Thursday, January 05, 2006

Miketz (Torah)

Yosef, Psychologist Supreme

This week’s portion, perhaps more than any other in the Torah, reads as a dramatic narrative. It shifts back and forth between two scenes: Egypt and the Land of Canaan. The vivid contrast between them is tangible—on the one hand, the urbane society of Pharaoh’s capital city, with clean shaven nobles and courtiers dressed in fine fabrics striding about in grand, elaborately decorated halls, in buildings reflecting the most advanced architectural design of the time. On the other, Jacob and his family—nomadic shepherds, living in tents or simple baked mud houses, dressed in coarsely woven garments, bearded, spending most of the day out-of-doors on the wind-swept hill-tops of the Judaean Hills surrounded by their livestock.

The opening scene takes place in Egypt: Joseph’s ascent to greatness. Here, as elsewhere in the book, dreams play a central role. In all, seven dreams are related in the Book of Genesis: Jacob’s dream of the ladder and the angels, two of Joseph, two of the baker and cup-bearer, and two of Pharaoh.

Is Joseph still the same narcissistic, self-centered personality whom we encountered earlier? At times, it seems so; yet he has at least learned to attain his aims more indirectly. Thus, in the conversation with Pharaoh: he explains the dreams, and then suggests a solution to the problem of feeding the population of Egypt—to gather together the grain in storehouses, control distribution for the duration of famine, and appoint “a man” to oversee the whole enterprise and assure that it runs smoothly. Is he hinting to Pharaoh that he sees himself in this role? It would certainly seem so. In any event, his elevation to high office is accomplished by innuendo, without ever needing to say “I offer my services.”

An interesting detail here is that Pharaoh is not only the one to give Joseph an Egyptian name, but also arranges Joseph’s marriage (41:45). The king plays here a paternal role: he, rather than the girl’s parents, sets up the match. (Rashi makes an interesting comment here: Potiphera is identical with the Potiphar with whose wife Yosef was entangled. Moreover, the latter has homosexual desires towards the handsome young man [whose strikingly beautiful appearance seemed to suggest a certain sexual ambiguity; could there have been something feminine in this persona, who is described as “yefeh to’ar ve-yefeh mareh,” “beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance”—an unusual, possibly singular description to be applied to a man in the Bible; usually said of a women, like Rachel, Esther, etc.]. If so, by marrying into this family he was entering a byzantine snake-pit. Yet another midrash makes her the daughter born to Dinah from her rape by Shechem, whom she bore far away from home to conceal the shame and scandal and later surrendered for adoption, as in any good Victorian novel—making her Joseph’s half-sister.)

The central drama of the chapter is of course the encounter with brothers. As soon as the brothers appear in the market-place, Joseph treated them like strangers. “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they recognized him not” (42:8). Joseph was clearly blessed with two traits: nerves of steel, enabling him to unflinchingly act out the role he had assumed/had thrust on him without revealing his true identity; and superb psychological insight, knowing exactly how far to stretch the tension of the brothers. There were two rounds of encounters. The first time around, they came to buy grain, and he treats them with moderate suspicion: How do I know that you are whom you claim to be, and that you’re not spies? So he took a hostage, Simeon (evidently the ring-leader of the original plot against him), sells them the grain, and tosses out, almost in an aside: send me your younger brother. Benjamin was of course the most sensitive point in the family constellation. And then, on their way home, they discover the money returned in the mouth of their sacks.

The second round: After much delay, needing to overcome their father’s intense fear of losing his beloved youngest son until he resignedly says (only after the famine has become severe indeed) “and if I am bereaved, then I shall be bereaved” (43:14), they return to Egypt. This time Yosef is expansive, generous, and even overlooks the fact that the money was in their sacks, referring to it rather strangely as “a gift from your God and the God of your fathers” (v. 23; is this how one would expect an authentic Egyptian to talk?) He treats them to a royal meal, gives them all gifts, showing special favor to the youngest, Benjamin; but meanwhile, he arranges to have his priceless divining cup planted in Benjamin’s sack. Shortly after they leave the city, he sends riders after them; this time, they are brought back in disgrace. Will they defend Benjamin or not? The climax comes with the dramatic confrontation of Joseph and Judah, which we will discuss in the context of next week’s parashah. (I will meanwhile only say that the hakhmei hamesoret, the arrangers of the Masoretic text who chose where to divide the weekly portions, could teach a thing or two to Hollywood screen-writers about creating tension by a break at the most crucial point).

How are we to understand this entire business? Why did Joseph “not know” his brothers, and go to such extraordinary lengths to maintain this guise?

One central view, expressed by Ramban and others, is that he held a simple belief in the authenticity of the dreams, and of their function as an instrument of Divine prophecy. The dreams, quite simply, were meant to come true, and it behooved him to help along their realization. He manipulated events to cause the two successive dreams to be realized: first of all, that all eleven brothers, including Benjamin, would bow down to him (the dream of the sheaves); then, that his father and mother (presumably this role would be played by one of his step-mothers, as Rachel was long since dead) would bow down to him. Otherwise, viewed from an ethical-halakhic viewpoint, how could he subject his father to so many years of suffering, merely to fulfill a dream? Even so, the notion that a dream is to be considered tantamount to a Divine command and thus carrying with it an imperative of action is very strange. Thus R. Yitzhak Arama, author of Akedat Yitzhak, who comments that, if God sends dreams, then let Him bring about their fulfillment. Who, after all, is Yosef to act in God’s place?!

Another view is that the whole business was an elaborate test of the brothers, to determine whether they had in fact repented of what they had done to him. The acid test of teshuvah gemurah, of true and whole repentance, is whether, confronted with a repetition of the circumstances in which he had originally sinned, the sinner repeats his sin or behaves differently (thus Rambam, Teshuvah 2.1). Here, he sets up a situation in which Benjamin, the beloved youngest son of his father and last remaining vestige, so to speak, of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, is at their mercy; Benjamin is shown obvious favor by the mysterious stranger in Egypt; and then, he is implicated (prima facie) stealing from the royal vizier, and the whole group is held accountable for his crime. Will they leave him to his fate, or will they stand up for him? Will they behave toward Benjamin as they behaved toward him? Once Joseph overheard them (they of course did not know that he understood Hebrew) saying “Indeed, we are guilty because of brother…” (42:21) he began to feel that they were indeed changed men—a feeling that was only to be strengthened during the subsequent phases of the test. Yet here, too, there is a certain problem of Joseph “playing God.”

Thomas Mann, in his monumental Joseph and His Brothers, presents an interesting, “humanistic” variation on this theme. (Mann, incidentally, is largely loyal to the classic midrashic reading of this story. It is reported that he learned much from a German Orthodox Jewish friend.) On the one hand, Joseph is seen as believing in the need to realize the dreams; a root feeling that “things must go according to the predestined plan.” But he was also trying to test the true family situation; he knew nothing of what had ensued after his sale: whether Yaakov was alive or dead, and if the latter, whether the brothers may have not “sold Benjamin to the dogs.” If they had in fact been so cruel, he would never reveal himself to them—not out of any motivation to “educate” or “test” them, but simply because he would not want to know them.

Reading this chapter closely, I noticed something interesting: that the crucial verses describe two successive stage or phases. First: “And Joseph recognized them; but he acted to them as a stranger” (42:7). Only two verses later are we told that “Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them” (v. 9). It seems to me that the initial reaction of estrangement must be read as a direct, raw emotional response: his immediate reaction was at best ambivalent; at worst, one of feelings of deep hurt and anger and mistrust. He could not simply rush up to them, embrace them, and say, “I am Joseph your brother; all is forgiven; go send for Poppa quickly before he dies” (which is what he did, in essence, some months and several stages later: see 45:4). Only thereafter did he remember the dream, and begin to feel that this meeting, in this manner, was predestined, and begin to conceive his plan.

A general lesson that may be derived from this as to how the Torah expects people to live: we all have direct, unmediated emotional reactions to various situations in life. The Torah does not expect us to quash these, to feel only good, positive emotions. The test comes thereafter: does one act on them immediately, sanctifying our “spontaneity,” or does one take a moment to reflect, to weigh the consequences, the moral implications of each action, etc.? In this case, the dreams in any event seemed to coincide with Yosef’s initial impulse to, at least for the interim, behave as a stranger.

In a broader sense, the chapter may be read as the decisive phase in the bildungsroman: this time, a novel of maturation of Joseph. The meeting with the brothers (as a process, reaching its culmination in Vayigash) is the moment when he stops playing games, stops ”playing with their heads,” and responds as an ordinary human being, reunited with his family, in this strange environment. Most of all, he worries about his old father—the grief he realizes that he’s caused him, the years of suffering and mourning -- and longs to see him.


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