Monday, December 19, 2005

Vayeshev (Midrash)

In light of the length of the continuation from last week’s discussion, I will try to make this week’s comments more concise. Parshat Vayeshev is, although not unique in this respect, memorable for being filled with violence and powerful emotional conflicts: the fraternal hate expressed in the sale of Joseph; sexual passion in the incidents of both Tamar and Potiphar’s wife; the ambiguities and even hypocrisies expressed concerning the same (by Judah, and by the would-be seducer turned putative victim in the case of Potiphar’s wife); ingratitude (Pharaoh’s cup-bearer), etc.

How did this hatred among the brothers start? Who was responsible for the violent and near-fatal outcome? Genesis Rabbah 84.7 turns a critical eye indeed upon Joseph himself:

Joseph was seventeen years old… and he was a youth [Gen 37:2]. Seventeen years old and you say: “he was a youth”? Rather, he performed acts of youth/ childishness: playing with his eyes, hanging his heels [i.e., walking in a mincing, affected manner], pampering his hair.

It is difficult for us to even understand the Midrash’s question here, as in our a society childhood, and certainly adolescence, continues throughout most of the teenage years, if not into the twenties. In the ancient world, indeed, until the very recent past, young men assumed adult responsibilities relatively shortly after puberty. (The halakhot about puberty, and the very brief transition in Jewish law between childhood and maturity, reflect this idea.) A seventeen year old, who has doubtless attained adult height, sexual maturity, and most of his adult musculature, was certainly considered a man in every respect. Thus, acts of na’arut—primping and fawning and preoccupation with ones appearance, if not effeminate, were clearly frowned on and, seen kindly, as remnants of late childhood.

“And Joseph brought their evil report to his father” [ibid.]. What did he say? R. Meir, R. Judah and R. Simeon [commented]. R. Meir said: [He told his father,] Your sons are suspected [of eating] the limb of the living. R. Judah said: They show contempt for the sons of the handmaidens [i.e., the concubines] and call them servants. R. Shimon said: They look about at the daughters of the land.

Joseph is portrayed here as a tell-tale, who deliberately set about to paint his brothers in a negative light, so as to improve his own position in the family. What accusations did he bring? They focused on three subjects: violation of the rudimentary kashrut that Hazal say existed in those days: i.e., the barbaric practice of eating flesh torn from a living animal, a manifestation of gross cruelty. Second: showing contempt for those whom they considered their social inferiors; lack of human, or even fraternal, solidarity. Third: sexual misdeeds; innuendoes of their taking liberties with the local girls. The issue is not a simple one. If these tales were in fact true, Joseph showed a certain ethical sensitivity for being outraged by their behavior; on the other hand, spreading gossip is certainly malicious behavior, and one may justly ask whether he had first exhausted the options of admonishing his brothers.

R. Judah b. R. Simon said: he was punished for all three, as is said “The plumbline and scales of justice are the Lord’s” [Prov. 16:11]. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: You said: “Your sons are suspected of [eating] the limb of the living. By your life: even in the hour of their misdeed they only slaughter and eat, “and they slaughtered the ram of the flock” [Gen 37:31].

The “answer” to the first accusation is a vindication of the brothers: that even when they do wrong, i.e., plotting against you and throwing you into the pit, they are careful about what they eat. The midrash invokes the scene in which they specifically slaughter the goat, whose blood will later be used to mislead Jacob into thinking that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. This is a strange answer. One might well say: they compounded their crimes of violence, hatred, and mental torture of their father, by hypocrisy and acting as if their adherence to rituals of kashrut is more important than anything else!

You said: They show contempt for the sons of the concubines and call them servants. “As a slave Joseph was sold” [Psalm 105:17] You said: They look about at the daughters of the land. By your life, I will set against you the bear. “And his master’s wife set her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me’” [Gen 39:7].

There is a certain lack of symmetry among these three answers. While the first one is meant to vindicate he brothers, the latter two show Joseph himself being subjected to trials and suffering corresponding to the same areas in which he accused his brothers—i.e., slavery and sexual wrongdoing. But the truth is that he was the victim of enslavement, the object of sexual attack or would-be seduction, not their perpetrator. Or could it be that the crimes of which he accused his brothers were those that he himself would do, if he were “bad” like them.

The comparison of a sexually voracious, aggressive woman to a bear (is this used anywhere else in Hazal?) is an interesting metaphor. Why davka a bear? A sexually coarse and brutal man is compared to a lion in Pesahim 49b, where one is warned not to marry his daughter to an ignorant man, because “Just as a lion pounces and eats, an am ha-aretz pounces and has intercourse.” Nu, this could be a topic for a journal article for one of my scholarly friends.

The main point is, of course, the principle of midah keneged midah, “measure for measure,” a common theme in Hazal. This is the reason for the quotation from Proverbs, with its images of equity—there is justice in the world, and events have consequences. One cannot escape retribution for negative actions, even if it takes years. Moreover, “the punishment fits the crime”—there is an inner, poetic connection between the misdeed and the punishment. A comparison to the Eastern idea of karma is instructive. In Judaism this balance is the result of a will-full, conscious God. Or maybe the distinction is less great, once one realizes that any image of God is only a metaphor or approximation, and that God as persona may be God as cosmic energy, law, etc.

We will conclude with the opening of the next midrash, which discusses Joseph’s “cloak”—mistakenly known in Western culture as “the coat of many colors,” but probably a striped, quasi-royal garment. Genesis Rabbah 84.8:

“And Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons, because he was the child of his old age” [vv. 3-4]. R. Judah and R. Nehemiah: R. Judah said: the radiance of his face was similar to his. R. Nehemiah said: All of the halakhot that Shem and Ever gave to Jacob, he gave to him.

We have here two visions of the essence of the father-son connection. In the former view, it is based upon a physical resemblance: he looks like me, he will carry something of myself into the future. In the latter, it is based upon a shared spiritual tradition: a consciousness of being links in the chain of tradition, part of a “Masorah community,” through shared Torah study. Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson, were the eponyms of the Semitic and the Hebrew peoples; Yitzhak supposedly studied at their “yeshiva” for several years after the Akedah; fourteen unaccounted years in Jacob’s life are likewise identified as the time he spent in “Yeshivat Shem va-Ever.”


Blogger Gary Freedman said...

Check out my Jewish-inspired blog, if you're interested:

1:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home