Thursday, December 22, 2005

Vayeshev (Torah)

“And Jacob dwelt”

Here the scene changes, and the curtain falls on Yaakov’s active life. He lives another forty-odd years, but the focus moves to his sons, the drama of their interactions, their hates and loves, etc. I’m not sure just how Yaakov’s old age fits into my projected scheme of a bildungsroman. He becomes an éminence grise, a wizened old man blessing Pharaoh, but in many ways living vicariously through and dependent on his children, and suffering through their conflicts and troubles. He is a sentimental, loving father, who must yield the reins to Judah, and then to Joseph. He is very much like King David, too blinded by his sentimental love for his child to ever really see them for who they are or to raise them with the proper mixture of sternness and love.

Before leaving Yaakov, a brief comment on one of the opening Rashi’s. Rashi on Gen 37:2 states “‘And Jacob dwelled…’ Yaakov wished to sit in tranquility, and the trouble of Joseph and his brothers was thrust upon him.” A friend of my parents, a secular socialist who in his childhood in White Russia studied in a traditional heder and maintained a soft spot in his heart for “old-fashioned” Jewish culture, taught me this Rashi when I was quite young. (As Toldot Ya’akov Yosef constantly teaches us, each part of the Torah speaks to each person and to each time period.) Though no longer religious, my parents’ friend identified himself with the figure of Yaakov as portrayed in this Rashi: he found the peace and quiet of his retirement years spoiled by problems and worries involving his two daughters: the one, “too attractive for her own good,” a sexy New York Jewish intellectual, flitted from man to man and refused to “settle down”; the other, an old-maidish librarian, “ugly as virtue,” in one of my brother’s memorable phrase, whose one real marriage prospect suddenly died on the eve of their wedding.

But leaving aside this possibly amusing anecdote, the second half of Rashi makes the truly significant point: “The righteous wish to sit in tranquility in this life; the Holy One blessed be He says, ‘That which I have prepared for them in the World to Come isn’t enough? They want to sit in tranquility in this world too?!’” The point made here is a profoundly pessimistic one: that the ordinary human desire for a bit of peace and quiet at the end of the day, or at the end of a long life filled with trials and tribulations, is somehow wrong; that conflict and troubles in life are inevitable, the very stuff of life, and the desire to avoid them is not only unrealistic, but vaguely sinful or at least improper. The view is that this life is meant to be an arena of troubles and confrontations and difficulties, and only thus do we somehow constantly prove our mettle, spiritually speaking.

Images of Yosef: The Mystery of Personality

The next four Torah portions center around the figure of Yosef, or Joseph. What manner of person is he? What are we to make of the mystery of his personality? There are many different images through which one may see Yosef. He is a dreamer, but of a very different type from Yitzhak, whom we described earlier as a contemplative mystic, quietly content with his own company. There is in him something of the narcissist, fawning on his own self, filled with dreams of greatness, of superiority over brothers. Then there are issues of masculinity and gender which, to be candid, is problematic in various ways for nearly all of the patriarchs; in any event, one that does not fit into the tough, aggressive male model of contemporary (and ancient e.g. Greek) mythology (which midrash identifies with the thoroughly negative model of Esau). American Jewish literature is preoccupied with this problem: the Jew as nebbish, as not quite masculine, as in Philip Roth and Woody Allen, who develop this theme in counterpoint to complaints about the domineering qualities of Jewish woman ( the stereotype of the JAP). There are those who see the roots of this in the shteitl—the stereotype of the passive talmid hakham vs. the baaleboste who runs the store, earns a living, and runs the practical side of life. Daniel Boyarin has recently studied this issue, posing Jewish models of male heterosexuality as alternatives to Western models. Yosef in some way fits this paradigm. Even the story of his heroic resistance of the lewd advances of Potiphar’s may be seen in ambivalent terms, as betraying a certain inherent weakness.

Then there is Yosef as the successful son: the one upon whom his parents rely in their old age. This may be seen through the lens of the Jewish experience of immigration: the archetype of the Jew who “makes it” in a strange, new land; once again, a familiar figure in American Jewish experience. The flip side of this is the problem of assimilation, the ambivalence of Yosef’s identity: the use of double names, in both Hebrew and in the non-Jewish vernacular (Yosef and Zafnath-paneah); his goyish appearance—he was no doubt clean shaven, dressed in Egyptian clothing; his speaking the foreign language; his marriage to the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Yet, at least in the Midrashic image, he is ultimately loyal to his tradition and to the covenant, Yosef ha-Tzaddik.

Which breaks us to the mythic image of Yosef: Yosef ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the righteous; symbol of sexual purity. Rav Soloveitchik once connected the figure of Yosef to that of the tzaddik be-tiv’o of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters”: one who is by nature without overwhelming lusts or passions, and hence blessed with a certain natural goodness and purity. Such a one is also, Kabbalistically speaking, “Tzinnor ha-Shefa,” the channel of abundance, of the cosmic flow of blessing. Thomas Mann, in Joseph and His Brothers, entitles one section “Joseph the Provider,” describing Yosef, in more mundane terms, as an FDR type, providing for the entire population by centralized, wise planning in time of famine. Yet this too is problematic: under Yosef’s management, the population was turned from one of peasants living upon their own land into sharecroppers, than indentured servant. But more on this later.

Joseph the Zaddik?

I will elaborate here upon only one of these images: Joseph as the archetypal spoiled brat. Narcissistic, spurred on by the obvious preference of his parents (in this case the father, since he was an orphan, but more often, in real life, the mother), convinced beyond doubt that the world revolves around him. (“Behold, The sun and the moon bow down to me.”). All he needs to do, his indulgent parents constantly tell him, is to simply be his naturally brilliant and talented self, and the word will bow at his feet. He is so sure of his own centrality that he makes no visible effort to be a normal child, to play with others as equals. No: “and Joseph brought the bad report [of his brothers] to his father.” He fawns on parental approval, and on that (and adult approval generally) alone. Not for him the rough-housing of playing with other boys, of the camaraderie and testing which lead to male bonding. He is always alone, dreaming, with a strange, inward, self-preoccupied smile on his lips. His father foolishly encourages this by appointing him a kind of supervisor over his brothers, sending him all the way from Hebron to Shechem by himself (even in modern times a good two hour’s drive or more: how long must it have taken in ancient times? And from there to Dothan, even further north?) In how many Diaspora Jewish families has this scenario been played out? And is it any wonder that his brothers hated the obnoxious brat?

His charmed life seems to end when his brothers catch up to him and he is sold into slavery in Egypt—but not for long. He is highly successful as household manager for Potiphar, who soon entrusts all details of the management of his household to him. One day the mistress of the house tries to seduce him, and he righteously flees from her voracious advances. Is he a saintly man, resisting the sinful temptations of the flesh, when no one will ever know, and at an age when he must be at the height of his own sexual desire and vigor, or is he a prig? Is one being overly cynical in finding something slightly ridiculous in the figure of a 28-year-old virgin “fleeing/escaping outside” (the Hebrew phrase vayonas hahutzah is repeated no less than four times; what is this repetition telling us?) Obviously, I am not suggesting that it would have been more admirable had he committed adultery with her, but were these the only alternatives? Somehow, I cannot but wonder whether, if Joseph somehow been more centered in his own masculinity—like Judah?—he would not have found himself in this ludicrous situation.

It is interesting that two tales of sexual scandal are paired back to back against one another in Genesis 38 and 39 -- Joseph’s near seduction by Potiphar’s wife, and Tamar’s pregnancy, craftily engineered by her posing as a harlot. It is also interesting that the text seems to take the fact of Judah’s visit to a whore in a matter-of-fact way. He has gone to “be comforted” after the loss of his wife by visiting his friend Hirah in Adullam. Is this part of the pattern of male camaraderie, rather like working class males going drinking at a bar followed by a visit to a whore-house? In any event, he finds the woman sitting at the crossroads, discusses the details of her payment, leaves a pledge, and that is that. It seems accepted that, as a vigorous widower, he will want a woman now and again, and paying for her services is a perfectly natural thing.

Not so Tamar. When her indiscretion is discovered, she is taken out to be burned to death. (Interestingly, the traditional commentators are hard put to define precisely her sin. Apparently, were she fully unencumbered, there would be no sin. It is only because she is either, a) a shomeret yabam, still awaiting the brother-in-law to consummate a levirate marriage, or b) the daughter-in-law of a prominent chief, who is tantamount to being a priest, that makes her act culpable or shameful.) In any event, once she produces the pledge, making it evident that Judah was her customer and the childrens’ father, all is free and forgiven. She was adopting a guise to achieve a higher end—perpetuating Judah’s line, and ultimately, to quote Genesis Rabbah, bringing down the “light of King Messiah” destined to be descended from this union.

To return to Joseph: he is again thrown into the “pit” and meets Pharaoh’s two servants, the baker and the cup-bearer, who tell him his dreams. He modestly says, “God will answer dreams,” but immediately adds “tell me, please.” Is he authentically pious, or is he still convinced that he is second only to the Almighty in knowledge of hidden things?

Perhaps these later chapters—Miketz / Vayigash—are to be read, not so much as a tales of the brothers’ repentance, but of Joseph’s character at last maturing, and him showing some signs of authentic modesty, of reaching out for true brotherhood and camaraderie with his long-lost siblings, of exhibiting a degree of true graciousness, forgiveness, and self-effacement. That, as much as Judah’s “I shall be surety for the lad” are the real drama of these chapters.

Postscript to Vayeshev: A Note on Inward Piety

I would like to return to the figure of Tamar from another perspective. I see Tamar as a heroine of what might be called the hidden fear of God. The Midrash, which in this case simply amplifies the peshat, says that she was prepared to die rather than to disclose the identity of the man who had “dishonored” her. She was prepared to be considered a shameless slut who slept with an anonymous passerby—and die for it—rather than to reveal her true motivation—i.e., to have a child with the family of Judah, to preserve the seed of her late husband—when that would involve embarrassing another person. Only when Judah was spontaneously willing to admit his involvement was her life saved.

This motif of hidden God-fearingness plays a role in one of the introductory prayers in the daily Morning Service. Almost immediately after Birkat Hashahar (the blessings recited upon waking, recited by some at home), there is a passage that begins, in most versions, with the words: “A person should always be God-fearing both in secret and in public (be-seter uva-galuy), and acknowledge the truth, and rise early and say…” This section, which serves as an introduction to the abbreviated version of Shema, is usually interpreted to mean that one should be pious and religious, not only in public, so that people might think highly of one, but even in private. That is, that one’s religiosity ought to be motivated by inner conviction, by the sense that God is omnipresent, and not merely performed as a social convention, as matter of external conformity to communal norms and expectations.

But there are several other readings of this text. Nusah Sefarad (i.e., of the Oriental Jewish community, such as found in Siddur Tefillat Yesharim [Baghdad]), rather than baseter uva-galuy (“in private and in public”), reads beseter ke-bagaluy (“in private as in public”). That is, it emphasizes the importance of being God-fearing in private, specifically. There are also several versions—and these include several texts that are considered to be particularly accurate—that simply read be-seter (“in private”) That is, one’s fear of God should be a purely private matter, without any reference to the public dimension. These versions include that of Habad, Tehillat ha-Shem, redacted by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady; Baer’s Siddur Avodat Yisrael, known as the Rodelheim Siddur—generally considered the paradigmatic ”Yekke,” Western European Ashkenazic Siddur; and R. Shlomo Tal’s Siddur Rinat Yisrael, popular in Israel.

Seligman (Yitzhak) Baer, whose 19th century Siddur includes abundant notes and commentary, prints this first line in a small type, suggesting that it is not really intended to be said, but is meant as a kind of instruction, that over the course of time was erroneously included as part of the canonical text. This view is supported by the fact that this sentence ends with the words vayashkem vayomar: (“he should rise early and say:”)—that is, this describes what a person’s inward, personal attitude ought to be, how he should think and behave, followed by a certain brief prayer addressed to the Master of the Universe. And indeed, he even cites Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu, Ch. 21, to that effect.

Certain streams in Hasidism stressed the value of hiding pious acts, so as not to make it a subject of pride, that one might show off to others. Some went so far as to go out of their way to act the fool, to behave in an externally ordinary way, while secretly worshipping God with great intensity. The contemporary tendency towards humra, towards ever-stricter interpretations and standards of behavior, is the antithesis of this.

Interestingly, Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov (at Lev 23:14), in a rare halakhic passage, discusses the Baal Shem’s attitude towards the law of hadash, of applying the biblical injunction against eating new grain before Passover outside of the Land of Israel. He quotes the B”H at Tur, Yoreh De’ah 487, who states that even one who is strict in his own home, should eat together with other talmidei hakhamim, so as not to seem haughty. In short, piety that goes beyond the accepted norm is to be hidden, a matter of love and fear of the individual towards the Hidden God (El mistater), and not only not to be flaunted, but actively concealed.

R. Shlomo Carlebach once told a rather bizarre Hasidic story that exemplifies this point. A Litvak—a Lithuanian Jew, of the breed known for their scepticism about Hasidic piety—once spent a few weeks at a summer watering spot somewhere in Galicia, that was also frequented by the Jarislov Rebbe, a Hasidic Tzaddik renowned for the intensity of his prayer. Yet the first he was there, our Litvak observed the Rebbe spending most of Shaharit chatting, kibitzing and joking with the other worshippers, so much so that he seemed to interfere with their own devotions. He mulled over this strange behavior for the entire week. The following Friday night, the Litvak attended the Rebbe’s tisch, and after it was over, well after midnight, went for a long, solitary, late-night walk. As he returned, about 2:30 or 3 am, he heard a sound from the Beit Midrash, and saw the Rebbe pacing back and forth, enwrapped in his tallit, reciting the hymns of Pesukei de-Zimra in a soft but infinitely sweet and poignant, soulful voice. Then he understood: during the short northern summer nights, one could commence davening very early; thus, the Rebbe recited Shaharit on Shabbat in the wee hours of the morning, throwing himself into prayer with great intensity, at an hour when he thought nobody would see him. Then, during public prayer many hours later, he played the clown, so as to conceal his real holiness.

But in fact, this raises a host of other issues. What is true humility, and how is one to obtain it? The renowned ethical handbook, Mesillat Yesharim, contains a lengthy discussion of humility, near the end of Peratei Middat ha-Nekiut (Chapter 11; in Makhon Ofek 1994 ed., pp. 126-128 or 255-257), in which the author enumerates the elaborate ruses by which a person may feign humility to satisfy his desire for self-importance. He may even fool himself. “See,” he will say to himself, “I am so much superior to these others, than I don’t need to make a show of my piety.” Or, “One day people will sit up and take notice of how humble and holy I really am.” Or he may vehemently protest when people praise him, so as to make sure that people know how modest he is. Thus, there may be “arrogant humility,” just as there are “intelligent fools” (“High-IQ idiots,” my late mother called them), “corrupt saints,” and legions of practitioners of “prurient chastity.” In the end, perhaps the only sure counsel is that a person know himself, and speak truth to himself within his heart.


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