Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vayigash (Midrash)

“For behold the kings contend together”

As we noted in our first Hitzei Yehonatan on midrash (HY III: Bereshit), a large number of midrashim begin with what is known as the petihta form, an exposition of a verse from a different section of the Bible later connected to the subject at hand: a method by whose means, we are told, the different sections of Scripture “rejoice together as on their giving at Mount Sinai.” But some midrashim do this “one better”: a one-to-one correspondence is drawn between a series of phrases or verses from Psalms or Proverbs or some other book, and a verse from the Torah portion, the former being read as an allusion to the latter. Several examples of this type appear on the opening verse of Vayigash; an interesting example is Genesis Rabbah 93.2:

“For behold the kings assembled, they came over together” [Ps 48:5]. “For behold the kings”—these are Judah and Joseph; “they came over [‘avru] together”—this one was filled with wrath [‘evrah] at the other, and the other was filled with wrath at this one; “They saw, they were astonished” [Ps., ibid., 6]—“and the people were astonished to one another” [Gen 43:33]; “they were shocked, they hastened away” [ibid] —“and his brothers could not answer him because they were shocked before him” [Gen 45:3]; “They were seized with trembling, they shook like a woman in the throes of labor” [Ps., ibid., 7]—this refers to the tribes. They said: the kings are dealing with one another, what concern is it of ours? It is seemly that a king should deal with a king. “Then Judah drew near” [Gen 44:18]

In this midrash, several verses from Psalm 48 are seen as alluding to the meeting between Joseph and his brothers, particularly Judah. On the literal level, this psalm is a hymn of praise of Jerusalem, the ”city of the great King”; the verses quoted here, about the kings passing it or surrounding it, evidently refers to a historical event, perhaps the siege by Sennacherib and his troops in 721 BCE, or the attack on Jerusalem by Antiochus VII Sidetes in the days of Hyrcanus (see Mirkin’s Midrash edition, IV. 131). In any event, here the first two phrases are read as referring to Judah and Joseph and the confrontation between them. Thereafter, the scene changes, and is related to the others brothers (or “tribes”), who are seen as passive bystanders. Local readers should note that the phrase mah eikhpat lanu, translated here as “what concern is it of ours?,” has a very different connotation than it does in contemporary Hebrew speech. The sense is not “what do I care?” but “what business have I to involve myself?”; not an expression of indifference and smug apathy, but of a certain sense of awe, of modesty, of the discussion being on a plane far above ones own ken.

More significant is the motif of the two brothers as kings, meeting as equals, but in a confrontational manner. Mirkin points out that “Joseph was king over Egypt; Judah was king of the brothers”—i.e., among the twelve, these two were unquestioned leaders. Indeed, in the history of the Israelite monarchy the Davidic line originated in Judah, while the break-away dynasty of the Northern Kingdom began with Jeroboam ben Nabat, from the Josephide tribe of Ephraim; Jewish messianic thought knows of two messiahs, the son of Joseph and the son of David. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in a brilliant public lecture (summarized in HY I: Vayigash) interpreted this meeting as the occasion for a contest of wills between the two, to determine who would be the future leader of Jewish people; Joseph’s breaking down and disclosing his identity (“and Joseph could not hold back”) is the dramatic turning point in this respect as well. I do not know whether the Rav’s reading is based on hints here or whether it derives from other, more explicit midrashic sources. In any event, the phrase, “the kings are dealing with one another,” is repeated twice more in this chapter of midrash, making it something of a leit-motif.

“For you are like Pharaoh”

The view of the conversation between Judah and Joseph/Zaphenath-paneah as a colossal conflict continues further on in this chapter of midrash. The phrase in the opening verse, “for you are like Pharaoh” (44:18), which on the simple level is a polite, ceremonial idiom showing respect and humility, if not downright groveling, before the powerful royal vizier, is read here in a completely different light. Genesis Rabbah 93.6:

“For you are like Pharaoh.” Just as Pharaoh issues edicts and does not fulfill them, so do you make edicts and not fulfill them; just as Pharaoh is keen on males, so are you.

This is a very strange midrash. Rather than the submissive, courtly speech found in the Torah, we find here an aggressive, outspokenly critical attack on Joseph, whom the brothers still assume to be an Egyptian official. The phrase, “you are like Pharaoh,” is here given an unexpected, ironic twist: “you are like Pharaoh” in sharing his failings and weaknesses. Criticism focuses on two points: first, dishonesty and unreliability—like him, you don’t keep your word (so, on the peshat level: why should we trust you to release Benjamin when we come down next time?). Second, homosexuality: you want to hold Benjamin prisoner because, like Joseph before him, he is a beautiful young man, whom you eye for your own pleasure. Egypt was notorious for its sexual perversity (see Lev 18:3), albeit their “specialty” was brother-sister incest; homosexuality as a way of life, especially the keeping of young boys as paramours by the rich and powerful, is more reminiscent of the Roman empire in the days of its decline. (A great and wealthy empire, with an opulent life style and “relaxed” sexual mores, confronting sexually puritanical, barbarian hordes: does this sound familiar?)

What message is conveyed by this midrash? Here Pharaoh, and by extension Joseph/Zaphenath-paneah, represent the non-Jewish world whom the Jewish people confronted innumerable times throughout their history. Particularly at the time of the Sages, this world took the form of the Roman empire—cruel, brutal, all-powerful, suppressing any independent cultural and religious expression. Perhaps this is a kind of “wish fulfillment” speech placed in Judah’s mouth: a fantasy of how a proud Jew would speak to the non-Jewish world, if only he could get away with it.

Just as Pharaoh is king and you are second to him in the land of Egypt, so is my father king in the land of Canaan, and I am second to him. And if I draw my sword, I shall begin with you, and conclude with Pharaoh your master.

The parallel continues, with Judah issuing an open declaration of war: do not be overly haughty, for we are really counterparts of one another; just as you are second in command to Pharaoh, so am I second in command to my father Yaakov. It is as if Yehudah is saying: we are fed up with you playing these arbitrary games with us. The matter can be solved in a contest of strength —and we will come out on top!

Had he said: with Pharaoh I shall begin, he [Joseph] would have let him be. But once he said, ‘With you I shall begin,’ he gave a signal to Manasseh, who gave one kick, and the whole hall shock. He [Judah] said: that kick is from father’s house. Once he saw where matters stood, he started to speak gentle / soft words: “My master asked…”

Another motif, repeated in several other midrashim here, is the superhuman strength of the Jacob’s family. Again, a wish that reality would be other in it is. In any event, we see here how one of the central concerns of the midrash—the real situation of the Jewish people in a hostile world, which occupies such a central place inter alia in the midrashim of Jacob and Esau—reappears here in covert form, “coded” in the form of the exchanges among the brothers, and particularly those with Joseph in the ambiguous guise of stranger/brother.


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