On Arrogance and Modesty: Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1

On Arrogance and Modesty: Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1

by

Howard Adelman

Moses is not introduced until Chapter 2 of Exodus. Instead, this book begins as a tale of the Israelite people and the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” (1:8) But we know who Joseph was. We just read a very long story about his life and achievements. And now we are introduced to a repressive Pharaoh. How is this Pharaoh (PII) depicted? How does his character, his dispositions, his motivations, his self-conception and his overall temperament compare to that of Joseph? Of Moses?

Pharaoh (PII) has none of the grace, the tolerance, the consideration and the humanitarianism of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph (PI), the Pharaoh who appointed Joseph as the vizier of Egypt. PII was a populist. He talked directly, just as Moses will, but Moses talked to God; PII talked to his people (1:9). He may have been an all-powerful leader, but PII championed the ordinary Egyptian against previous Pharaohs who, PII seemed to believe, succoured and welcomed strangers. PII presented himself as opposing the establishment, the previous powerful elite who coddled strangers in their midst. Against the interest in protecting and holding onto their labouring population, PII raged against the Israelites.

PII used the Israelites as a scapegoat. They were Other. They were totally other. They were inferior. But they were also numerous and, therefore, a potential fifth column – “in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise up from the ground.” (1:10) Do not welcome the stranger. Fear them. They are a danger. In the process, PII transformed Egypt from the benevolent rule of an autocrat (PI) to a state run as a one-person fiefdom. L’état c’est moi. PII began the process of dismantling the institutions that allowed Egypt to rule the ancient world. Instead of welcoming strangers among them, PII oppressed them. He rounded up those “strangers” and shackled them in forced labour. As he did so, the fear of the alleged dangers of the Israelites grew rather than diminished. The Egyptians were ruthless, without an ounce of empathy, and made life as bitter as possible for what had become a slave nation.

If PI had been constrained by economic realities, PII was not. The latter was willing to kill the source of his manual labour force, Hebrew boys, to service his paranoia and to use the fear of strangers as a way of mobilizing the Egyptians behind his autocratic rule. Was he effective? Not among the midwives who did not carry out his harsh decree and, instead, blamed the Hebrew women for being so healthy that they did not need a midwife. He may have been a populist, but could not use his tongue to persuade, just dictate.

He would be succeeded by another autocrat even worse than PII. PIII never acted with any strategic considerations in mind. His treatment of the Israelites was not a product of thoughtful and sound public policy, but rather of rants and stubborn determination to get his way. PII may have used the persecution of the Israelites to mobilize the Egyptian population behind him, but PIII disdained diplomacy altogether in favour of being a brawler, not just with anyone, but with the God of Israel. Contrast the behaviour of PII and PIII with the respect PI showed God.

It seems clear that PII was a macho male who lived off dominating the lives of others. He wanted and needed recognition. PIII would need even greater recognition, not as primus inter pares, first among equals, but as first űber alles. PIII would accept no rivals under any circumstances, and certainly would not accede to a God who was superior to himself in virtually every way. But his conflict with God would bring out his anxiety, his self-doubt, his emotional instability, his negative emotions and his propensity towards depression – when he was not being manic.

PII and PIII both lack any sense of curiosity (compare them in this regard to PI), imaginative capability, concern with or care for others. There did not seem to be an ounce of empathy or compassion in either. And PIII, though stubborn and determined to have his way, possessed no ability to think strategically in a disciplined manner, or to follow and submit to a set of rules, or even formulate such rules. Revenge was the driving force behind his behaviour rather than accommodation. As we will see, he seemed incapable of learning from experience.

Cognitively rigid and incurious, lacking any sense of emotional stability and calm, PII (and, subsequently, PIII), quite aside from being the oppressor of the Israelites, comes across as a most disagreeable fellow. PII was certainly driven and determined; PIII was even worse; he was, again as we shall see, restless and incapable of keeping a deal. He seemed to be a dynamo in perpetual motion, especially when contrasted with Moses. PII, the Pharaoh in the narrative before us, was the archetype of callous rudeness and arrogance. It would not be inaccurate to dub him a narcissistic mendacious two-dimensional performer rather than a three-dimensional human being. The only emotion both PII and PIII seemed capable of expressing was rage.

What a contrast with Joseph. But Joseph was far from a saint and just as far from being a Tzaddik, contrary to his publicists. He was as disagreeable as PII, but for different reasons. Joseph was a consummate actor with an instinct for making an impression on others. But Joseph was also a malicious gossip. If PII saw himself as greater than anyone, Joseph was very capable of his own aggrandized self-expression, though certainly more warranted. PII did not have to get along to get ahead. Joseph acquired the skill of the former to accomplish the latter. He acquired the skills of a diviner, but took no responsibility for his actions. Unlike Moses, who invited God to intervene in history, in Joseph’s world, God determined everything, eliminating the need for confession, forgiveness and, hence, acceptance of responsibility.

Look at the end of Genesis when his brothers begged for forgiveness. Instead of offering that forgiveness and permitting his brothers to accept and take responsibility for their actions, he cried. Unlike PII, Joseph was all sentiment, but lacked compassion, not to suggest that his brothers exhibited much. Joseph told his brothers: “Do not fear, for I am in the place of God.  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20) PII might have claimed that he was a god, but Joseph did the next worse thing. He said that he was in the place of God. Though God never spoke to him as he would to Moses. Joseph did not invite God’s entry into history, but insisted that what took place, even evil deeds, were just expressions of God’s will. For very different reasons, PII and Joseph both exhibited “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” What a contrast with Jacob! Both PII and Joseph, though radically different, could not accept that they had ever done anything wrong.

Both PII and Joseph presented themselves as gifts from heaven. But true Israelites “rose from the ground.” Moses was an exception. He came forth from the water.  The meaning of the name Moses in Egyptian meant “drawn out,” a name given by Bithiah, his adoptive mother, who pulled Moses out from the river. Bithiah’s name itself means “Daughter of Yah,” daughter of God. She became Moses’ second midwife. Joseph, in contrast, was named Zaphenath-paneah. The speculation about the meaning of that name that seems both the most scholarly as well as appealing to me is “he who is called life.” As much as Moses is a spiritual man serving as a conduit between God and man, Joseph is the epitome of a natural human driven by a quest for power and position as the expression of what it means to live at the highest level.

If Joseph was arrogant, Moses is the epitome of a great man who remains humble despite his royal upbringing. He first became a shepherd of sheep and then of humans as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela did in the twentieth century. But the latter two divined the future as Joseph did. God spoke to Moses face-to-face and Moses was the vehicle by which God revealed Himself to humans. Joseph said to his brothers that he would personally be responsible for their safety and well-being. Moses never attributed any credits to himself. His unique characteristics were not special. Perhaps many others could have done as well or better than he did.

Moses was not a goody-goody two-shoes. What is the first story told of Moses after the tale of his birth and his being drawn out of the water? It is the encounter with a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses rose up in anger and slew the man. He did not own up to the deed but sought to hide it by burying the man’s body. The next day when he witnessed two Hebrew slaves fighting one another, and intervened, they challenged Moses. “Who are you to talk peace and to dissuade us from fighting? You killed an Egyptian taskmaster yesterday. Are you threatening me now?” There was a witness. Pharaoh wanted revenge, even against a boy in his own household. Moses was afraid and fled.

Not much of an advertisement for a future military, political and religious leader of the Israelites. He fled to Midian. He went to a well, the J-Date for ancient Hebrews. Once more he intervened. But he did not kill. He simply chased away other shepherds harassing the priest of Midian’s seven daughters. And he watered their flocks. The Midian priest was impressed, invited Moses to dinner and then gave his daughter, Zipporah, in marriage. Zipporah had a child, Gershon. We move through Moses’ early life with the speed of lightning. Yet there is sufficient to capture his core character – caring, responsible, capable of taking a moral stance, but also possessing a volcanic temper.

Then the revelation. Not a dream needing interpretation, but the appearance of an angel of the Lord in a blazing bush, a bush that is not consumed by the fire. Moses will not be consumed with the anger within him as Pharaoh (PIII) will be. God is fire. Moses emerged from the water. Fire and water do not mix. Yet God called to him. And Moses, like Abraham answered, “Hinaini.” Here I am. Moses did not turn away. And God spoke directly to Moses, introducing Himself but not revealing his name. He called on Moses to lead his people out of bondage.

Moses replied. Who am I to carry forth so great a mission? How can I convince anyone? Moses had to be drawn out of himself. He had to develop and be transformed into a leader. How could he convince people? He was full of doubt, totally lacking in the certainty of either PII, PIII or Joseph. By signs and wonders, God replied. And he gave Moses a demonstration turning a rod into a snake and a snake back into a rod, covering the back of Moses’ hand with fish scales and then making his skin smooth again.

These are not arbitrary magical acts. And they are not just dreams either. The snake in the Garden of Eden is crafty and clever, shrewd and wily. Machiavellianism will be required.

We need a break; it is time for a joke. A Bishop of the church each day passed a Jewish beggar near the entry of the church. Next to him the Bishop saw a Christian beggar wearing a monk’s habit with a large cross around his neck. Each day the Bishop would drop a few coins into the box of the Christian beggar. After many days of passing the two, he stopped. He addressed the Jewish beggar. Why are you begging as a Jew in front of a Cathedral? Why don’t you go outside a synagogue among your own people? The Jewish beggar turned to the other beggar and said, “So Moishe, look who is trying to teach us how to raise money for charity?” Machiavellian indeed!

In the Garden of Eden story, the stiff staff, the rigid snake, can no longer stand up, but falls to the ground. In this tale, the sequence is reversed. The rod becomes a squirming snake and then reverts once again to a staff.

Moses was a merman who emerged from the water and grew up with delicate skin in the royal household. As one of my readers noted, Moses was like Elisa in The Shape of Water, an outsider in the Hebrew, Egyptian and Midian communities. If Elisa was mute, Moses too had a speech impediment.  Moses had “never been a man of words.” (Exodus 4:10) But God will instruct Moses what to say and do. Joseph, in contrast, was the one giving the credit. In Exodus, God takes the credit and Moses simply has to trust God that He will perform as needed. Aaron will speak for you to the people. This will guarantee that Moses can never become a populist. For he will not be able to address his people directly or claim they are his people.

Could one have a greater contrast with PII and PIII, but also with Joseph? Moses remains the epitome of a modest leader.

 

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

by

Howard Adelman

In the last few blogs, as well as some earlier ones, I wrote about dreamers, individuals who marry personal ambition and self-sacrifice to realize their dreams (La La Land), and those who translate and transform dreamers and dreaming into brilliant works of art (Guillermo del Toro who wrote, produced and directed The Shape of Water). Dreamers belong to a Dionysian world of the imagination, an imagination which insists that reality is complex and not a world of simple and simplistic maxims characteristic of the Apollonian world of reason and Occam’s razor. Reality for the dreamer is about grace rather than gravity.

I repeated the refrain from La La Land about “The Fools Who Dream”:

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

Dreamers are fools – or so they seem. They break hearts and make messes. But Elisa in The Shape of Water mends hearts (and as her gills restored), not only her own, but the hearts of the sensitive souls around her. Further, she does not appear to be a mess-maker. After all, she works as a cleaning woman who may, in her imagination, live in la la land, but this Chaplinesque hapless heroine proves that she can be as conniving and courageous, even more so, than the stick figures that rule over her daytime drudgery.

The longest narrative in Genesis is about a person who is purportedly one of the great dreamers of all time, but not a dreamer like his father Jacob. The latter, when fleeing his brother Esau whose blessing from his father he had stolen (going well beyond his treacherous bargaining for his brother’s birthright when he was younger), had a dream. It is a vertical dream of a ladder that reaches up towards the heavens on the rungs of which angels clamber up and down. (Genesis 28: 10-19)

Jacob’s dream is radically opposed to the dreams in the Joseph story. When Joseph was a teenager, he “prophesied” in a perilous pair of dreams that he would lord it over his brothers, though the meaning of the dreams was so plain that he did not have to interpret or divine their meaning. In total insensitivity to his brothers’ natural reaction, he followed his story of his first dream with another dream with the same interpretation. No wonder his father was annoyed with him. When Joseph later interpreted the dreams of the cook and the butler, Joseph did interpret and foretold their radically opposite futures. The situation was similar, though with far greater global and historical consequences, when Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams.

Joseph’s horizontal dreams, in contrast to Jacob’s vertical one, stretched into the future rather than towards the heavens. In the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, they adumbrated first seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of want. Joseph’s dreams were used for self-elevation and were those of a diviner. Jacob’s dreams were those of one chosen by God. He was guided by predictions delivered by God’s messengers. In contrast, Joseph is the deliverer of the interpretations of messages attributed to God. “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (41:16) But God does not interpret the dreams for Joseph. Joseph’s story belongs to the wisdom literature of diviners rather than the prophetic literature of the Israelites. As Pharaoh says, and he is not corrected by Joseph, “there is none so discerning and as wise as you.” (41:39)

God spoke to Jacob as he did subsequently to Moses and as he had to Abraham. However, as often as Joseph cites God as the author and the authority behind his dreams, Joseph is never addressed by God. God does not speak to Joseph, even to chastise him, as he does Jonah. God does not reprimand Joseph for engaging in malicious gossip about his brothers when he was a teenager or his enigmatic accusations of their being spies and thieves, and, most significantly, his puzzling demand that they return home and come back to Egypt with their brother Benjamin. He continues this mistreatment, but under the guise of charity, at the end of Genesis. And the irony!

בראשית נ:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי. נ:כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב.. Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. (Genesis 50:19-20; my italics)

The intentions of his brothers do not matter in moral judgments. For Joseph, a good will is not the only good without qualification and a bad will may even be an expression of God’s will. The divinely inspired dream of Jacob is radically different than the divination dreams of Joseph. Jacob’s dream humbles him. Joseph’s dreams, and even more so, his expertise in interpreting dreams, inflate his ego to proportions well-beyond the narcissistic fabulism of his teenage years. That arrogance is best illustrated when Joseph, in a false humility, claims that his dreams of divination are divinely inspired, that they are not his dreams, but dreams that come unbidden and, therefore, are supposedly delivered by God. He makes this assertion, not God.

Look more closely at the contrasts between Jacob’s dream and those of Joseph or the ones of others that he interprets. Jacob, like most prophetic figures in the bible, is his mother Rebecca’s boy; Joseph is his father’s favourite. Jacob in his flight from his brother Esau travels from west to east, having fled Beersheba for Haran. Joseph is transported from east to west and, not only settles in Egypt, but entices his whole family to leave the Promised Land and resettle alongside himself in Goshen. Jacob’s dream belonged to a certain place and came at a specific time, after he fell asleep at dusk with his head on a rock. Joseph’s dreams are more akin to daydreams and embrace vast territories of space and time rather than having a specific locale at a very specific time. There is no spot that is regarded as holy. There is no encounter with God’s messengers. Jacob’s vision is the guilt dream of a deceiver. Joseph’s dream is that of an achiever, a revealer who never feels a spark of guilt or recognizes his own role in deceiving others and deceiving himself.

Jacob was hated by his brother Esau, Joseph was hated by his ten half-brothers. Esau vowed to kill his brother after their father died; Joseph’s brothers are determined to kill him when Jacob was still very much alive. Joseph is saved at the last minute by Judah who sells him into slavery; Jacob flees towards his dream and purportedly comes to realize his mistakes and their consequences, though he can never accept that his brother loved him and forgave him. Joseph is transported away from his dream; it is his brothers who never cease distrusting him even when Joseph excuses their actions and insists that everything happened according to God’s will. They were not accountable and, by implication, neither was he. We are all mere instruments of divine will, according to Joseph.

The story of Jacob is one of self-transformation. Look at the harsh blessing he gives his sons before he dies compared to those Isaac bestowed on both him and his brother, Esau. The story of Joseph is radically different again. It is a tale of a brilliant administrator who saves the nations under the rule of Pharaoh, but then deprives Egyptians of their autonomy, of their status as freeholders of land. Joseph’s policies reduce them to serfs.

Jacob pursues freedom; Joseph does not, as his dream seemed to foretell, accept his brothers’ offer to become his slaves. But neither does he ever expressly forgive them or hold them accountable for what they did. Instead, he proclaims that there is no autonomy. There is no freedom. We are all instruments of a divine unfolding plan, a plan that made him viceroy over Egypt and the saviour of his family. Joseph claims – God never says it – “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (45:7, my italics) Joseph sounds like Donald Trump praising his own fabulous contribution, not recognizing that he, Joseph, would be the agent that delivered the Hebrews into years of slavery by a people that resented what Joseph had done to them.

Joseph, unlike Jacob, never hears the words of God, because he is so caught up in his own beauty and brilliance while, at the same time, taking no responsibility for his own actions or assigning responsibility to others for their actions. Joseph is akin to ones who hear the words of the Delphic oracle and can interpret the puzzle, but Joseph cannot hear the words of God that are always direct and straightforward. Further, Joseph always remains totally oblivious of the ironic ultimate meaning of his dream even as he demonstrates the cleverness of a shrewd mind. At the end of Genesis, he claims to understand his dreams as God’s communicating his divine plan to him and, thereby, reveals himself to be a diviner without a prophetic bone in his body.

Jacob goes to sleep at sunset and by sunrise, following his dream, he has moved from distress and angst to the path of deliverance. But in the Joseph story, though there is a deliverance from starvation, there is no moral deliverance. There is no autonomy. There is no responsibility. There is no accountability. But most of all, there is no forgiveness. And forgiveness – the ability to give it and to hold it back – is the highest expression of our freedom. Joseph never has to struggle. Jacob, in contrast, struggled with both humans and God. For those struggles, Jacob, meaning trickery and deceit, was renamed Israel, from שרה, “to strive with” and אל (El), God..

בראשית לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל. Said the Other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 32:29 Said He, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28-29)

Israel henceforth struggled and tried to be open and straight. But Joseph practiced even greater trickery on his brothers and was not straight. Joseph did not struggle even when he was a slave of Potiphar (Pharaoh’s steward). Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tried to seduce him when he had risen to the status of running the family household and Joseph had been such a blessing to that household. (Joseph would later rise to the status of running the whole of the Pharaonic kingdom.) God was always at Joseph’s side, but God never intervened on his behalf. The text reads:

בראשית לט:ב וַיְהִי יְ-הוָה אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי. לט:ג וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי יְ-הוָה אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְ-הוָה מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ… לט:ה וַיְהִי מֵאָז הִפְקִיד אֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ וְעַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ וַיְבָרֶךְ יְ-הוָה אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת יְ-הוָה בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה. YHWH was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that YHWH was with him and that YHWH lent success to everything he undertook… And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, YHWH blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of YHWH was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. (Genesis 39: 2-5)

Joseph rejected the advances of Potiphar’s wife, a theme of wisdom rather than prophetic literature. Why? Because, as he claimed, Potiphar has placed his complete trust in Joseph and put everything, except his wife, in his hands. How could Joseph make her husband a cuckold? That would be wicked and a sin before God. (Genesis 39:9) Joseph escapes, but leaves his coat behind. Potiphar’s wife uses it as evidence that Joseph had tried to sleep with her, just as Joseph’s brothers once used his coat of many colours to cover it with blood and claim that animals had probably killed Joseph.

Again, at another disastrous negative turn in his life, God evidently intervenes again. Joseph is delivered and raised up to a higher status. Is that because he declined to do a wicked thing with Potiphar’s wife? But if each turn and twist is about God’s predetermined plan, then he cannot take credit for his good fortune. Nor does he deserve any credit, even without God’s help, for he makes clear that he rejects her offers to sleep with her because he does not want to jeopardize his social and economic status. Jacob betrayed his brother’s and his father’s trust. Joseph, much sharper politically, refused to make that mistake, but is unjustly thrown into jail for his efforts. He repeatedly professes his innocence. At four different points in the overall story, he insists that everything that takes place is a manifestation of the guiding hand of God.

God, not Joseph, brought these events to pass. Joseph insists that he was not responsible for the good that emerged. But then neither could he be held responsible for the bad. And, because of the blindness of his soul, rather than that of his eyes, he will bring about the greatest calamity for the Israelites – their departure from the Promised Land and their eventual enslavement in Egypt, resented as they must have been by the Egyptians who had been reduced from freemen to serfs by Joseph. When Joseph introduces his father to his two sons when Israel’s eyes “were dim with age,” Israel switches the blessing in contrast to the trickery of his own father, he blesses the younger before the older. And he blesses Joseph and is no longer capable of struggling with God. He blesses Joseph and prophesizes, “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” (48:21) But, as it turns out, only to bury his father and then to resettle the Israelites in a foreign land.

Immanuel Kant insisted that the categorical imperative to treat others never as means to an end only is the sine qua non without which there can be no moral code. Others must be respected. Others must be recognized for being free men responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental principle without which there can be no moral behaviour. Freedom is the essence of morality, freedom which directs one’s attention to the needs of others rather than one’s own passions and desires. Joseph is oblivious of others’ needs, even though he emerged as a remarkable diviner and administrator.

Forgiveness is both the recognition of the other’s flaws and the error of their ways as well as the recognition of their autonomy and their need to take responsibility for their deeds. Joseph never gives his brothers an opportunity to repent and never offers them forgiveness. Instead, he relies on the old empty maxim that God is responsible for all that is and for all that takes place. None of us are responsible for our own actions. Joseph carries this principle forward to provide a ground for converting the status of free and autonomous Egyptian farmers to serfs and, therefore, indirectly to the recompense to the Hebrews when they are made slaves in Egypt.ut Kant was not a dreamer. For it is reason which provides the foundation for morality. It is reason that provides the foundation for the recognition of beauty. In this way, rather than Apollo being at loggerheads with Dionysius, reason permits scientific knowledge, morality and aesthetics to be complementary and consistent. In Kant’s world of ends and final causes, in his teleological worldview and recognition of judgment as the ultimate arbiter, science and morality can be reconciled. Kant cannot bless the ones who dream, cannot bless those who are foolish, cannot bless those who fall from grace from his lofty perch of his pure practical moral reasoning based on a maxim that is the ultimate expression of Occam’s razor. Kant cannot bless those whose hearts ache for the other, and, ultimately, cannot accept the mess they make.

However, rationalists like Kant are not the only enemies of dreamers. Diviners who pose as dreamers are even greater foes. They deny freedom by viewing the future as pre-determined by a divine hand. They deny freedom by eliminating forgiveness from their vocabulary. They deny freedom by eliminating the principle that each one of us is responsible and accountable for his or her own actions.

On Recognition: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

On Recognition: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

by

Howard Adelman

When is an apple is an apple is an apple, as CNN in its self advertisements insist it always is? In an era when charges of fake news fly about like bats at each twilight, there is a disorienting quality when you cannot recognize what exists that stands right before you. I was reminded of the humiliation and embarrassment of my mild case of prosopagnosia or face blindness, for yesterday I saw someone approaching. He looked like he knew me. As he neared me, he said, “How are you Howard? Bitterly cold, isn’t it?” It was my neighbour. I know him well. He and his wife have been at our cottage. But until he spoke, I had no idea of who he was. He had to have noticed that initially I had not recognized him. And his name did not even pop into my mind until we had passed one another. Had he noticed my bluffing and cover-up in my clichéd response? I felt so em-barr-assed.

Over the years, I have developed a whole system of subterfuges to disguise and hide my disability. My wife helps enormously in dealing with this disability. When we meet others whom she does not know, but I am supposed to, she introduces herself rather than waiting for me to offer an introduction. When I am alone, I look at the floor or appear distracted in thought, which I am often anyway, but often wonder if my being lost in thought has not been a defence mechanism.

However, my failure to recognize is not just a matter of faces. When I was a kid, I could never tell one model of car from another. Among my friends, recognizing different models of cars at the time was a matter of status. I have always insisted ever since that I have little interest in cars and in driving. Where do cover-ups start and interests end?

Yet my difficulties in face recognition, my limitations in object discrimination have never impaired my ability to engage in intellectual analysis or to make decisions. Perhaps those inabilities should have made me wary. Instead, my arrogance about my own intellectual prowess and decisiveness only increased. But I am sure I should have been more chary, more guarded and attentive. This inadequacy, after all, is not simply about the world out there. It affects one’s ability to engage in self-recognition.

We have been watching the TV series, “The Crown,” a Netflix production. In the third episode of season two, called Lisbon, Queen Elizabeth confronts Phillip on the royal yacht and calls on them both to lay “their cards on the table” and examine themselves and their marriage for what it is and has been and, hence, for what it can become. Phillip has been a playboy chafing at the restrictions and daily humiliations, at his behaviour being dictated by the moustachioed watchers of protocol. Elizabeth has been publicly humiliated by the widespread rumours and now evidence of her husband’s infidelities. In this wonderful interweaving of family and national politics, the royal family is presented as far more human with their errors and limitations than the widespread images of the cold queen, her detached spouse and their doltish son, Charles. Beside the political clods and liars, like Prime Ministers Sir Anthony Eden and Sir Harold Macmillan, the members of the royal family come across as simply flawed humans rather than arrogant, pedantic and malevolent graduates of Eton.

“Know thyself.” That was a major dictum of Socrates. But if you cannot even see what is around you, if you cannot even see how others perceive you, how can you know yourself? This is not just about personal relations and mainstream politics. It affects what we see and how we deal with everyday life and even nature. Just this past week, we saw what we believed was a wolf in the backyard. It was not behaving as a dog. With its arched back, with its wary pauses as it dug into a hole where a small critter had its home, capturing and devouring it, we were sure that this was not an Alsatian dog.

It turned out to be a coyote. Coyotes evidently now live among us in the city, not nearly as plentiful as the squirrels and racoons, but no longer a rare sighting. Further, as one of my former students wrote, coyotes and Algonquin wolves have interbred and perhaps a new species of wolf has emerged. My student wrote: “For some time, it has been a matter of dispute whether Algonquin wolves are a population of eastern wolves or a separate species, which is of practical importance because the extent to which they’re protected legally depends on how they’re categorized –  in 2016 the Ontario government reclassified them as a separate species and changed their status from ‘special concern’ to ‘threatened’ (i.e., from two steps away from ‘endangered’ to one step away). But one way or another they are heavily hybridized with coyotes.”

The question of whether an apple is an apple is an apple, whether a rose is a rose is a rose, can be a matter of some significance, especially to the apple or the rose. Was that a peregrine falcon I saw for the first time this fall or a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk? Given my terrible record in object as well as face recognition, I cannot be trusted. However, my wife is extremely discerning. But she too thought that what we observed a few days ago had been a wolf.

So, even the best of us can be fooled. But we are also often foolish as well as fooled. This week the UN General Assembly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by an overwhelming majority of 128-9. Canada abstained though, as some commentators opined, our country might have voted in support of the Americans had Trump been a bit more diplomatic and less confrontational in his approach. After all, every country is free to locate its embassy where it wishes. Every country is free to recognize the capital of another country. No other country is denied recognition of its capital. And the recognition came with a caveat that this did not predetermine in any way the borders of that Jerusalem. Jerusalem, certainly West Jerusalem, is and has been the capital for seventy years and there is almost no likelihood that it will not continue to be so.

In the UN vote that Obama (generally an admirable president in my eyes) failed to veto last December, perhaps in an understandable fit of pique against Netanyahu (who competes with Trump and Erdogan for being a diplomatic fool even as he fails miserably to come close to their stratospheric absurdities), the UN de facto declared Jerusalem to be the Palestinian capital and did more to pre-empt the results of peace negotiations, and thereby undermine them, than anything Trump did or say. The vote further carried far more weight – because it was a Security Council vote which carried with it obligations rather than a General Assembly vote which could never be more than a recommendation and a sense of general support. Ostensibly, the motion was a condemnation of continuing Israeli settlement activity. But the vote called allthe territory on which Israel had built Palestinian and not just disputed territory, which was certainly the case of Jerusalem, which had not been allocated to either side. The resolution, in effect, re-wrote the 1947 partition resolution.

Against all my own caution when it comes to initiating steps in international diplomacy that can have incalculable repercussions, counter to my huge antipathy to a lying and narcissistic president such as Trump,  in the aftermath of what has happened since, I am even tempted to cheer Trump for his boldness and for his willingness to call a spade a spade, much as my heart warmed when Queen Elizabeth told Eden to his face that he was a liar and told Macmillan that he was even worse, for Macmillan was a duplicitous liar, denying that he had even supported Eden in the Suez fiasco in 1956 when he clearly did. South Africa may downgrade its embassy in Israel to a “liaison office” as a symbol of support for the Palestinians, but that merely sends a message that the whole international process is not about objective evidence or fair negotiations, but about whose side one is on.

It is through such layers on my lenses that I read the story in this week’s portion of Torah when Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, meets his brothers once again after a long hiatus after they had thrown him into a pit many years ago and they do not recognize him. At the “re-union,” Joseph plays with them, insisting that they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back as surety for the food he is giving them, and, when they return, planting a gold goblet among their things when they depart so that, when his men search their packs on the way out of Egypt, they find the royal goblet and the brothers are accused of theft. Then the central confrontation takes place. Judah, who had assured his father Isaac that he would return with Benjamin, comes literally face to face with Joseph and asks that he, Judah, be held as a slave and Benjamin be permitted to return to his father.

Joseph cries, perhaps in response to seeing this brother’s devotion to Benjamin, and, even more, to their father, a devotion absent when he himself had been thrown into a pit, for Judah had urged that he be sold into slavery so the brothers would not have Joseph’s blood on their hands. Perhaps Joseph’s emotional response is because he sees that the brothers have changed and are no longer the young, irresponsible and cruel youth of yesteryear. Perhaps Joseph is simply tired of the ruse, of hiding both his identity and his guile from them. Whatever the reason, Joseph owns up to who he is and rejoices in his reunion with his brothers as Jacob never did with his brother, Esau.

What is the significance of this self-revelation and subsequent recognition? Why had Joseph been able to recognize his brothers after all those years, but they had not been able to recognize Joseph in all his royal finery and in a totally incredulous political position? The description answers itself – recognition is a matter of both context and expectations. Certainly, Joseph had taken advantage of his brothers’ non-recognition, arrogantly grilling them as if they were potential spies and now confronting their presumed lack of honesty when it was now Joseph who was not being honest with them.

Did this take place, as many moralist interpreters opine, so that Joseph would make his brothers recognize their past mistakes? Were the brothers carrying around with them, not only the sacks of grain that they had purchased in Egypt, not only the goblet Joseph had planted in Benjamin’s sack, but the guilt of their actions, not only against their brother, but, and perhaps more importantly, for their treatment of their father for whom Joseph was the favourite? Had that hidden guilt percolated to the surface now that their father might lose his youngest son, Benjamin, believed by him to be the only surviving offspring of his late beloved wife, Rachel? After all, Judah pleaded with Joseph begging the vizier to take him as his slave rather than Benjamin. Was this out of guilt for his past treatment of Joseph or guilt about the consequences to their father or, perhaps, both? Or was it because he felt honour-bound by the guarantee that he had given his father?

“So now, please let your servant remain as my lord’s slave in place of the lad, and let the lad go home with his brothers: for how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer”? (44:33-34)

Joseph could not contain himself any longer. He bawled like a baby – right in front of his brothers, right there and then. “I am Joseph – is my father [really] alive?” (45:3) But he had known his father was still alive. His brothers had told him. Had he thought that they were lying? In his arrogance, did he think that his father had really died grieving over the loss of his favourite son?

Maimonides thought that the story was all about repentance – the brothers’ repentance for what they had done to Joseph many years ago, as well as Joseph’s repentance concerning his cruel and possibly vengeful treatment of his brothers, not only currently, but in the past when he told his father malicious tales about his brothers. Maimonides wrote:

“What constitutes complete repentance? He who confronts an identical occurrence in which he previously transgressed, when (at another time) it is within his power to repeat the same wrongdoing, nevertheless restrains himself and does not succumb to temptation because of a wish to repent and not out of fear of authority … this is true penitence.” (Mishneh TorahT‘shuvah 2.1)

I don’t buy it. I do not accept Maimonides’ theory of repentance when an event recurs that reminds one of the original one over which a continuing guilt has remained. Such an effort at interpretation tries to reconcile Hebraic concepts with Aristotelian theory, which was always more concerned with a heroic life in which the virtues are cultivated rather than celebrating a life in which humans follow the covenant and the rule of law. In Hebraic thought, t‘shuva, return, or revisiting an old error, and hence repentance, is a result of recognizing a failure to observe obligations, not a failure to be an exemplar of virtue. For Aristotle, only bad men without virtue feel repentance.

Maimonides tried, and, I believe, failed, to reconcile Aristotelian and Hebraic ethics. Instead on making a mishmash of the two by inverting Aristotle and marrying the inversion to Jewish precepts, why not recognize that the Joseph story is not about repentance at all, but about recognition, recognition about who another really is and recognizing and owning up to one’s own responsibility for what has occurred in the past.

Dena Weiss has written that the issue in this story is not about the repetition in memory of a previous occurrence and, hence, exposing one’s guilt, but about presence and absence, about proximity versus distance. Joseph was viscerally moved because Judah confronted him face-to-face and spoke directly to him. The days of deceit, of misdirection, of distraction, of deception, of distortion, were over. Reconciliation was not a matter of making oneself over into an exemplar of virtue, but of recognizing another and, through that recognition, recognizing oneself and one’s obligations both to oneself and to that other.

The writer of “The Crown” recognized that essential character when Queen Elizabeth confronted her husband about reality and asked where they go from there. The answer comes in Phillip’s speech at their tenth anniversary party when he publicly and openly recognizes Elizabeth for the woman she is, a woman of loyalty, a woman of honesty and directness, a perceptive woman, a woman to whom he is now happy that he married despite all the trammels and troubles of living as a royal couple.

Recognition of who the other is and self-recognition go hand-in-hand.  As Weiss wrote, bodily proximity in recognition is far more important than ethical remorse in a crisis of the superego. The issue is not to beat oneself up and lash oneself on the backside, but to own up, to take responsibility, to be accountable and, thereby, change who we are and our relations with another. T’shuva is the meaning of the good life, not becoming a new person with heroic virtues, but becoming an older and more mature person who recognizes and admits to his or her own shortcomings and recognizes but does not hold over the other a Sword of Damocles for how the other behaved in the past.

“Yehudah came close to him and said, “If it pleases my master, may your servant speak in the ears of my master and do not be furious at your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.” (48:18)

After all, one of the major themes of the Torah is moving from a culture of shame to a culture of guilt, not guilt from failure to be the best and most virtuous, but failing to be oneself. Israelites move not only physically but from a culture of revenge to a culture of forgiveness. Only then can we overcome stereotypes of the other and blindness about oneself. In the end, this is why sex in a marriage is so important.

“Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’  And they were unable to respond to him because they were overwhelmed by his presence. Yosef said to them, ‘Please, come close to me.’  And they came close.  He said, ‘I am your brother Yosef whom you sold down to Egypt.  Now, don’t be distraught or angry that you sold me here, for God sent me before you for sustenance’.” (45:3-5)

Don’t feel guilt. Don’t feel shame. Just come close. Just be close. Do not promise that you will become who you are not, but be who you are, near and close to others, to your family and friends. Do not betray Eden as Macmillan did so treacherously, do not lie as Eden did to his Queen and to the Americans, do not be mendacious as Trump is, for if Trump had a record of integrity, then recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital might be viewed by others as an act of honesty rather than one of domestic political self-serving. Be close and do not be a manipulator from afar. To be dishonest is to be crooked. The categorical imperative of recognition is: Be straight. Let others know of your handicap. They will forgive you. They will compensate for you. You can depend on others.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Dreaming and Empathy

Dreaming and Empathy

by

Howard Adelman

One of the greatest speeches ever offered Americans, in fact, one of the greatest examples of soaring rhetoric ever, was that of Martin Luther King, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 23 August 1963 over a half century ago. It was titled, “I have a dream.” It was a call to make America great again – not great in power, not great in wealth, but great in making reality match ideal aspirations.

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

It is a dream that speaks to us today because Martin Luther King envisioned that one day the voters of Alabama would elect a man like Doug Jones who, in a deep red state, would beat Roy Moore, a racist, a hater of homosexuals and Muslims alike, a despicable man found guilty twice of flouting the constitution as a judge but never prosecuted for his alleged pursuit of nubile teenagers.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

It was and remains one of the great speeches of history about noble dreams.

In this week’s parshat, the dream being interpreted is not a noble one, but one dreamt by a noble, one dreamt by the great Pharaoh of Egypt himself. In Genesis 41, in fact, he is recorded as having had two dreams.

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke.And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

As Joseph uniquely interpreted that dream, it was about the seven fat years to come that would be eaten up by the following seven years of famine and shortages. It was an economic dream about the future. And it was a dream that offered Joseph the opportunity to play on that forecast to construct a national policy of savings and subsequent distribution that would enhance the reputation of Pharaoh far and wide, for the surplus saved would be shared broadly to help even non-Egyptians. A dream by a noble was translated into a noble dream.

In the writings of Cicero, also one of the great rhetoricians of history, in his essay “On the Good Life,” he told the story of Scipio the Younger who had a dream that Scipio the Elder had visited him from the nether or spirit world. The Elder told the Younger of his achievements, of how he had made Rome a great power, of how he had made the people of Carthage submit to Rome. But now the people of Carthage are becoming a noisy mob. Now they are protesting Rome’s rule. Now once again they are raising the conflicts of old, threatening the peace and challenging the imperial power.

Carthage is the city, Scipio the Elder urges, that the Younger must attack, that you must destroy. This is the city the destruction of which will turn you from an ordinary soldier to a great leader who can then use the victory two years later to become consul. Scipio the Elder predicts that this will lead to even greater accomplishments, the conquest and destruction of other cities in revolt and, most importantly, bringing order and discipline back to the rule of Rome itself which, because of Scipio the Elder’s own grandchildren, has become a place of licentiousness, anarchy and disorder.

Scipio the Younger’s dream is a vision of imperial might and power. It is a dream in which the sun is depicted as the ruler of all. There is only one sun and one ruler. And in his dream, Scipio hears the music of the spheres to which most people are deaf. He hears about the harmony promised by the spirit world, for the body is mortal, the flesh is weak, and the true self is the inner self, the spirit inside, the self-recognition that he, Scipio the Younger, is truly a god impelled by an inner and truer spirit, by an immortal soul within a mortal body, born to exercise the rule of the eternal god, rule that demands unquestioning obedience.

Why is Martin Luther’s dream, that is also attuned to the music of the spheres in the eternal spiritual world, about human equality, about freedom, about respecting the dignity of all, whereas Scipio the Younger’s dream is about harmony imposed from above by a powerful imperial ruler that quashes those who would question that power? Plato in the Phaedrus offers an answer. For Scipio the Younger’s dream was of raising earth to heaven while that of Martin Luther King was of bringing heaven down to earth.

Plato in his dialogue, Phaedrus, has a striking image, an allegory about the life of the soul, of what Jews call the nefesh. It is a story of a charioteer and who has harnessed and is driving forward as he directs two horses, one an unmanageable steed of passion in the quest for personal satisfaction and the other a horse of courage which, unlike the wild horse to which it is tethered, can listen and be guided by the voice of reason, of logos. The horse of courage is beautiful in shape with the highest moral qualities of virtue. The wild horse is ugly and foul. In the horse of courage, the wings of the angels, of the horse as the messenger of the gods, in particular, of Zeus, grow in strength and lift up the weight of the world to the heavens where the gods live. In the ugly horse of unbridled passion, the wings shrink and disappear. The bad horse will always drag the charioteer back to earth.

What is most notable about the Pharaoh’s dream, in contrast, is that, though it is a dream by a noble, though it is a dream by one who takes himself and is taken to be a sun god, it is such an earthly dream, about cows without wings, not horses, about stalks of wheat and not even animals. In the Socratic world, only intelligence grasped by logos and having no material appearance captures the character of the heavens. However, Martin Luther’s dream takes place in technicolour, for it is not just a vision about black and white lying down together in the same field, but of people of all colours in between, of people symbolized by Joseph’s famous multi-coloured coat.

The irony in Plato is that the advocate of these militaristic virtues of strength and courage and nobility was himself a Harvey Weinstein, said to be “unprepossessing to the point of grotesqueness.” Socrates had a flat nose rather than a bulbous one, protruding eyes and walked very awkwardly, a complete contrast to Joseph who was a man of beautiful shape, though having a foul mouth full of malicious gossip, especially about his brothers. Joseph was not only a tattle tale; he maligned his brothers and told of their so-called dirty deeds.

If Socrates had an “inner voice” that told him what was true and what was not, Pharaoh had a vision of the outer world that told him about how the world, how the future, would unfold. However, he could not interpret nor execute the message of his own dreams. Whereas the main concern of Socrates was the soul’s immortality, Joseph’s mission becomes serving the mortality of the body and ensuring that there is enough to eat and drink for all. Through logos, in the worship of Socratic reasoning, wisdom comes through purification of thoughts, through clarification of words and their meanings. Joseph’s wisdom comes from hermeneutics, the ability to interpret visions and dreams. For Socrates, in the last hours of his life in the Phaedrus, is more than ever preoccupied with the soul’s immortality and a framework whereby man is but a chattel of the gods destined if he is great to be enslaved to a divine vision.

The parallels and differences are striking. Socrates’ final days are spent in prison in dialogue with his fellow philosophers. Joseph had been cast into a pit, sold into slavery and ended up in prison on false charges only to be rescued because of his abilities to interpret dreams. He rises to the highest office in the land, the effective vizier of the sun-god, the Pharaoh. My colleague at York, the estimable specialist in Greek philosophy, Gerald Naddaf, translated a book by Luc Brisson called, Plato the Myth Maker. Myth and narrative was, for Plato, not up to the standards of logos, in which conclusions are derived by reason and defended by argument. The “truths” of myths, on the other hand, were not falsifiable before the high judge of reason. But Joseph’s visions were verified by the course of human history, as were Martin Luther King’s.

A myth, a dream, is not false news. Mythos, the term in Greek, is a word that takes the form of advice and is something one says rather than something one writes. It is neither true nor false, real or fake. From Xenophanes on, the purpose of Greek philosophy, of using logos, was to denounce the myths of Homer and Hesiod of having any validity. Plato brought mythos back into philosophy as a useful illustrative device. However, in the Torah, narrative, myth, dreams – the whole paraphernalia of the text – cries out; narrative is superior in allowing one to listen to the harmony of the spheres. But what is that harmony? Is it that of the war lover, that of the insistence on a unified and imperial command structure, or that of disorder, of disharmony in the family and in political life altogether?

In the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, we see that truth can be envisioned and not simply argued about and verified. But that truth needs an interpreter. However, what is more important is to attend to, not the skills of Joseph as an interpreter, but the wisdom of Pharaoh in using Joseph, not only as his interpreter, but as his vizier to carry out that vision. And it is not the vision of a sun god, of an imperial ruler, but the dream of a man who sees the world, not as it is, but as it is becoming, who sees his role as protecting and feeding his subjects and not of using them, like Scipio, both father and son, to achieve immortal glory. Mythos for both the Pharaoh and Joseph has both credulity and historical value that the monochromatic world of logos lacks. Memory and recollection of dreams and their interpretation offers the route to a better future. Instead of logos divorced from the oral tradition, a text that is wedded to oral memory is more significant, for it passes on the wisdom of the ages from generation to generation, from dor to dor, מדור לדור.

If he had been a man of prejudice, Pharaoh could have dismissed a dandy and possibly a gay man serving as his dream interpreter. Certainly, if he had been a Roman statesman, he might have freed his slave and even done business with him, but it highly unlikely that he would have appointed a former slave, his vizier. Finally, Pharaoh would not have authorized a program of economic distribution to protect the lives of all. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian Pharaoh criticizes the God, Theuth, the inventor of writing, by arguing that, “writing is not a recipe for memory and wisdom” but for forgetfulness and the appearance of wisdom. With computers, we do not need to learn to spell even. With cell phones, we no longer need to remember phone numbers. Thought and discourse become separated from memory.

The Torah always keeps the two married. Memories of dreams in particular provide an inestimable source of wisdom. It is not as if material wealth frees one up to have time to dream, but that dreams reveal the necessity of husbanding one’s wealth and then redistributing it for the benefit of all others, for the common good rather than for the glory of the ruler and conqueror.

This suggests that there is an even deeper meaning to the story. The Pharaoh not only employs a lowly Hebrew and former slave to interpret his dreams, he turns him into the manager of the rule of the people and the land. He makes him his economic czar. The Pharaoh recognizes each person for their merit and does not pre-judge them based on class or ethnic origin. He does so based on what the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment – Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith – called a philosophy of sentiment, not a sentimental philosophy, a philosophy of sympathy and empathy for the other. In the very first sentence of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, sympathy is defined as follows:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

Even Donald Trump is evidently not entirely bereft of an ounce of moral sympathy. It is that sixth sense, that the Pharaoh had in spades, that provides for the recognition of the virtues and merits of all others, for the opportunities of the many and for the protection of all who are in need. Donald Trump must have that ounce, because that is a premise of sentiment, but he sure does his best to hide it and prove he is bankrupt when it comes to morality.

The Pharaoh is the hero of the story for he exemplifies the nature of sentiment and the manifestations of altruism. Sympathy is innate in us all. The Scipios of this world do their best to repress that sentiment within themselves as they repress others and try to establish a rule of order and harmony through military oppression based on their personal vision rather than on what unites all of humanity. For sympathy to express itself, a change in our way of life may arise to challenge us – an environment challenge for example. With sympathy we rise to empathy and enter into an ability to re-enact and understand the suffering of others, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It was Pharaoh who had the dream, who translated Joseph’s interpretation into a vision of practical morality and hired Joseph to implement it, a man who thus far, whatever his external virtues, had not hereto exhibited much empathy for others.

May the song of humanity be with us.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

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

Donald Trump’s America

Donald Trump’s America

by

Howard Adelman

There is an extreme irony in watching Barack Obama leave power and be succeeded by The Donald, who has graduated from being Trump Two Two to being Trump Three Three Three. His self-deceit is so great that he must now reassure himself by repeating his messages no longer just twice, but three times. Trump won the presidency in good part by appealing to identity politics, not the identity politics of minorities who feel discriminated against, but the identity politics of a majority at the cusp of becoming a minority at the same time as their sense of personal identity and identification with the major direction of their nation dissolved before their very eyes. Trump did produce a revolution. He turned the heads of those who were drowning in nostalgia from looking at the receding past to looking for a chimera in the future. At the same time, he made those who strived to bring about a new future, in the words of Michael Brenner, look backwards for comfort and consolation. In terms of nostalgia, the positions of the regressives and the progressives have been inverted.

After Election Day, President Barack Obama expressed the hope that once Donald Trump became President, he would moderate his behaviour. Hope can curse one with mindblindness. But Trump proves again and again that he is deeply ethically challenged with an, as yet, inexplicable admiration for the authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. A New Yorker columnist quipped that the Donald was an advocate of “Peronism on the Potomac” as well as being a “xenophobic populist.” He has appointed cabinet members demonstrably unqualified for their positions – Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, a critic of public education and an ignorant one at that; Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier charged with running the Environmental Protection Agency; Steven Mnuchin, one of five Goldman Sachs alumni appointed by Trump to the government coming from a company he once pointed to as a major source of the swamp in Washington. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is inexperienced, irrational, unstable, thin skinned, but with a deep conviction that he knows something better than anyone else, yet he shows little interest in reading or in the process of policy formation. And he often appears unhinged, as when he appeared before the American intelligence community yesterday. More and more, he presents himself as a clear and present danger to democratic government. ­

In yesterday’s Torah study group, as the rabbi pointed out, we had a rare confluence when the text being studied directly spoke to the contemporary situation, so I have an opportunity to marry biblical commentary to contemporary politics. The verse reads as follows:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)

When the text reads, “a new king,” does it mean just a new person taking the throne of Egypt (Trump as a democratically elected monarch) or does it mean a king at the beginning of a new line of succession, neither Democrat or Republican at heart? Or perhaps it means a new kind of king. Or all three! In the biblical text, a new line of succession is at least suggested because of the omission of any reference to forebears. After all, a king’s legitimacy depended in good part on a long inheritance line. Most commentators suggest that what took place was a dynastic change, and, further, and even more importantly, a change that discarded old patterns of behaviour and initiated new and even revolutionary ones.

This is also suggested by the way the new Egyptian king took power. He arose over Egypt – עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם. It is one thing to rule over Egypt. It is quite another to rise to power “over” Egypt, which suggests a palace coup or a revolt. Third, one manifestation of this generic change is what the king does with his power. How does he spend the government treasury – on pyramids? Or on public works or on the military? This new king spent the Egyptian treasury on the military and used the Hebrews as slaves to build new cities for stores or supplies, miskenoth –מִסְכְּנוֹת֙.

וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־ רַעַמְסֵֽס: And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Ramses. (Exodus 1:11)

See also 1 Kings 9:19; 2 Chronicles 8:4, 8:6, 16:4 and 17:12. The last makes clear that a store “city” is a fortress.

There is a fourth factor defining the new character of a ruler – who the ruler points to as the enemies of the state. In this case, the text is explicitly clear. It is the Israelites who are defined not only as the Other, but the proliferating Other, the threatening Other, the Other which can act as a Fifth Column for Egypt’s external enemies. However, the major emphasis is a fifth factor. This king “knew not Joseph.” It could simply mean that the new king had not been acquainted with Egyptian history and with Joseph’s role in that history. Not a very plausible conclusion since the generation of Joseph had just died off.

There is a much more plausible account that can connect the different strands of legitimization together. Joseph was not only a Vizier who saved Egypt through a period of famine by developing a system for collecting and storing food in the good times and then a system for distributing that food in the bad times. But he did something else as well. First, he operated a welfare state collecting the wealth of society so that all could be fed. He then exchanged bread for the livestock of the inhabitants. (Genesis :47:17) The people lost their flocks and their herds. Then when the people ran out of animals, they exchanged their land for food. (47:19) Further, they then worked the land in return for a percentage of the produce giving Pharaoh a fifth of everything they produced. 20% of gross sales, not just 20% of profits went to Pharaoh. Joseph had either converted a country of freeholders into a feudal state or converted a decentralized feudal country into a centralized collectivist economy. Further, he moved the people into cities and lauded old Jewish values which gave priority to the city, to civilization, but, in the process, probably created a mass of discontented Egyptians who likely lived just above the poverty line in an alien environment they detested. They longed for the old Egypt rooted in the banks of the Nile where rituals were attuned with the annual floods.

It is hard to believe that the new king would not know what Joseph had done. It is far more likely that the new pharaoh (initially just a king) knew precisely what Joseph had done and had rallied the ex-Egyptian herders and shepherds and landowners to overthrow the old dynasty precisely because of resentment over their new status as serfs or urbanized poor. What then could “he knew not Joseph” mean? At the very least, it meant that the new king of Egypt created a competing narrative to the one in which Joseph saved Egypt, saved the state, saved the establishment in power, but, in the new version, did so for the benefit of those in power and at the cost of the traditional way of life of the Egyptians. In the new version, Joseph and his tribe could be blamed for destroying the old social order. Since they were foreigners, they were doubly suspect.

With the background of the biblical text, look more closely at Trump’s inaugural speech. Instead of a record and narrative of survival from the threat of drought, (from the Great Recession of 2008), Trump describes a state of carnage. Not in 2007, but in 2017, ten years later. And he began, not by acknowledging traditions, not by acknowledging past accomplishments, not even by pointing to the constitution of the United States as the source of legitimation for a new ruler. “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” not to the constitution or even the flag.

The expression, “We the people,” is taken to its populist extreme. “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.” That promise was betrayed, not just by the previous Democratic regime, but by Republicans as well. These Washington politicians all betrayed their country and allowed it to fall into decay, into crime, into impoverishment of a whole swath of Americans. The promise, the covenant with the people of America, had been broken. It is time to restore power to the people preached Donald Trump.

As Trump said, inauguration day did not just mean the peaceful transition from one governing group to another. “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Can you not just hear the new king of Egypt standing on the balcony of his palace and asserting that for too long, a small group in Thebes reaped the rewards while the people bore the costs, bore the burdens. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” The jobs left and the factories closed. The animal herds disappeared and you the people were forced to work the land, no longer for yourselves, but to enrich those in power with the taxes imposed upon you.

“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” Trump pronounced a new beginning. “All change starts right here and right now.” This is not 2017 of the Common Era, but year 1 of the Trump Era, “the likes of which the world has never seen before.” “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (my italics) That is Trump Two Two speaking in his inaugural address. When he says only America, he means only me, for he sees himself as the embodiment of the American spirit. Unfortunately, in the history of politics, the phenomenon of demagoguery has been seen too often before. “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

This is precisely the definition of a demagogue, “a leader championing the cause of the common people,” and doing so by distortions and outright lies, using false claims and even falser promises. One does not have to refer to Adolph Hitler and his promise to make Germany a great world power or Benito Mussolini’s promise to return Italy to the great and glorious days of the Roman Empire. Demagoguery is as much part of American tradition as the American constitution. Think of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, Theodore Bilbo, twice Governor of Mississippi and later a U.S. Senator (“Listen Mr. Bilbo, listen to me, I’ll give you a lesson in history” – a camp song I learned as a kid), Father Coughlin with his radio sermons in the dirty thirties, Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties. The bogey men may shift, but the elites are usually controlled by and/or in service to an unworthy and threatening group –  Blacks, Jews, Reds. The enemy shifts and may be Mexicans and Muslims, but the construction of an enemy alien never does. James Fenimore Cooper, in his 1838 essay “On Demagogues,” recognized the danger rooted in the deep populist strain of American politics. “The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting (my italics) a deep devotion to the interests of the people.”

The elements are always the same. The enemy is an elite and the demagogue opposes the elite in the name of the people with whom he establishes a visceral rather than cognitive connection rooted in agreements over policies. A demagogue connects to the people by appealing to their fears and hatreds and by pointing to the dreams and hopes that they once had and claims that they had been dashed by a powerful cabal. The new deliverer is ostensibly opposed both to that elite and the collectivities it serves. But the motivation is always the same – the narcissistic urges of all demagogues, their own inflated sense of self, their own gargantuan ambitions, and their disrespect for the norms of truth, the norms of decency, the norms of conduct and, in the end, the norms established by the rule of law.  Donald Trump is a demagogue, not only because he is the best expression of all these characteristics, but because he even disdains his own party as an institution through which he connects with the people. His connection is direct. “What truly matters is not which party controls government, but whether the government is controlled by the people.”

It is one thing in a democracy to assert that a government must be responsible to and for the people and be accountable to them. It is quite another to (falsely) claim that government is controlled by the people. It is not. It never has been. It never will be. And demagogues are the only ones who utter such a blatant lie. Plato declared that any demagogue once he gains power cannot help but drift towards tyranny. Aristotle insisted that the most dangerous form of government was one in which the people and not the law have supreme power, a false claim always made by demagogues to seize power.

The trajectory is horrific to watch. Traditions and norms that took centuries to build are destroyed in only a few years. As the opposition takes to the streets in larger and larger numbers, the new “leader” insists that order demands a sacrifice of a degree of freedom. Rule can only be exercised with a strong hand. And Trump has openly stated that he admires “order and strength” – and military parades. But, as Polybius once pointed out, the decay had set in much earlier, for without that decay, a demagogue could not have achieved power in the first place. But whatever the preparation, the demagogic storm seems to come out of the blue.  Like Cleon, who brought Athenian democracy to its knees, Donald Trump has entered the fray as a political tsunami. And what he says means precisely the opposite.

“We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Translation – I am the only one that can take you to the promised land. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” And attendees at the inaugural time and again applauded these words of pure demagoguery.

But the proof text came in one sentence, not the plethora of lies that rewrote history and misrepresented America’s past accomplishments and current success, though these seemed to be the preoccupation of most of the media. Donald Trump said, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” The Bible says no such thing. It is a tale of divisions. And there are divisions in interpreting those divisions. Take the text with which we started.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The instant response of Jews in both the ancient and the modern world has been to pray for the welfare of the government of whatever country Jews lived in, even when the leadership of that country would turn out to be bad for the Jews as well as everyone else. In every prayer book of whatever denomination and whatever country, the Jews express loyalty to the country in which they live through a prayer, most often not in Hebrew, but in the language of that country.

When the new king arose over Egypt, one can imagine the Israelites praying for the new government, asking everyone to give him a chance and let him prove himself. But how they said it, what they said and why they said it varied. Jeremiah (29:4-7), who offered perhaps the first advice to pray for the welfare of the existing government, advised, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” But the advice was strictly qualified. “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie.”

Rabbi Chanina bar Chama of Babylon, one of the great Talmudic sages and interpreters of the Mishna who also, with Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, went in person to pledge loyalty to the Roman government in Caesarea, in his version of the prayer for the welfare of the government, included a Hobbesian reason: “if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.” Without government, all would be anarchy and daily life would be a tooth-and-claw existence. This was the complement to the false prophet warning, the fear of the mob, of the populace, for without government (good or bad) and order, all would be chaos.

If Jeremiah feared false prophets as leaders, if he feared demagogues, and Chanina feared the irrationality of the masses, other prayers were far more circumspect, perhaps because they feared the wrath of the government turning against them. The fears are not explicitly expressed, but quotes are lifted from psalms which seem benign enough until you read the quote in the full context of the whole psalm. The allusion to the fears is located in those psalms rather than in the prayers themselves.

Many contemporary prayers for the welfare of the state leave out explicitly or even by implication any reference to fears. I would guess that just before the Inquisition, Jews did so as well. The prayer for the welfare of the government is unabashed. This is true of our prayer book in our synagogue which was our rabbi’s tweak of the older prayer in the siddur, The Gates of Prayer (1975). In Siddur Pirchei Kodesh (2011), our current Holy Blossom Temple Reform prayer book (in the U.S. Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah, 2007), the prayer for the welfare of the country is offered without either an allusion to or certainly any expression and recognition of a danger. Like most American prayers (our rabbi is from Chicago), the prayer is usually of the flavour that asks God to make those leaders the best that they can be. There is no expression that they may turn out to be the worst possible.

Should we pray for Donald Trump and his government, pray that God make him and his government the best that it can be? Or do we recognize the real dangers and pray for the collapse of that government sooner rather than later given its obvious inherent dangers?

I think readers know where I stand.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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

Joseph: Power and Deception

Joseph: Power and Deception

Parshat Miketz: Genesis 43:16 – 44:11

by

Howard Adelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.