed. Perhaps they adored their little sister. Perhaps they felt guilty that she had been allowed to go off visiting by herself. Perhaps they had adopted a new moral dictum that rape was never forgivable, even if the rapist offered to marry the girl. After all, the text says that Shechem “had committed an outrage in Israel (my italics) by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done.” (Genesis 34:7) The new moral seemed to state that not only is rape a crime, but even sleeping with a shegetz is a crime, and then not just for a High Priest. A shegetz, from the Hebrew, sheketz, applies its connotations of detestable and abominable to non-Jewish young men.

For this transgression, which Shechem and his father probably did not know, not only Shechem, but his father and ALL the males of the tribe were slain. Not only slain. But murdered en mass after they had welcomed the Israelites to share their land, their women and their resources. The men of Shechem even went further. They agreed to be circumcised, but the text does not say that they agreed to adopt the God of Israel as their God. Hamor and Shechem convinced all the men of the city to go along with the deal. And when they were in terrible pain recovering from an adult circumcision, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, full brothers of Dinah, “took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males.” (34:25) Even worse, the rest of Jacob’s sons, presumably including Joseph, unless the reference was only to full brothers, plundered the town, took all the women and children captive and appropriated all the herds and property.

Jacob was bothered by the action, not because it was heinous, but because his tribe was still relatively small and the local population could unite against the Israelites and destroy them. Jacob did not think of Dinah’s humiliation, which could in part have been redeemed if he had allowed her to marry Shechem. He did not say anything about the deceit and the horror of the crime his sons had committed. His only thought was to remonstrate his sons for putting them all in danger. Jacob had not changed character one whit since he had wrestled with the stranger. And then the brothers offered their lame excuse: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (v. 31) even though Hamor’s and Shechem’s offer made it unequivocally clear that she would not be treated like a prostitute. Further, there was never any question until they utter this phrase that their sister had offered herself for money. She was at most taken by force, but more likely cooperated in the seduction.

The plunder and looting never bothered Jacob. Uncalculated murder, mayhem and warfare did. On his death bed, after he had remonstrated Reuben for sleeping with his concubine, Reuben, “unstable as water,” was the one who disgraced his father, the same Reuben who prevented his brothers from murdering Joseph with the intention of saving him before he was sold to slave traders. Jacob did not seem to know or understand who Reuben was and the sense of responsibility he carried. Simeon and Levi were chastised for using weapons as tools of lawlessness and allowing anger to determine their actions, including the murder of men. Those two sons were cursed and were to be “scattered in Israel.” (Genesis 49: 4-6)

What does the Dinah tale have to do with the Joseph story that virtually monopolizes the Torah portion this week and for a month after? I will not repeat the full story. It is all-too-familiar. What I want to first do is set key elements of the story against the backdrop of the “rape” of Dinah.

First, Joseph is portrayed as a snitch. He tells his father that the four sons of his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, were engaged in evil, but we do not know what that evil was. Was Joseph, so much an expression of his creative imagination rather than rational calculation, making this accusation up? He is portrayed as a dreamer, not an exaggerator. But even then, was he not a whistle blower? There is no reason offered why he had to inform his father of his brothers’ behavior. But he is not quite the whistle blower, though he took enormous risks in informing on his brothers. Perhaps “snitch” is more accurate. We also learn that Joseph’s brothers despised him, presumably because he was his father’s favourite. They also treated him uncivilly, but this might have been more because he was a dandy and wore a coat of many colours. As Jacob was to Esau, so Joseph was to all his brothers. But also a snitch. A dandy. And his father’s favourite. We know where the detestation and rude treatment of Joseph by his brothers, however itself detestable, came from.

The brothers’ treatment of Joseph was adumbrated in their treatment of Dinah. Though the deplorable act of her two natural brothers killing all the men of Shechem and Haror’s town enormously overshadowed their treatment of Dinah, the way they thought of, discussed and referred to Dinah was horrific, though not nearly as great a crime as mass murder. Admittedly, they did not engage in honour killing just as they decided to fake Joseph’s death and instead sold him into slavery. The fact remains, Dinah, like Joseph, also had been terribly mistreated. Not only was she called a whore by her brothers, presumably attempting to defend their own honour more than hers. They never asked what Dinah wanted. They never gave any consideration of her feelings, her wishes, her desires or her persona.

They were not nice guys. And they became even worse.

There was a big difference between Dinah and Joseph. Dinah was an adventurer. Joseph was a dreamer, a dreamer who easily surpassed the reputation of his father’s. But Joseph as a youth lacked his father’s diplomacy. Tell it as it is without conniving or manipulation. Hence his dream of the sheaves in which the sheaves of his brothers bow down to those of Joseph. Joseph even had the gall to tell his brothers his dream. They despised the arrogant snitch and dandy even more. Even more troubling, he had a second dream of eleven stars, the sun and the moon all bowing down to him no longer disguised as a sheaf of wheat. Even his father and mother would eventually bow down to him. Can you imagine Jacob dreaming not only that Esau prostrated himself before him, but so did Isaac and Rebecca? That suggests how outlandish and inconsiderate Joseph’s behaviour was in telling both his father and his brothers of his dream.

Israel, not called Jacob here, sent Joseph to go out and look at how his brothers were taking care of his father’s sheep in Shechem. We know that something momentous is about to happen when Joseph responds to his father’s request with the phrase, “Hineni,” here I am. Jacob then adds: יד וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר “Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock.” His first instruction is to report back on how they were fulfilling their responsibilities. Perhaps, remembering his favourite son’s reputation as a snitch, his follow up instruction, as if it was a second thought, was to report back also on the well-being of his brothers.

Was Joseph responding like his great-grandfather, Abraham, and stating that he was offering himself to the other, God in Abraham’s case, in complete dedication and commitment? If so, why would he have a dream where the sun, the symbol of his father, prostrates before him? The daylight of reason and calculation bows down to the night of dreams and fantasies, whereas, in the case of his mother, were she alive, the light of the night would bow down to the bright shine of the day. Joseph stood before Jacob in a very different way than Abraham stood before his God.

When Joseph went out to report on his brothers – one might ask why he was not out in the fields tending the sheep himself – he meets a stranger. He does not wrestle with him until dawn. Instead, the stranger – the man – asks him what or whom he was looking for since Joseph seemed lost. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where he was. But lost in the sense of bewildered when he could not find his brothers where they were supposed to be. They were not in the place where Abraham offered his sacrifice, where Joseph’s half-brothers killed all the adult males and conquered the city, but in a city nearby occupied by the Habiru who did not attack the Israelites, as Jacob feared, when the latter ravished Shechem, for the Habiru had always stood in rebellion against the overlordship of Shechem and his father.

Did Jacob send Joseph out to espy on his brothers because he feared their insensitivity to others and was worried that his sons might arouse the local populace because they resented the Israelites feeding their flocks on the rich pastures not rightfully belonging to them? For when Joseph told the stranger of his mission, the stranger told him that his brothers were not in Shechem, but were now in Dothan (דתין or דתן). They were not where they were supposed to be, but in the lush vale in Dothan. They were halfway between Shechem, now a holy place conquered by the Israelites, and Megiddo, that ancient fortress. Dothan was halfway between the symbol of both betrayal and promise and the fortress standing for the rule of might. Did its inhabitants fear the Israelites who had a powerful god or were they eager to prove they were bolder and stronger than these recent intruders who were now trespassing on their pasture land?

The brothers spied Joseph coming after them. They knew Joseph was a snitch and they were not where they had been told to be. So they conspired to kill their brother whom they always resented. Why then? Why there? Why were the brothers not in Shechem? Did it matter that they were not? Shechem is the first city Abraham entered when he reached the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:6) and where God proclaimed his promise to give the land to Abraham and his descendants. Jacob, when he returned from his uncle Laban in Padan-Aram, stopped in Shechem. Shechem is where he wrestled with the stranger or the angel. Shechem is where Jacob was renamed Israel. Shechem is the place where the rape or seduction of Dinah took place. So Shechem is both a very holy place as well as a place of defilement.

דת (dat), the first letters of Dothan, is a feminine noun. It means edict. It means law. It also means elect. Joseph was elected to lead his brothers. Israelites were elected to be a light unto the nations. “Dat” also refers to both a doorway and well, an entry point and a rich source of the abundance of the earth. It is the turning point where the Israelites will fulfill the promise made to Abraham and go down to Egypt, to the wealth of Egypt, where they would eventually become slaves and then gain their freedom and acquire their Torah and book of laws in their return to Canaan. Jacob was placed in the pit by his brothers when Reuben, the eldest, told his younger siblings not to get blood on their hands, but leave Jacob to be killed by the wild animals thereabout, though Reuben, carrying the responsibilities of the eldest, planned to come back and rescue Joseph.

The land, that will be Israel, was never forgotten as a promise. Although his brothers did not kill him and sold him as a slave to a group of Ishmaelite traders on route to Egypt, Joseph never forgot the land that he was promised to inherit and rule and, in his will, instructed that his bones be carried back and buried in that land. (Genesis 50:25) And it would be at Shechem that God repeated the promise and ordered Israel to return, both blessing and cursing the narrative of the nation’s tribulations. So Joshua split the nation, just as Jacob had once done, placing half in front of Mount Gerizim and half before Mount Ebal to confirm that, on the one hand, they would be blessed if they obeyed the law, and the other half to confirm that they would be cursed if they did not. Thus, Shechem, which was such a symbol of treachery and betrayal to both the goyim and by Jacob’s sons even their own father, was the place that finally and ironically would lead a cluster of rivalling tribes of one family into becoming a nation under the rule of law. But the Israelites were not yet ready. They had to be sent down to Egypt via Gothan for 400 years.

What role did Joseph’s dreams play in that trajectory and what role did the earlier treatment of Dinah? Though Joseph is carried off to Egypt in slavery, the crux of the narrative turns around the polarity of loyalty versus treachery. Shechem was where the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, buried the bones of their father on the very spot that Jacob bought initially from the family of Hamor. And Shechem became not only a symbol of both loyalty and betrayal, but a city that would stand for the rule of law. Further, it became, like Philadelphia, a city of brotherly love, a city of refuge, a city to which refugees from tyranny and the miscarriages of justice could flee and receive protection. However, it was at Gothan that Joseph was cast out as a refugee, placed into slavery and taken to Egypt.

In the process, a version of the trick that Jacob played on his father, Isaac, would be played on him. But instead of Jacob wearing the skin of a goat on his arm to appear hairy like Esau, his sons had soaked Joseph’s many-coloured coat in goat’s blood, suggesting that he was killed and eaten by wild animals. Dinah will disappear from history, the fate of an adventurer taking risks in an unknown land. Joseph will loom even larger in history than even Jacob as he becomes the vehicle for saving both the Egyptians and the Israelites from famine. For Jacob bends and uses his fantasies and dreams rather than deceit and manipulation to assume and wield power. Joseph is the progenitor of a very different kind of politics than the politics of might is right or the calculating politics of a Kissinger (Jacob) who uses positions of power to advance self-interests. Joseph will lead because he is a visionary of a global political landscape where helping one’s own and helping the other are synergistic and not oppositional. Joseph, the hero of the story, stands in contrast to Dinah who was treated as a prostitute by her brothers.

But it is well not to forget that Jacob was a whistleblower or a snitch, with all the problems of discerning whether what is leaked is false news or profound revelations.

With the help of Alex Zysman

Genesis Chapter 37 בְּרֵאשִׁית
א וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו–בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן. 1 And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
ב אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב, יוֹסֵף בֶּן-שְׁבַע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו; וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה, אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם. 2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil report of them unto their father.
ג וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו–כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא, לוֹ; וְעָשָׂה לוֹ, כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours.
ד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו–וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם. 4 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
ה וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם, וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד, שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ. 5 And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren; and they hated him yet the more.
ו וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲלֵיהֶם: שִׁמְעוּ-נָא, הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתִּי. 6 And he said unto them: ‘Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed:
ז וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי, וְגַם-נִצָּבָה; וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם, וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי. 7 for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.’
ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ, אֶחָיו, הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ, אִם-מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ, עַל-חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל-דְּבָרָיו. 8 And his brethren said to him: ‘Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.
ט וַיַּחֲלֹם עוֹד חֲלוֹם אַחֵר, וַיְסַפֵּר אֹתוֹ לְאֶחָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה חָלַמְתִּי חֲלוֹם עוֹד, וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּוֹכָבִים, מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לִי. 9 And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said: ‘Behold, I have dreamed yet a dream: and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.’
י וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל-אָבִיו, וְאֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיִּגְעַר-בּוֹ אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ: הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא, אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְךָ, אָרְצָה. 10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said unto him: ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?’
יא וַיְקַנְאוּ-בוֹ, אֶחָיו; וְאָבִיו, שָׁמַר אֶת-הַדָּבָר. 11 And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind.
יב וַיֵּלְכוּ, אֶחָיו, לִרְעוֹת אֶת-צֹאן אֲבִיהֶם, בִּשְׁכֶם. 12 And his brethren went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem.
יג וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, הֲלוֹא אַחֶיךָ רֹעִים בִּשְׁכֶם–לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנֵּנִי. 13 And Israel said unto Joseph: ‘Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them.’ And he said to him: ‘Here am I.’
יד וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר; וַיִּשְׁלָחֵהוּ מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן, וַיָּבֹא שְׁכֶמָה. 14 And he said to him: ‘Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock; and bring me back word.’ So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.
טו וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה; וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר, מַה-תְּבַקֵּשׁ. 15 And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field. And the man asked him, saying: ‘What seekest thou?’
טז וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ; הַגִּידָה-נָּא לִי, אֵיפֹה הֵם רֹעִים. 16 And he said: ‘I seek my brethren. Tell me, I pray thee, where they are feeding the flock.’
יז וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ, נָסְעוּ מִזֶּה–כִּי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֹמְרִים, נֵלְכָה דֹּתָיְנָה; וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו, וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן. 17 And the man said: ‘They are departed hence; for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan.
יח וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק; וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם, וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ. 18 And they saw him afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him.
יט וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו: הִנֵּה, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה–בָּא. 19 And they said one to another: ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh.
כ וְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ, וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת, וְאָמַרְנוּ, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; וְנִרְאֶה, מַה-יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’
כא וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ. 21 And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’
כב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ-דָם–הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ-בוֹ: לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו. 22 And Reuben said unto them: ‘Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’–that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father.
כג וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר-בָּא יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו; וַיַּפְשִׁיטוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף אֶת-כֻּתָּנְתּוֹ, אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו. 23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that was on him;
כד וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ–וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ, הַבֹּרָה; וְהַבּוֹר רֵק, אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם. 24 and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.
כה וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד; וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים, נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט–הוֹלְכִים, לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה. 25 And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt.
כו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה, אֶל-אֶחָיו: מַה-בֶּצַע, כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ, וְכִסִּינוּ, אֶת-דָּמוֹ. 26 And Judah said unto his brethren: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?
כז לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, וְיָדֵנוּ אַל-תְּהִי-בוֹ, כִּי-אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ, הוּא; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶחָיו. 27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him.
כח וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים, וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִן-הַבּוֹר, וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף; וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, מִצְרָיְמָה. 28 And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt.
כט וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל-הַבּוֹר, וְהִנֵּה אֵין-יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר; וַיִּקְרַע, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו. 29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes.
ל וַיָּשָׁב אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיֹּאמַר: הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ, וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי-בָא. 30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’
לא וַיִּקְחוּ, אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת יוֹסֵף; וַיִּשְׁחֲטוּ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים, וַיִּטְבְּלוּ אֶת-הַכֻּתֹּנֶת בַּדָּם. 31 And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat in the blood;
לב וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, זֹאת מָצָאנוּ: הַכֶּר-נָא, הַכְּתֹנֶת בִּנְךָ הִוא–אִם-לֹא. 32 and they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said: ‘This have we found. Know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not.’
לג וַיַּכִּירָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; טָרֹף טֹרַף, יוֹסֵף. 33 And he knew it, and said: ‘It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.’
לד וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו; וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל-בְּנוֹ, יָמִים רַבִּים. 34 And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
לה וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל-בָּנָיו וְכָל-בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ, וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם, וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה; וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: ‘Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.’ And his father wept for him.
לו וְהַמְּדָנִים–מָכְרוּ אֹתוֹ, אֶל-מִצְרָיִם: לְפוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה, שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים. {פ} 36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard. {P}

The God-Wrestler

The God-Wrestler: Track II Diplomacy

Parashat Vayishlach Genesis 32:4−36:43

by

Howard Adelman

We know, at least if the reading of the Torah that I adopt has any relevance, that Jacob is a schizophrenic individual – one who is born a Yeshiva bűcher, one destined to be a scholar lost in reading, reflection and thought, but one born clinging to the heel of the first-born twin, Esau, the hunter, a man of skills in acquiring the material goods of the world, a man who belongs in that physical world and disdains abstraction and reflection. Jacob grows up envious of his brother’s practicality and superiority in mastering the ways of the world, his sheer physicality.

Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, recognizes not only his otherworldliness, but the necessity of gaining mastery in this world if one is to survive and prosper. While Jacob could on his own easily and without much effort get Esau, who disdained relying on another for his success in the world, to trade his birthright for a bowl of hot soup, the abstract victory was meaningless unless Jacob knew what to do with it. Jacob still had to actually learn to be Machiavellian, to learn cunning, to learn the ways of the world. In fact, unlike Esau, he would have to be cunning to survive.

Rebekah thought she could teach him the cunning needed to succeed and contrived a scheme to win Isaac’s blessing as well as the birthright which he had obtained on his own. She would have Jacob trick his father by pretending to be Esau. But Isaac, though he was also a man of reflection, a man of tents rather than a practical survivor, who survived and became who he was only because God intervened and prevented his being sacrificed, was a man of irony, who perceived the world with a wry eye, who saw through the ruse, but went along with it.

So Jacob wins both the entitlement and his father’s blessing to have a rich and successful life in this world. Would he lose his own soul in the trade off? After all, in dealing with his father-in-law, Laban, he had to use trickery in the end to really outwit the old man, the father of his beloved. But it really took him two decades to learn the lesson, to acquire the wealth and learn how to keep it.

In the encounter that takes place in this portion of the tale, he meets his third test – the one that would complete his winning the birthright and his father’s blessing. It was to be a test in the real world and bring him back to his birth clinging to the heel of his brother. The outcome of the encounter is adumbrated in the section when Jacob wrestles with “ish” in that very enigmatic tale and then in his actual encounter and meeting with Esau after a separation of twenty years.

But the section has two other stories in addition to the tale of Jacob wrestling with “ish” and Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. First, there is the awful bloodthirsty and morally repugnant story of Dinah, the murder of all the men of Hamor’s tribe when they were incapacitated by Simeon and Levi, the rape and the revenge extracted under the leadership of Reuben, the eldest brother. Then there is the story of the birth of Benjamin and the death of Jacob’s truly beloved, Rachel, in childbirth. In order to understand and unravel the meaning of the first puzzling story of Jacob’s wrestling match, and Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau, I want to work backwards from the meaning of the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel.

“Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labour. When her labour was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, ‘Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.’ But as she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath — now Bethlehem.” (Genesis 16-19.”

Thus, the four following tales will be discussed in reverse order:

  1. What does it mean for Jacob to wrestle with “ish”?
  2. The Meeting of Jacob and Esau
  3. The Rape of Dinah and the Sack of Shechem
  4. Birth of Benjamin.

I have already told my readers that the latest book of my daughter, aptly named Rachel, just came out. An inscribed copy just arrived in the mail several days ago. Chapter 9 of The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception & Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible is entitled, “’Passing Strange’; Gender Crossing in the Story of Joseph and Esther.” In her book, Rachel argued, as illustrated in the case of Rebekah teaching Jacob how to win his father’s blessing intended for Esau concerning his future prosperity, about the central role of the feminine ruse to history and realpolitik.

Rachel begins the chapter with a quote from Act 1, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Othello:

My story being done

She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.

She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,

‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.

She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished

That heaven had made her such a man.

It is the story of how Desdemona became so enchanted by Othello. She came again and again, driven by a prayer of her earnest heart, to hear Othello’s story of his pilgrimage through an adventurous life of a military commander, tales which Othello used to “beguile her of her tears” as he told of his painful encounters as a youth and a man who achieved greatness in the world. Desdemona confessed that, “’twas strange, ‘twas passing strange, ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful” as she expressed her envy and admiration for such an adventurous life.

Rachel (my daughter, not the biblical one) in the previous chapters of her book argued that deceit was a particularly feminine art of subterfuge, an art that allows the weaker “sex” to seize the reins of power from her counterpart. Jacob was an effeminate man who had to learn from his mother, Rebekah, the wiles of women in order to win power and wealth in this world. In the construct of sexual politics, Jacob:Esau = woman:man. He was passive but incorporeal, emotional but also calculating. Rachel’s chapter is about both Joseph and Esther, the descendent of Jacob’s last-born son, Benjamin, as feminine figures, a story which began in the internal struggle between Jacob’s feminine and his masculine side.

Rachel outlines all the parallels between the two stories of Esther and Joseph:

  • In a hierarchy of political power, both are “other,” strangers in a foreign court;
  • Both aim to please;
  • Both use the art of discretion to hide their identities to save their people;
  • In the process, the feminine side molts into the masculine as it once did with Jacob.

Both are stories of subterfuge, as has been and continues to be the tale of Jacob. Just as Isaac, as I interpreted the text, “saw” through the subterfuge of his son, Jacob, Jacob too would adumbrate the character of Joseph who could resist the entreaties of the wife of his boss, Potiphar. I do not intend to go through the parallels that Rachel draws out. (Read the book yourself.) Suffice it to say that Esther must not only use her feminine insights to unveil Haman’s ambitions and destructive behaviour, and thereby save her people, she also has to construct the revelation such that Haman will destroy himself and all the power that accrued to his retinue and family. She needed total victory. For she was in a battle with absolute evil.

As a true child of her forefather, Isaac, the book of Esther is weighed down in ironies. For it is a tale of how a Barbie doll became the power behind the Persian throne just as the story of Joseph was about how a dandy became the power behind first the Egyptian throne and then the onward success of Israel. But that whole process depends on the self-transformation of Jacob into Israel and the lesson that will be transmitted from parent to child through the descendents of Benjamin (or Benjamim, spirit man), the youngest son of Jacob. But how did Jacob learn that lesson and what was the lesson?

Before we move back to the story of Jacob’s wrestling and his meeting once again after a long absence with his brother Esau, we take up the story of sex and extreme violence that follows. Dinah, like Desdemona, is enthralled by adventure. She is more akin to her Aunt Rachel than even her own mother. At a very young age, she leaves the safety and security of her father’s home to travel to the land of Canaan, not to find a boyfriend, a man like Othello, but “to see the daughters of the land.” (Genesis 35: 16-19) But instead of seeing the daughters of the land, she meets up with Shechem, the son of Prince Hamor the Hittite, who “saw her, took her and lay with her, and violated her.”

In the Shabat morning study with our rabbi, I have had to revise my interpretation of the story. Rabbi Splansky suggested that it might not have been a rape. The word itself can be translated simply as “diminished”. Further, there is no mention that Dinah did not participate willingly. Further, she remained in Shechem’s house and did not return to tell her family. We are not told how Jacob came to learn of what happened to his daughter, but hear he did. Shechem says he loved her, not a usual feeling towards the victim of a rape. The sexual intercourse may have been consensual. But she may have been underage. Further, given the norms, Shechem should have asked permission from her father first.

What we do know definitively is that Shechem fell in love with Dinah, wanted to marry her. That, after all, was the honourable thing to do at the time, but especially true if he loved her. But when Hamor asks Jacob to allow his son to marry his daughter, Jacob asks for time to think about it and talk to his sons. We do not know how he actually responded to the request.

The sons, particularly her two full brothers, Simeon and Levi, are enraged that their sister was supposedly raped or even perhaps seduced by a tribe not approved by the Hebrew elders. But they agree to make a marriage contract. It seems clear that the contract was made in bad faith. It contained a very strange and unusual condition – that Hamor, his son Shechem, and all the men in that tribe, be circumcised prior to the marriage. Hamor and Shechem agree. They are circumcised as are all the men of the tribe of Hamor. And when they are circumcised and incapacitated by the pain of an adult circumcision, all the men are slain by Reuben’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, the latter the very one from whom the tribe responsible for maintaining the Temple would descend. Talk about tricks! This was the ultimate in subterfuge. But the substance is much worse – men who convert to the precursor of Judaism are all slain when they are helpless. Revenge is meted out, not just to Shechem. Genocide is committed against the whole tribe of Hamor, presumably by the argument that it takes a village to produce a rapist. Talk about punishing the innocent! Talk about collective punishment for the purported misdeed of one!

And how terrible a misdeed was it. Dinah was young. She was a virgin. He did not obtain her father’s permission first. But he clearly wanted to make amends and to share the lands of his tribe with Jacob’s tribe and all the herds and flock he had brought with him. As far as one can read, the offer seemed sincere, as evidenced by adult males being willing to undergo a painful circumcision.

This is a tale of deceit, negotiating in bad faith, a tale of guile that, even if it was rape, would not justify the response and especially the cowardly way it was carried out. All the other brothers – Jacob is not mentioned – participate in the pillage and seize the spoils of “war”. Not only the flocks and herds, but the sons of Jacob took the women captive and raped them. God never reproves their behaviour. This is in spite of the fact that it was also a deep misuse of the covenant central to Judaism. To use the brit milah, so sacred and central to the whole religion, to perpetuate this horrific act of revenge, turns the whole tale into a triple evil, evil of the worst kind of deceit, evil of the worst kinds of acts – murder, abduction and rape – and evil of the greatest betrayal of one’s relationship to God, a misuse of the central covenant linking Jews to their God. And Simeon and Levi would be punished.

Just before he died, Jacob blessed each of his sons in turn. However, he cursed Simeon and Levi together rather than singly.

49:5 Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.

49:6 O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.

49:7 Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

And scattered they were. They were the only two tribes that did not get their own land. Just before he cursed them and denied them their own land, he had cursed Reuben, not for instigating and masterminding the atrocity, but for sleeping with his concubine Bilhah.

49:3 Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: 49:4 Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.

Reuben was more like his uncle, Esau, but with a greater sense of his own honour as well as strength. But he did not know how to manage it, how to control it, how to direct it. He was like Michael Corleone’s eldest brother in The Godfather, Santino (Sonny) Corleone.  Just after they perpetrate their great crime, Jacob admonishes his sons, but it is not for the evil they perpetrated, but for spoiling his reputation as a man of integrity and honour. “Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land.” This suggests Jacob’s motives in the whole affair. Shechem, the rapist hopelessly in love and losing all his defences, turns into the ultimate victim. This tale of treachery, deceit, cruelty and evil is hard to stomach. And it is not clear whether Jacob is much better for he seems only to care about how he is regarded by others.

But as we will learn from the stories of Joseph and Esther, how one appears to others is critical to political success, critical to having your way in the world. So there are two sides to Jacob’s reaction, his seeming indifference at the time to crime was committed to the enormity of the evil, though this is misleading for at the end of his life he reveals the second side and clearly seems to comprehend how evil their actions were.

Dinah means judgement. Is there any possible way such horrific judgment can be justified? Right-wingers might do so, arguing that when facing evil, and rape is an evil and a rape culture is an even greater evil, then you have to get your hands dirty. I accept the need to get your hands dirty. But not that way. Further, it is the brothers who consider what happened as tantamount to rape. So why does God not reprove the perpetrators of this crime?

Put the story that follows, the birth of Benjamin, with this one. Benjamin is no Benjamin Netanyahu. Benjamin is the only son of Jacob actually born in Canaan and not Aram, and the only one of his children who remained innocent and without sin. Benoni means “child of my pain” and refers to the pain Rachel suffered in giving birth, the pain so grat that she died in giving birth, the pain of not being able to see her second son grow up, and the pain her death inflicted on Jacob at the loss of his beloved Rachel when she died in giving birth to Benjamin. However, the name that stuck, the name that meant “son of the right (south) side,” a son both born in Canaan and a child that was not to be sinister (from the left side), indicated that Benjamin was an individual of extraordinary virtue.

So we go from the bottom of the pit of evil to the pinnacle of purity that will lead to Esther who has to be able to offer just the right combination of cunning and innocence to pull off the most magnificent example of espionage in Jewish history if not the history of the world. Esther is not obsequious even as she conforms to the outward practices of obeisance to the Persian ruler. She operates with subterfuge in a way that the lesson was learned traced back through Jacob and Rebekah. But the tale of Benjamin follows from members of his own family, Benjamin’s brothers committing a heinous crime in the name of the proverb used by zealots against doves; “He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.” Esther won her victory by using her beauty, by using her wiles, to allow Haman to destroy himself.

Now we can return to the tale of Jacob wrestling with “ish” and meeting up with his brother, Esau, after a separation of twenty years.

Jacob has left the land of his father-in-law with an abundance of sheep and goats, four wives, eleven sons and a daughter and servants galore. He has learned how to get what he needed in the material world from his scheming father-in-law. But when Laban chased him, God had to intervene to save him from Laban’s wrath at being bested by this son-in-law that he regarded as a schlemiel. Now he has to meet up once again with his twin brother who vowed to murder him for the theft of his blessing. As it turns out, Esau did not really need it. He had grown wealthy as well.

Once again, when Jacob camps beside the Jabbok River before crossing, he prays for God’s intervention to save him from Esau as he was rescued from the wrath of Laban. “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’” (Genesis 32: 12-13) Instead he is accosted by a stranger, the mysterious “ish,” often referred to as an angel. But before he does so, in his new cunning, he sends his twin brother “200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 16 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.” Esau had to be overwhelmed, not only that his shmedrick of a brother had become so wealthy that he could give away that many animals as gifts, but that they were the best of the best. They were “select” class. But he did not send them all at once. He sent them in a series of droves to build up his brother from being just impressed to being in awe, telling each drover in turn to tell his brother that Jacob was just behind. In any Machiavellian maneuover, the mode of delivery is as important as the substance.

Then he sent his wives, his concubines and all his children across the river and he returned to remain on the far side from his brother all alone. Why alone? In fear of Esau attacking him? Was it a self-protection measure of a coward? Did he intend to desert as the Rashbam, Shmuel be Meir, the grandson of Rashi, argued? We are not told. What we are told is that when Jacob was alone,

a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. 27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” 30 Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. 31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” 32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. 33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. Genesis 32: 26-33)

Had the cunning he acquired deserted him when he had to come face-to-face once again with a brother bent on revenge? Is he unable to escape this trap? Where is the God that promised to save him? He does come face-to-face with God. Unlike in the ladder or ramp dream, God may no longer stand beside him, but he can directly confront God. The other reality: he is on his own this time. He confronts the other side of himself who no longer recognizes the other whom he has become. Has he lost being Jacob, the man of the book, and become Esau, but only on the surface, a poor replica without Esau’s skill and daring and at the cost of his original scholarly instincts?

He wrestles with his alter ego and comes to a stalemate, but not before that alter ego, that spirit of Esau that he had incorporated within himself over the years, injures him in the hip, crippling him and ensuring that he will definitely not be able to take Esau on physically, but also that he will never be able to run again. At the same time, God is not present to intervene to save him. Instead, Jacob had learned to wrestle with the divine spirit within, with the contradictions that can incapacitate, and to carry the wound from the fight physically just as he is healed spiritually. In the morning, even crippled, he is now ready to fight Esau if he has to. He is now Israel, one who wrestles with God rather than one who simply follows God and depends on divine intervention for survival. He becomes the God-wrestler.

He divides his group in two phalanxes. The text and interpreters suggest he did it to allow a remnant to escape (Nachmanides). But he is no longer the coward he once was. He is now Israel. He is now an intelligent military commander. If he has to fight Esau, he will do so using a pincer movement, the very same traditional military maneuover that Paul Kagame used to win victories over and over again against the extremist genocidaires in 1994 in Rwanda, the very way an inferior equipped and manned army can defeat a stronger and better gunned enemy. This is a military maneuover not inconsistent with saving a remnant if that becomes necessary. But it seems clear that he is expecting a battle. Going to battle and planning one half of your side to escape if the battle ensues, seems moronic.

Precisely because he is willing to fight, he does not have to. His brother hugs him on their reunion. There will be no final battle between the twins. They are reconciled. And Esau asks Jacob to share the land between them.

But the new Israel is still also Jacob and not simply Esau. He was able to foresee that this would mean trouble. And he neither wanted to nor could wrestle with his brother again – for wealth, for a birthright, for a blessing. The only way he could remain Israel, the one who was both Jacob and Esau, was by clearly saying that he could not keep up with Esau on the physical front. So he agrees to follow Esau, but falls behind.

“And [Esau] said, ‘Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.’ But he said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die.  Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.’” (Genesis 33: 14-15)

Esau is Lord. Jacob refers to himself as his servant. Is this an act of distasteful obsequiousness? Or is it rather a way of avoiding an unnecessary future confrontation, For Jacob now knows he is Israel, the progenitor of a great nation, and does not need to win any victories over Esau. The servant will eventually become master of his own realm without the necessity of defeating the other, without the necessity of squashing Shechem and his tribe, without the necessity of becoming a regional or certainly a world power. As Joseph and Esther eventually do, he will live by his wits, by his intelligence and be quite happy to serve the masters of the physical universe, to live in booths when necessary, to celebrate Succot, so long as the nation is preserved. He will have learned the basic lesson of diplomacy, discretion and keeping some things hidden.