Friday, December 14, 2007

Vayigash (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see below, at the archives for January 2006.

Joseph the Provider

It is difficult to find one mitzvah as such that is emblematic of this parashah. Thus, I will approach this week’s reading by following the path of the Hasidic darshanim, who are fond of the question: “How is this part of the Torah applicable to every person, in every time and place?”

This parasha divides roughly into two equal parts, in both of which the central figure is Joseph, who here finally “come into his own.” The first half (Gen 44:18-46:7) tells of the reuniting of the brothers, when Joseph suddenly reveals them the truth, in the poignant words “I am Yosef your brother whom you sold to Egypt” (Gen 45:4). The phrase used by the Torah immediately preceding this disclosure is “and Yosef could not hold back”—ולא יכול יוסף להתאפק (v. 1)—as if to say, he was acting under deep emotionally compulsion. I see him as at long last surrendering to his natural emotions; as no longer able to maintain the carefully maintained mask of alienation, indifference, manipulation, even cruelty that he played until then. In a moment, he chose friendship, fellowship, a kind of fraternal equality, above rulership and power.

In the second half (46:28-47:27), separated from the first half by a list of names of all those (males) of Jacob’s family who came down to Egypt, Yosef implements his plan for Egypt as a whole: he gathers grain from the peasant farmers, in return for which he (acting on behalf of the government) sustains them once the famine sets in, providing them with carefully stored food, enabling them to survive the thin years. This is the source of the Kabbalistic image of Yosef as Tzaddik. Usually translated as “Righteous,” the image is related to the Sefirah of Yesod, portrayed in concrete image as a kind of funnel or channel carrying the supernal, divine flow of abundance down into the world generally.* [see note below]

Turning from the mythic to the ethical dimension: the task of Yosef-Zaddik is to provide sustenance: again, the classical male role of provider. Here he sustains the nation as a whole. Indeed, Thomas Mann, in his great quadrilogy, Joseph and His Brothers, paints him as a kind of FDR figure, saving his nation from mass starvation and impoverishment by careful social organization.

Translating this into lessons that might be applied by the ordinary person, if not as an actual mitzvah, than as a desirable ethical trait: first, that at the end of the day Yosef preferred friendship with his brothers, being at most “first among equals,” to being “above” them—the all-powerful ruler whose word was law. Second, the aspect of “Joseph the Provider,” as a source of material goodness and blessing, is one that every person may strive for on a small scale in his immediate surroundings: i.e., ordinary, mundane responsibility—and perhaps this may be understood (as one of my sisters-in-law write about her father, on whom more next week), not only in the economic sense, but in that of providing strength, support, a sense of joy, and love to one’s family and those around one.

There was also a problematic side to Joseph’s role as “the provider to all the land” (המשביר לכל הארץ). Because his social planning concentrated wealth and power in the Pharaonic house, one might well argue that, in exchange for sustaining the masses in life, he created a kind of serfdom. Was this a form of state socialism or centralized planning that, in irresponsible hands, could easily lead to tyranny? Or is it comparable to the super conglomerates of (now global) capitalism? The story is very suggestive in terms of contemporary models (and see my discussion from past years)—but we cannot elaborate on this today.

NOTE: This is also the connection to the symbolism of Yesod=Zaddik=Yosef as phallus: it is not only sexual, but indicates in general the “bringing down” of the divine flow, which is both a concrete description of the male sexual function (especially in medieval science, where the seed was believed to pass down from the brain via the spine into the phallus and from there to the receptive female function, identified with Shekhinah or Malkhut), and of the image of a channel or medium for bringing down abundance generally. The image of Yosef as Tzaddik is paradoxical: he is both he who resists sexual temptation, in the person of Potiphar’s wife (“the bear”), and the avatar of male sexuality in a positive sense.


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