Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Vayigash (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parsha, see the archives for January 2006.

The Great Confrontation

Last week’s parshah (which might well be called the original “cliff-hanger”) left off at the very height of dramatic tension, with the brothers finding themselves in an impossible dilemma: Benjamin, the beloved youngest son, whom their father had agreed to send down to Egypt only after they gave their pledge to take special care of him, is singled out by what seems clear evidence of a crime he has committed—stealing the “Egyptian viceroy’s” special divining goblet. Many see in this the crux of the test that the disguised Joseph has set up for them: will they stand up for their brother, or abandon him to his fate? Will they believe the worst, as their eyes seem to show—that Benjamin is an ingrate and a thief—or not?

At this point Judah steps forward and speaks to “the man,” in a speech in which his qualities of nobility, responsibility, and familial solidarity and caring come to the fore—qualities which, according to one traditional rabbinic reading, gave him the victory in the covert struggle with Joseph for leadership of the other tribes, and ultimately assures that the royal family of Israel will come from him (see what I quoted in the name of Rav Soloveitchik in HY I: Vayigash = Vayigash [Torah]).

Superficially, this speech seems couched in terms of reverence, homage, and self-effacement before the dignified official—who, as second to Pharaoh alone, has the power to decide their fate at his whim. But behind the polite tone, Rashi detects barely-veiled criticism and anger. And indeed, that seems befitting to a confrontation that is filled with duality: on the one level, that of the humble Canaanite shepherds opposite the powerful Egyptian vizier; on another level, what we really know it to be, an encounter between one long-lost brother and the rest, with a heavy burden of unresolved internal family conflicts between them. I shall begin davka with Rashi’s comment on the second verse:

44:19. “My master has asked his servants, saying: Do you have a father or a brother?” Rashi: From the beginning you came to us with a fabrication. What need had you to ask all this of us? Did we seek [to marry] your daughter or do you want our sister?

Yehudah expresses the long-pent-up anger and frustration felt at the protracted run-around to which he and his brothers have been subjected by this strange man. He declares his innocence: we answered all of your questions in good faith; indeed, it is implied, it is only thus that you know of the existence of a younger brother in the first place. But such questions are really out of place: we have not come here to get involved in your family in an intimate way, which would justify such meticulous inspection; we wanted nothing more than to buy some grain, a straightforward, routine business matter in this time and place.

We shall now return to Rashi on the opening verse:

18. “…Be not wrath with your servants, for you are like Pharaoh.” Rashi: “for you are like Pharaoh.” You are as important in our eyes as the king—thus its plain, literal meaning. And its midrash: in the end you shall be stricken with leprosy on his account [i.e., that of Benjamin] just as Pharaoh was stricken on account of my grandmother Sarah for one night that he detained her [see Gen 12:10-20]. Another thing: Just as Pharaoh makes an edict and does not fulfill it, promises and fails to act, so do you. Is this the “placing of the eye” that you had in mind when you said, “that I may place my eye upon him” [below, v. 21, referring to an earlier conversation between Joseph and the brothers]. Another thing: If you insult me, I shall kill you and your master.

We find here a classical structure in Rashi: the simple meaning (peshat), followed by a midrashic interpretation or, as in this case, a number of such. The first midrash invokes the principle of Divine retribution, invoking the precedent of what happened to an earlier pharaoh who tried to take Sarah for himself—notwithstanding that this happened in all innocence, as a result of Abraham’s deliberate deception. That is, there is a God in Heaven, before Whom even kings are accountable. The second midrash makes an ethical judgment, as if to say: we are not impressed by fancy robes and titles, but judge a person by his character and his actions. Just as Pharaoh is untrustworthy, so are you turning out to be. (Is this a reference to any particular pharaoh Judah might have known, or a projection into the later future: the Pharaoh of the oppression, or perhaps even of later pharaohs, such as those mentioned in Isaiah and Jeremiah’s prophecies) Finally, we have a direct threat: if need be, we will not hesitate to harm you, just as we will do to Pharaoh.

The overall message of all three units is: behind the pomp and ceremony lies a human being like any other, subject to human feelings and physical vulnerability just like any other person. I see here a certain type of age-old Jewish folk wisdom: a skepticism about worldly power which, while it may look impressive, has no cover to it. Certainly, we can well imagine Rashi speaking thus of his own and his community’s situation in medieval Europe: a kind of revenge of the powerless, to say, at least within the safety of the group, what they really think of the high and mighty and powerful.

Erich Auerbach, in Mimesis, observes that biblical language is usually very spare and lacking in the sort of rich descriptive detail or portrayal of inner emotion as is found in Western literature (he gives the example of a passage from Homer’s Odyssey). Surely, one of the functions of midrash is to compensate or fill in that sparseness. Hence, it is not illegitimate or improper (as some readers seem to have hinted) to seek multiple layers in the text; another, totally different story lying beneath the surface of the first story (a “twice-told tale,” as Joshua Levinson has called it). And nowhere is this more the case than in this scene, where the characters are not whom they seem, and the ambiguity between the two levels fairly cries out for explication.

Did Joseph Do Teshuvah?

There is a certain line of interpretation often invoked in the tradition, in Hasidic texts and elsewhere, that bothers me: namely, one in which Judah and Joseph are painted as two diametrically opposed archetypes. Whereas Judah is portrayed as a ba’al teshuvah who performed two serious sins that expressed a powerful “evil urge”— throwing Joseph into the pit, and sleeping with a woman whom he thought was a prostitute (is this in fact condemned by the text? It’s not altogether clear; the incident can be read in an almost matter-of-fact way)—Joseph is spoken of as the archetypal tzaddik: a person who was altogether righteous, not only in the mystical/Kabbalistic sense of serving as a channel for the flow of Divine abundance and blessing, but in the simple sense, for withstanding sexual temptation in the person of Potiphar’s wife.

What bothers me about this is that, while he may not have committed sins of passion—either of violence or of sexual lust—Yosef’s character still leaves much to be desired. To many contemporary readers, he seems an arrogant, narcissistic prig: in his youth—preoccupied with his own self, vain, primping, telling his brothers of his dreams or visions of grandeur; later on, on the simple level, his treatment of his brothers seems to border on the sadistic—an elaborate cat and mouse game, concealing his identity for long months or even years during and after their renewed encounter in Egypt, allowing his father to continue to believe that he was dead. Surely many of us have felt at times that, leaving the near-bloodshed aside, his brothers’ reaction to him in Dothan was most understandable, if not fully justified.

But R. Nahum of Chernobol, author of the seminal Hasidic book Meor Einayim, has something quite interesting to say about the incident of Potiphar’s wife. He speaks there of the significance of clothing, both as physical raiment and as a spiritual symbol: of the “garments” of the soul, which can be either mitzvot or the opposite. One should note here that garments play an important role throughout the Joseph story: his striped tunic (often mistranslated as “coat of many colors”) is the initial symbol and focus for his brothers’ anger, which they strip off him before doing anything to his person; later, when called to go before Pharaoh, we are told that he is shaved/tonsured and “changes his clothes”; once appointed viceroy, he is given a fine linen robe and golden neckpiece as a sign of office. In the would-be seduction incident, a piece of cloth ripped off Joseph’s garment serves as a leitmotif, reiterated four or five times in the narrative description and the various retellings: “he left his garment with me/her and fled and went outside.”

The Chernoboler interprets this abandoned garment as a symbol for the narcissistic garments of his soul, that had been expressed in his playing with his hair, his vanity, his self-occupation, etc. Suddenly, Joseph realized that this was something that could easily lead him into deeper sins: she saw him as a ”pretty boy,” as one who was somehow unduly aware of his appearance, and thus as an exaggeratedly sexual figure. If we are to believe the Chernoboler, perhaps this was the point where he (began to?) cast off this life-long psychological garment, and began to do teshuvah in a real way. And indeed, from this moment on we begin to see him as a more positive person, aware of others, giving of his time and thoughts to help others—first the two fellow prisoners, later Pharaoh and the whole country, and finally, in the last scene, after their father’s death, demonstrating magnanimity, forgiveness, and real generosity to his brothers, who were still uneasy with him.

I will leave aside the issue of Yosef’s economic reform as described at the end of the parsha, which saved the ordinary Egyptian folk from starvation, but at the cost of concentrating all wealth and power in the hands of a highly centralized governmental machine. The scene described there is highly reminiscent of today’s multi-national corporations in a globalized economy, and the constant mergers and swallowing up of small, localized businesses into ever bigger and more concentrated foci—surely at least as heartless and alienating as the centralized economies of socialism-gone-wrong. But that is a vast topic, for another time.

Fantasy on a Tallis

While on the subject of clothing and garments of different sorts: I have lately been shopping for a new tallit, my old one having become threadbare and beyond repair. Basically, I find three main types of tallit available in the shops: 1) the traditional woolen tallit with black stripes of various thicknesses; 2) the pure white woolen tallit, favored by many Sephardim, especially for Shabbat; 3) the multi-colored, “Zalman” tallit—that is, a tallit with a series of stripes of all colors of the rainbow plus brown, a design originated by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shelomi (on whom see a future essay), one of the founders, not only of the Jewish Renewal movement, but an instrumental figure in the attempt to create a new, contemporary Jewish aesthetic, beautifying the mitzvot in new and different ways.

In addition, one can see in synagogues these days people wearing tallitot with a variety of new patterns, colors, and designs. I have seen a tallit with entire pictures, such as a rustic scene showing a log cabin atop a wooded mountain, a veritable hippy paradise; one with a series of colorful neckties in various directions; an Israeli flag; a Mexican poncho qua tallit; etc. Moreover, the movement in some religious-feminist circles for women to wear tallitot has engendered a whole group of new and different hues, shades, styles, materials, etc. for this traditional prayer garment.

Leaving aside the last items: what is symbolized by these different colorations for the tallit? I would like to suggest my own, purely subjective interpretation for these three types (hence the title of this mini-essay, “a Tallis fantasy”), as representing three approaches to Jewish spirituality.

1) The tallit with white and black stripes suggests a world of polarities, if not dualities: good and evil, sacred and secular, permitted and forbidden, pure and impure/contaminated, mind and body, Shabbat and weekday, Jews and other peoples, male and female, milk and meat—in brief, a Judaism dominated by the principle of havdalah, of drawing sharp distinctions.

2) The pure white tallit suggests, by contrast, a world of total unity, in which all is ultimately one. This is particularly suitable for Shabbat, as the day when all divisions are resolved and harmonized in a transcendent, radical unity—or at least as pointing towards the messianic “day that is wholly Shabbat.”

3) The multi-colored tallit is the most interesting, as one that suggests diversity within unity: the colors of the rainbow that are all refracted from the same pure white light; the seven stripes corresponding to the seven Days of Creation, or the seven lower Sefirot, or “building stones,” of this universe. (Zalman once explained to me the symbolism of the stripes on this tallit: purple for the primeval waters of the first day; blue for the firmament, created on the second day; green for the vegetation created on the third day; yellow for the sun, moon and stars of the fourth; orange for the herbivorous, egg-laying fowl and fish, denizens of the sky and sea, created on the fifth day; red for the warm-blooded mammals and humans created on the sixth day—and the seventh, brown-colored stripe for the Sabbath day, for the rest and stasis of the earth, from which we emerge and to which we return.)

The multi-colored tallit thus symbolizes an attempt to represent a higher unity, relating to what is perhaps the fundamental religious problem—the disparity between the diversity and multiplicity of being in this world, and the unity of the Divine, which we can only intuit, are somehow reconciled.

This issue was one which Martin Buber saw as central to the religious life. In a 1914 essay entitled “The Altar” (in Pointing the Way, New York & Evanston 1963, pp. 16-19), he discusses an altar-piece by the early 16th century Matthias Grünewald located in a church in the Alsatian town of Isenheim. (Buber, a Jew, had a universal approach that embraced a variety of religious traditions; his interpretation of “the resurrected one“ is of course more that of Buberian religious humanism than of Christology.)

The outer panels of this work shows two women standing near the cross: Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. The one, clothed entirely in white, has her eyes closed; the other, eyes open, is dressed in a veritable riot of color. Buber sees these as symbolic of their attitudes: the one in white, closing her eyes to the reality of world, seeks an other-worldly purity, a kind of mystical ecstasy, while the other displays an openness to beauty, to sensuality, to the world as is.

She is vowed to manifold colourfulness as Mary is to the simple absence of colour; but her variegated appearance is not bound by sense, and Mary’s whiteness is sundered from life. These are the two souls… High above… bands of angels [are]… above color, united in the radiant light; but as they undulate downward into the intermediate realm of being, each angel gleams forth in colour… That is the miracle of the becoming of colour, the emanation of the many out of the one: that is the first mystery…

This passage, taken in itself, could indicate Buber’s well-known conversion from a path of vertical spirituality that sought knowledge of the Eternal One through meditation, through the pursuit of inner psychological states of ecstasy, in favor of engagement and involvement in the real world, in responsibility to one’s fellow man and to human society, in the multiple things of reality. Indeed, he continues:

We cannot penetrate behind the multiplicity to find the living unity. If we remove the colours, we do not behold the light but only darkness… He who puts on the white mantle is cut off from life, and he experiences the truth only so long as he shuts his eyes. Our world, the world of colours, is the world.

But that is not enough. The world of multiplicity is not all there is:

Are we then. like Magdalene, abandoned to the manifold? If we do not strive to turn away from the actual and to deny the fullness of our experience, must we be dispersed in things… ?

He finds a symbol of the resolution of this dilemma in the manner in which the resurrection scene is represented here (since the iconography he is expounding is a Christian one—but it could just as well be a vision of the ultimate perfection, perhaps of the renewal of prophecy or of the perfected Adam Kadmon in Jewish tradition).

He includes all hues of being in his unity of spirit, each one pure and intensified… That is the miracle of the coming to be of glory, the becoming of one out of many: this is the other mystery. This mystery is ours, it is allotted to us. This all-coloured glory that opens and ascends in all direction, the glory of things, is the spirit of the earth.

This is not [only] the Jew Jeshua, trodding the soil of Galilee and teaching in his day…. [nor] is it [only] the incarnate Logos, descending from timeless pre-existence into time…. This is the man, the man of all times and of all places, the man of the here and now, who perfects himself into the I of the word.

He loves the world, he rejects none of its colours. But he can receive none of them before it is pure and intensified…. We cannot penetrate behind the manifold to find living unity. But we can create living unity out of the manifold.

Interestingly, as mentioned, in the first panel of the triptych these two poles are represented by two women, who represent inter alia two diametrically opposed approaches to sexuality: Mary, the pure, virgin mother who eschews sexuality is enwrapped in white; whereas Magdalene, the highly sexual woman—whether as whore or, in a subterranean, heretical trend in Christianity, as Jesus’ wife/lover/disciple—belongs to the manifold world of rich color.

Sexuality is perhaps that area in which our culture is most deeply troubled, confused and conflicted today. And yet, interestingly, it is precisely in this area that the basic attitudes relating to this issue of the manifold and the one are expressed in the most basic ways. But I shall elaborate this issue in a future essay on “The One and the Two: Man, Woman, and God.”

Quiz: Anyone who can explain why the word Tallis is spelled in Ashkenazi pronunciation in the title of the above section will receive honorable mention in the next number of HY.


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