Friday, December 15, 2006

Vayeshev-Hanukkah (Rashi)

For other teachings on this parsha, and on Hanukkah, see the archives for December 2005.

A Rashi Potpourri

The working assumption among traditional Jews is that the rishonim, the classical commentators and authors of the Middle Ages, wrote their texts with great care and precision. In particular, the two towering figures, Rashi and Rambam, are studied very carefully, and ever word, every turn of phrase, every nuance is delved into, examined, and an attempt made to derive significance, not only from what is said, but from what is not said. In the Rambam’s Yad, much may be learned from the order of the halakhot or why a particular subject was treated in one place and not another (questions we considered during the year we studied Rambam). In Rashi, too, an important question is: “Why did Rashi elaborate upon this particular verse, this particular phrase, and ignore another?” Or, as the late Nehama Leibowitz used to put it: “What is bothering Rashi?”

Thus, the fact that Rashi chose not to comment upon a particular verse is itself deemed significant, and is assumed to teach us something. The assumption, when one finds difficulty in a particular verse, and finds that Rashi does not treat it, is that Rashi must have considered the answer to the problem as so self-evident that his readers would, with a bit of reflection, be able to figure it out for themselves. The absence of Rashi is thus seen as an invitation to further study and thought.

An example of this struck me in the first section of this week’s parsha: the scene in which we are introduced to Joseph and to the tension between him and his brothers. Three times within a few verses we are told of their hated for him: first, after Yaakov indicates his preference for him above the others by giving him the striped tunic, we read וישנאו אותו, “and they hated him” (Gen 37:4); and twice more when he has the dream about the sheaves: ויוסיפו עוד שנוא אותו, “they hated him even more” (ibid., 5, 8). The strange thing is that this phrase is used once when he has the dream and tells it to his brothers, and a second time after the text tells the contents of the dream, and briefly recounts the brother’s reaction. The second time the verse adds, after saying that they hated him even more, על חלומותיו וכל דבריו, “for his dreams and for his words.” The point of the repetition in verse 5 is self-evident: that there was further cause for hating him, not only for being his father’s favorite, but for his own dreams (fantasies? visions? prophecies?) of grandeur: all the brothers will bow down to him. The additional repetition in verse 8 does not refer to anything new, but is part of the expansion of the story: what is told succinctly in verse 5, is repeated and spelled out in vv. 6-8, and hence must conclude with a repetition of the result, “they hated him even more.” All this, Rashi must have considered so obvious that he saw no need to spell it out.

At the end of the scene, after Yaakov chastises him for his dreams, we read that ויקנאו בו אחיו ואביו שמר את הדבר, “and his brothers were jealous of him, and his father kept the thing in mind” (v. 11). It should be noted in passing that, notwithstanding his preference for Joseph, who reminded him of the one great love of his life, Joseph’s mother, Rahel, who died young, Yaakov was not blinded by his love, but criticized him—perhaps for what he saw as signs of a certain narcissism and arrogance in his relationship with his brothers or, according to Rashi on v. 10, for inviting their hostility by not keeping the dream to himself. In this, Yaakov proved himself a good, wise parent, in striking contrast to David, the classic indulgent father in the Bible, of whom we are told, re Adonijah, “And he never in his life chastised his son, to ask him, ‘Why did you do this?’” (1 Kings 1:6)—and was rewarded by a palace revolution in his lifetime.

In any event, why doesn’t Rashi comment on the phrase “And his brothers were jealous of him” in v. 11? Here we have yet another repetition of the fact of their negative emotion, this time with a change of language—קנאה (“jealousy”) rather than שנאה (“hatred”). Why does Rashi ignore this phrase?

To understand that, we must abandon our modernist, post-Freudian conditioning. In the ancient world, dreams are not, as we generally assume them to be, an expression of the dreamer’s unconscious, filled with all the unacceptable and anti-social feelings and desires a person represses during waking life—in this case, Joseph’s childish fantasy of ruling over his family—but a quasi-prophetic state, a means used by God or by spiritual beings (including spirits of the dead) to communicate with men. (Indeed, Rambam says that most prophecies occur in the dream state; it was only Moses who was privileged to converse with God while fully awake). Thus, this dream is taken as a sign that Joseph was indeed destined to rule over his brothers in the future: good reason for Yaakov to take a “wait and see” attitude, and for his brothers enmity at his aloof and self-centered behavior to transform into real jealousy and envy.

On the other hand, there are verses in this parsha which Rashi does explain at some length for reasons that are not altogether clear, at least at first blush. Thus, in the title verse: וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו בארץ כנען —“And Yaakov dwelt in the land where his fathers dwelled, in the land of Canaan” (37:1)—Rashi brings no less than three separate comments, which I shall briefly summarize. First, that after a brief summary of the offspring and settlements of Esau (Chapter 36), the Torah describes Jacob’s settlements and history at length, because they are the ones who are important to God (as his covenant people); Rashi goes on to mention other examples in which the Torah presents certain facts in brief and then elaborates. Second, a Rashi Yashan which assures that, no matter how powerful Esau/Edom my seem, they will ultimately get their comeuppance. Third, a comment on verse 2 that still relates to the opening verse: “Yaakov wished to dwell in calm and tranquility (וישב יעקב), but he was beset by the troubles of Joseph and his brothers”—teaching that the righteous have no reason to expect peace and quiet in their lifetime.

An aside: this is the first Rashi I ever learned, from my parent’s friend Isaiah Heller, z”l, a non-observant New York Jewish intellectual and raconteur who had studied in a heder in White Russia in his childhood. He liked to quote this Rashi as a metaphor for his own situation: he was already well into middle-age, and was having only grief and anxiety from his two grown daughters, rather than the nakhas fun kinder for which he had hoped.

It seems to me that one reason for Rashi’s elaboration of this verse is because of a certain literary anomaly: if we skip the first verse, we find that this parsha in fact begins in a manner similar to the beginning of Toldot (Gen 25:19). We read there: “These are the generations of Yitzhak son of Avraham, Avraham beget Yitzhak….” And, in verse 2: “These are the generations of Yaakov: Joseph was seventeen years old….” In both cases, the genealogical introduction is followed by a brief description of the character and doings of the son or sons, followed by the central incident of the chapter, involving interaction between/among brothers. But in this case that verse is preceded by another, stating that Yaakov dwelt in the land of his fathers; hence, Rashi feels called upon to explain why the pattern is interrupted in this manner.

Another example appears in the next chapter, in the story of Tamar and Yehudah. In the background verses, we are told that Yehudah married a certain woman with whom he had three sons, and the eldest married Tamar. But then:

38:7. “And Er the first-born of Yehudah was wicked in the eyes of God, and God caused him to die [lit., put him to death].” Rashi: Like the evil of Onan, who wasted his seed, as it is said in Onan, “and He also made him to die.” As the death of Er, so was the death of Onan. And why did Er waste his seed? So that she not become pregnant and spoil her beauty.

In the following three verses we are told that the next brother, Onan, was instructed to enter into levirate marriage with Er’s widow but, knowing that the offspring of this union would not be considered his, “whenever he came to his brother’s wife, he would spill it [lit., ‘waste it’] on the earth, that he might not give seed to his brother.” (Incidentally, this act was not what has come to be known in our culture as onanism, but probably coitus interruptus, as per Rashi on v. 10 and as seems the straightforward sense of the verse; or, according to Yevamot 34b, anal intercourse; in any event, it is clear that the text’s real concern here is not with the deviant sexual practice per se, but with the attempt to circumvent his brotherly duty). We are then told that what he did was wicked in God’s eyes, and He caused him to die as well (וימת גם אותו).

Rashi’s comment on verse 7 is prompted by what he sees as an anomaly: two people are described as being put to death by God because of evil they have done, but only in the second case, that of Onan, does the Torah explicitly state what was done. Rashi’s comment, retrospectively equating Er’s action with that of Onan, is an attempt to explain why Er was called evil; from the fact that the word “also” is used of Onan’s death, he infers that the cause of both deaths must have been the same sin. (Incidentally, verse 7 doesn’t say that Er did something evil, but that he was evil, suggesting an almost existential wickedness.)

Why still need to understand why Er did this. Onan’s motivation, selfish and reprehensible as it might be, is at least understandable: he didn’t want to raise and support a child who wouldn’t be “his.” But Er was not a levir, but in an ordinary, first marriage, the proverbial “young couple starting out in life”; hence, there must have been some other reason. Rashi, quoting the Talmudic aggadah, suggests that he was excessive concerned with his wife’s appearance (Yevamot 34b). Interestingly, at Gen 4:19, where we are told that Lemech took two wives, Adah and Tzilah, Rashi comments that one was for sex alone, and took a “cup of sterility”; while the other was for children. It would seem that in the generation of the Flood there was a sharp dichotomy between the erotic aspect of sexual connections, with the related ideal of perfect feminine beauty, and woman’s maternal-familial role. Sound familiar?

I would like to conclude with a few brief comments by Rashi which are rich in psychological insight. The Torah may be read on many levels. Many contemporary preachers, following the midrash, are fond of reading Bereshit as foreshadowing and paradigmatic for Jewish history, the connection to Eretz Yisrael, etc. But we must not lose sight of the most basic level: the Bible as a human story. The universal appeal of these chapters, in particular, is that they speak to us on the immediate human level. Everyone grows up in a home with parents; almost everyone has siblings, and knows something of the rivalry that often exists alongside the feelings of love and friendship; most people, even in this day and age, marry, or at least know something of romantic love, attraction, as well as frustration and conflict. Thus, the characters and situations depicted here are of perennial interest, even on the simple human level.

37.4. “And they could not speak with him peaceably.” Rashi: From their vices, one learns of their praise: that they did not say one thing in their mouth and [feel] another in their heart.

The brothers may have hated Joseph—a bad thing, to be sure—but they were not hypocrites! They hated him, and didn’t hide it in polite, “civilized” parlor games.

37:13. “Please go and I will send you to them, and he said, ‘I am ready.’” Rashi: “I am ready.” A language of modesty and quickness. He hastened to [fulfill] his father’s command, even though he knew that his brother’s hated him.

This tiny vignette sees in the one word, hineni, “I am ready,” a picture of filial dedication, of Joseph’s willingness to obey his father’s request despite the hatred he knew his brother’s held for him and the danger involved in going to them in a remote, isolated place.

37:35. “And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted.” Rashi: A person does not accept condolences for a person who is alive but whom he thinks is dead. For it only regarding the dead that it is decreed that he be forgotten from the heart, but not of the living.

This verse speaks of Yaakov’s uncontrollable grief after being told of Yosef’s disappearance and evident death. Rashi sees, precisely in the extremity of his grief, in his refusal to be comforted, an indication of an unconscious, intuitive sense, that Joseph wasn’t really dead, but was alive and that they would eventually be reunited.


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