For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at Januaryand December 2006, December 2007, and January 2009.
A Poignant Tale
The story of Joseph and his brothers —leaving aside its consequences for future Jewish history, and the world-historical interpretation placed on it by the midrash—is, in simple human terms, perhaps the most moving story in the Bible, certainly in the Torah. It deals with eternal themes—fathers and sons, rivalry and hostility among siblings—that speak to universal human feelings. The following pithy saying from b. Hagiggah 4b seems to sum it up:
When Rabbi Eleazar would come to the verse, he would weep: If, regarding the rebuke of flesh and blood, it is written “And his brothers could not answer him, for they were astonished before him” (Gen 45:3), all the more so regarding the rebuke of the Holy One, blessed be He.
My discussion here shall be divided into two parts: my own reaction to the biblical story, and why R. Eleazar wept. First, speaking for myself: on more than one occasion, when reading this chapter publicly in the synagogue on Shabbat, I have had to pause, feeling myself on the verge of weeping, imagining Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, and the brothers’ reaction, ranging from shock, to shame, regret, embarrassment, to love and joy and relief that Joseph was indeed alive. Last week’s parashah also contains many poignant scenes: when Joseph overhears his brothers, who of course don’t know that he understands their language, speak of how all this is happening to them because they are guilty of not hearing their brother’s pleas, many years ago, Joseph quickly goes to a side room to weep; again, when he sees his brother Binyamin, he cannot control his weeping (Gen 42:21-24; 43:30-31). Also, Joseph repeatedly asks, both while still in the guise of the Egyptian vizier, “how is your old father of whom you spoke; is he still alive” (43:27) and then, in this verse, once he makes his identity known, he states, almost in one breath, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?”—and only thereafter “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold to Egypt” (45:3. 4). It is as if, even though he had risen to the second most important position in all of Egypt, his deepest fear was that his father would die without him ever seeing him again; that he would never speak with him again, make reconciliation with him, to fix whatever had been left in need of correction.
The problem presented here—estrangement between people who, at least in terms of the conventional understanding of things ought to be particularly close—has no pat answers. It is simply one of the realities of human life that at times, indeed, not infrequently, even in the “best” families (and even in the very heart of the religious world), there are families in which brothers or other close relatives are openly at odds, so much so that they have not even spoke to one another for years, or even decades. That is perhaps why so many novels and plays by Jewish and Israeli authors and playwrights make the Passover Seder or the house of mourning the central scene for their family dramas: it is a loci at which long-buried conflicts often come into the open, as feuding siblings are nevertheless in one place. I remember attending a funeral in my own extended family, at which, after the formal eulogies in the synagogue, just before the Kaddish, after the grave had already been covered with earth, the youngest son at his mother’s grave side made a brief but poignant speech calling on his siblings: “Let us not be divided! Let us stay together, help one another, as our mother would have wished.” I don’t know whether his heartfelt imprecations helped much. At times, caring for an elderly or ailing parent keeps children together; once they die, there is no longer any common activity or responsibility that unites them, but only the fact of kinship per se—and then other factors, whether money disputes or simply “irreconcilable differences” of temperament, personality, values, etc., often drive them apart.
A friend of mine once remarked that “Americans divorce their families at age 18.” That is, the individualistic ethos of US culture is so strong that adults often see no reason to maintain contact with the “family or origin” once they are themselves independent adults. Traditionally, Jews have an ethos in which the family is important; indeed, the central axis of life. My sense is that this individualistic ethos is not quite so predominant among Jews as it is among non-Jews; but I may well be wrong, and in any event these norms are rapidly changing. The Joseph story reminds us that these strains and tensions have existed since time immemorial.
Turning to R. Eleazar’s comment: interestingly, Joseph did not actually rebuke the brothers. Rather, their own feelings of guilt made them feel thus—just seeing him felt like a living rebuke, because they knew he had every right to rebuke them, to be furious with them, that they had done things which were simply inexcusable. In addition, of course, they may simply have been shocked to discover that this “Egyptian” sitting before them was their own long-lost brother.
From this, R. Eleazar draws an a fortiori: human beings are, existentially, always lacking in God’s eyes; hence, any confrontation with God, with the Infinite Creator, Lawgiver and Judge, is by definition one in which man feels his own inadequacies, and stands dumbfounded.
POSTSCRIPT: Redemption of Captives: The Shalit Affair
Thinking further about the piece I sent out earlier this week, and some emails I received in its wake, I realized that the halakhah as formulated in the Mishnah and the Rambam leaves a key question unanswered: What does it mean to speak of a person’s “worth”? How can one objectively determine what is “too much”? If each human being, and certainly every Jew, is of infinite value, such a determination seems absurd.
And yet, when speaking about redeeming a person, one somehow has to set a price. Does a prisoner’s value correspond to the “valuation” discussed in Leviticus 27, where a person makes an oath to bring his “value” (ערכך) to the Temple? Or is it the price that a given individual would draw if sold as a slave (remembering that there was slavery and a slave-market in the world in which Hazal lived)? Or is it the person’s projected life-time earnings, as is sometimes granted, or at least sued for, in civil damage suits related to murder (as in the O. J. Simpson case) or medical negligence? Or is there such a thing as a known market price for ransoming kidnapped people? Moreover, in this case, where one is speaking of prisoner for prisoner rather than prisoner for money, it becomes much more complicated. In the first such exchange, Israel exchanged its soldiers one-for-one (in 1971, night watchman Shmuel Rosenwasser, who had been kidnapped in Metullah by the PLO, was released in exchange for Mahmoud Hijazi—the only such one-on-one exchange) --until the terrorists started to realize they could demand huge numbers of their people released in exchange for one or two Israelis, and get it. The issue is not so much whether Israeli soldiers are worth more, which is a metaphysical question impossible to answer, but that Israeli civil society seems to care much more about each individual life.
Israeli Nobel Prize winner, economist Israel Uman, has suggested that we put a stop to this. He proposes that Hamas be presented with a list of 500–1000 hardened prisoners and be told to choose one, to be released in exchange for Shalit. As he received his Nobel for game theory, he presumably knows what he’s talking about—but, unfortunately, decisions are being made by politicians rather than by professors.
In any event, it is not a simple matter. Apart from the immediate repercussions, it presents an interesting question in the philosophy of halakhah. After writing this essay, I was told by Dov Frimer, a prominent attorney and very serious talmid-hakham, that the late Rabbi Yehudah Gershuni published an important halakhic study of pidyon shevuyim, with an orientation towards the reality of the Israeli experience (as he died in the 1990’s, it was presumably in relation to the notorous “Jibril deal”). Once I read it, bli neder, I will share my findings with readers.