Saturday, December 12, 2009

Vayeshev - Hanukkah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, as well as on Hanukkah, see the archives to this blog, at December 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Joseph and His Brothers

This time we will focus upon Jacob’s reaction and attitudes towards the affair of Joseph and his brothers, which ultimately precipitated the descent of Israel to Egypt. First, a brief passage from Genesis Rabbah 84.3:

“And Jacob dwelled” [Gen 37:1]. Rav Ahha said: When the righteous dwell in peace and tranquility and wish to dwell quietly in This World, the Satan comes and accuses them. He says: Is it not enough that which is awaiting them in the World to Come, that they wish to dwell in peace and tranquility in This World? Know that this is so, for when Jacob our Father sought to dwell quietly in this world, there was matched for him the adversity of Joseph.

This midrash, picking up on the first two words of the parashah, makes a very bold statement. What is wrong with a little peace and quiet? Admittedly, any decent, ethical person must be prepared to set aside his own well-being and natural desire for comfort when confronted by some specific task or imperative: to help other people who are in distress or to take action to further some urgent cause. Any moral system, any approach to life based upon transcendent values, will demand that. But what is wrong with a person desiring peace and tranquility as such? Indeed, the ancient Greek philosophers, the medieval Christian contemplatives, and even our own Maimonides, celebrated the life of contemplation, of philosophical reflection—all of which is predicated on a certain inner calm, a life without too many external disturbances. Rambam, at the end of Mishneh Torah and elsewhere, sees the summum bonum, the ultimate goal of human life, as attaining knowledge of God, which can only be attained through long hours of solitude while engaged in profound thought and reflection.

Why then did the Rabbis object here to Jacob’s simple desire, at the end of a long and tumultuous life—especially in light of all that he had gone through with Esau, with Laban, with the bickering and rivalry of his two wives, with the people of Shechem—for a bit of peace and quiet, for what we would call today a “serene retirement”? Certainly, that fits in with contemporary mores: most people, would say that one of their goals in working hard is to have enough to enjoy “the good things of life”—leisure time, a nice vacation, a comfortable retirement.

But many Jewish Mussar thinkers would say to all that: No! Man is born to toil— אדם לעמל יולד; work and even travail is man’s natural condition (Job 5:7; cf. Gen 3:17-19). Beyond that, every free moment ought to be devoted to the service of God, avodat hashem: dong mitzvot of kindness towards others, studying Torah, praying slowly and with kavvanah, etc. In similar fashion, Protestant Christians sometimes speak of life in terms of a “calling” or “vocation,” not only for clergy but of whatever work one does in the world being somehow focused on God. This is not so far afield from Jewish view as it may seem: while the terminology sounds goyish, the substance and spirit is very much the same.

Yalkut Yehudah (by Yehudah Leib Ginsburg of Denver) says that excessive tranquility and comfort is objectionable, because the vast majority of people do not enjoy these most of the time; hence, in order to identify with others, the righteous man must also live a simple, even unquiet life. Human life, almost by its nature, involves upheaval and disquiet of one kind or another; if a person enjoys excessive calm and tranquility, this may be a sign of his own insensitivity, that he fails to see or ignores what is going on around him, that he makes himself impervious to the needs and sufferings of others. Yaakov’s quest for peace and quiet was answered by God bringing about the circumstances which split his family down the middle, resulting in the exile for twenty years of the bright, second-youngest son.

Yet on another level, surely this is only one side of the coin. Does Judaism lend legitimacy to the contemplative life or not? Do borrow we see the need for both Martha and Mary (archetypes for the active and contemplative lives in Christianity), or do we frown on the purely contemplative type who fails to perform acts of goodness because he lives in a manner that is remote from others? Significantly, a serious Jew cannot live a fully isolated, hermit–like existence, because he must have a community, if only for the mitzvot of public prayer. “Life is with People,” to quote the title of a book about Eastern European Jewish life that was popular some years ago.

The next, succinct saying concerns sibling rivalry. Shabbat 10b:

”And he made him a striped coat” [Gen 37:3]. Rav Hamma son of Goria said in the name of Rav: A person should never show preference to one son among his sons, for because of a two sela’s worth of fine wool in the striped robe that Jacob made for Joseph more than for his other sons his brothers were jealous of him, and the matter developed such that our forefathers went down to Egypt.

This saying seems to belabor the obvious. What parent sets out to deliberately favor one child over another? If asked, almost every parent will say “I love all my children equally, but each one in their own unique special way.” Yet theory is one thing, and life as it is lived is another. Most of us, if we look at our own life experience, whether as children or as parents, or at those of families we know well, will find that favoring of one child is very common, perhaps more so than its opposite. And the results are, of course, often disastrous. Sibling rivalry, conflict between brothers, is the theme of much fiction; any number of biblical narratives, from Yitzhak and Ishmael, through Yaakov and Esau, and down to the sons of David, revolve around this theme—and parental favoritism is often the root cause. Like gossip, like sexual dalliance and infidelity, everyone agrees that parental favoritism is a bad thing, that sooner or later will exact its price—but everyone also knows that, if not ubiquitous, it is exceedingly widespread and common. Not infrequently, one hears of families in which siblings are totally estranged, not speaking to one another for long years and even decades; meeting, at best, at weddings and funerals. Indeed, I know of cases involving fine and outstanding families, of learned, intelligent, scholarly, ethical people, in which even the death of a parent fails to bring siblings together. (Perhaps that is why the Torah makes a special point of telling us that Yitzhak and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, respectively, at least got together for the burials of their fathers; see Gen 25:9; 35:29) All that Hazal can do, then, is to point to the phenomenon and consequences, and warn against it.

A Quote About Lashon Hara

The subject of lashon hara, guarding one’s tongue against speaking evil of others, is an important ethical rule of Torah, virtually impossible for any normal person to fully observe. But it is particularly apt in the case of this week’s parashah which, among other things, demonstrates the incredibly destructive power of negative speech. Note the brothers’ murmuring against Yosef; their lie to their father about his being devoured by a wild animal, thereby casing him twenty years of grief; Potiphar’s wife’s malicious lie, reversing the identity of seducer and would-be seducee, thereby landing Joseph in prison; the cup bearer’s silent ingratitude; and, by shining contrast, Judah’s near-heroic admission of his dalliance with Tamar, and even more so, Tamar's silence, risking all so as not to embarrass another person.

The following quotation was sent out this week by Shmuel Himelstein, an avid collector and sharer of quotations from just about everyone and everywhere, with the comment, “that pretty much sums up Hilkhot Lashon Hara.” Its author was an American educator, clergyman, poet and essayist:

There are two good rules which ought to be written on every heart; never to believe anything bad about anybody unless you positively know it to be true; and never to tell that unless you feel that it is absolutely necessary, and that God is listening while you tell it. —Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)

And, more succinctly, from comedian Herb Shriner (1918-1970):

Conversation is when three people stand on the corner talking. Gossip is when one of them leaves.


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