Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Vayeshev (Individual & Community)

For more teachings , both on the parashah and on Hanukkah, see the archives to this my blog for December 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The Vagaries of Human Interaction

I have always found Vayeshev to be one of my favorite parshiyot. Besides the fascinating contents, there is a certain stylistic elegance in its division into four separate but interlocked vignettes or short stories—two set in Egypt and two in the land of Israel. Interestingly, also, from the viewpoint of reading the Torah, is that each chapter occupies a single parashah (i.e., visual unit with spacing before and after) and is read in “whole” aliyot—either one, two or three—without any sprawl or overlap from one to the next.

What unites them thematically is, quite simply, the vagaries of human interaction. Each one displays one or another human passion—hatred, rivalry, the desire for children, lust, fear of the unknown, and in each one there is an element of treachery, deceit, or dishonesty. It opens with the ten brothers ganging up on Joseph, throwing him into the pit, selling him to a passing caravan, and then concocting a story to tell their father, using the most horrific visual aid imaginable—his bloodied coat dipped in animal blood, so that Yaakov may think that his beloved son has been mauled to death by a wild beast. There follows the story of Judah and Tamar (an interlude in the Joseph narrative): Judah refuses to marry his twice-widowed daughter-in-law to his youngest son, thereby hopefully giving her child. She engages in a ruse, disguising herself as a harlot so that Judah may impregnate her and fulfill her intense desire for a child; when her pregnancy becomes known publicly, Judah orders her killed, until presented with the staff and seal that he left with the mysterious woman he met by the roadside some months earlier, and he admits his own paternity. Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: his blatant seduction by a sexually frustrated woman living, one may imagine, in a gilded cage as wife of a highly placed but evidently impotent, perhaps castrated, Pharaonic official. When her advances are refused, she tells a malicious lie, blaming him for the abortive affair, landing the innocent and somewhat naive young man in prison. Finally, the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and cup-bearer which he succeeds in interpreting, and its final chilling sentence: “And the wine master did not remember Joseph, but he forgot him” (Gen 40:23)—ending the parashah on a note of human ingratitude and indifference that sums up the chapter as a whole.

What do we learn about human nature from this parashah?

To begin, the story of Joseph and his brothers teaches us something important about the power of the group. It is difficult to imagine the hatred of Joseph reaching such a fever–pitch if there had not been a whole phalanx of brothers “egging” one another on. We see here the hatred and resentment of one who is different, an outsider, not a khevreman (i.e., “a regular guy”)—and rather conceited and narcissistic to boot. The Torah portrays the growth of their hatred and resentment, step by step. When Joseph is given the coat by his father (whether it was a striped coat [ketonet pasim], a coat with long-sleeves [pasim because it reached the pas, the palm of the hand] rather than a sleeveless shepherd’s jerkin, or the traditional “coat of many colors,” it clearly symbolized his father’s blatant favoritism: privilege, authority, seniority unwarranted by his birth-position, and perhaps a hint of future inheritance of his father’s mantle), we are told that his brothers hated him “and could not speak to him peaceably” (37:4). After the first dream, that of the sheaves bowing down to his sheaf, “they hated him, for his dreams and for his words” (v. 8)—i.e., for flaunting his own visions of grandeur and future rule over them. Finally, following the second dream, in which even the sun and moon—their parents, if not the entire cosmos—bow down to him, their hatred is compounded by jealousy (v. 11). (Jealousy seems here to be a more advanced stage of enmity than simple hatred, a point that requires further reflection and study.)

Interestingly, in the next and crucial scene, many days journey away from home, in the Dothan valley north of Shechem, where they conspire to kill him, the names of the individual brothers are barely mentioned. It is repeatedly ehav, “his brothers,” who say to one another “Look, that dreamer is coming… Let’s kill him and throw him into the pit… and see what becomes of his dreams” (vv. 19-20). It is as if the group has an identity, a mind of its own. One is reminded here of lynch mobs in the old South—or, for that matter, of mass behavior in all places and times. The late Bulgarian–Jewish writer and thinker Elias Canetti has written perceptively about mass movements in his book Crowds and Power, where he describes how, en masse, people lose their sense of individuality, of moral responsibility, even the power of thought and the ability to evaluate what is happening. Things that would be unthinkable to the individual not only become right, permissible, but even seem normal when in a group. The individual becomes caught up in its collective energy; he is also afraid to resist or say no, for fear of being ridiculed or, worse, of even becoming the next victim. The clever demagogue knows how to become the voice of the entire group, so that each one feels that the leader is speaking for all of them.

Only two of the brothers are mentioned here by name: Reuben—who appears throughout Genesis as a blundering, shlemielish type—makes an unsuccessful attempt to go “behind their backs” to save Joseph; while Judah, who at this stage still appears in a negative light, in fact saves Yosef’s life by proposing the “compromise” of selling him to the Ishmaelite caravan. This is an interesting foreshadowing of his strength of character, of which we shall have more to say later (God willing, I will elaborate upon this figure in two weeks, in HY for Vayigash).

Interestingly, the Torah nowhere explicitly states which among the brothers was the “negative leader” who proposed killing Yosef, although the Midrash concludes that it was Shimon who did so. There are a multitude of reasons: by process of elimination—it could not have been Reuven or Yehudah, nor could it have been one of the sons of the handmaidens/concubines, nor does it seem likely that it would have been one of the two younger sons of Leah; from his role in the massacre of Shechem; and, finally, by Joseph’s behavior towards him in Egypt, taking him as hostage while the others return to Canaan.

While Joseph’s brothers were hardly a “mass,” some of the mechanisms of mass behavior seem to have operated here as well. The majority of the brothers are depicted, both in the biblical text and in the midrash, as standing aside and accepting passively the decisions made by the leaders. Significantly, there are exactly ten brothers in this “gang.” Ten is well known as the minimum number for a minyan—the quorum required for public prayer, that represents a kind of minimal community; if you will, a microcosm of the Jewish people as a whole. Moreover, the Sages infer this number from a passage that speaks of another negative grouping: the ten spies who brought an evil report of the Land of Israel (representatives of each of the twelve tribes, with two dissenters, Hoshea/Joshua ben Nun and Kaleb ben Yefuneh), who are referred to as ‘edah ha-ra’ah ha-zot, “this evil congregation” (Num 14:27). One might well compare them to these ten, who also acted as a group to do evil—whether actively or, more likely, mostly passively, swept up by the guidance and instigation of the few.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this series, perhaps the key question in our age—in light of the bitter experience of social experiments made in the name of community during the twentieth century—is where and how to draw the line between the positive, constructive sense of community, and marshalling the power of the masses for totalitarian, destructive purposes. Communism, motivated by lofty ideals of human freedom and equality, quickly turned destructive; the revolution against a cruel and evil system of serfdom was accompanied by the doctrine of a “vanguard party” which always knew best, and from there to the dictatorship of a single ruthless individual. Along the way, it developed a form of dialectic reasoning that was used to justify every twist and turn of the party line, which for decades seemed to convince even (especially?) a certain kind of intellectual.

But many seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath-water, resisting all talk of community. People grew tired of being told constantly to think only of the collective and its needs. Thus, at a certain point many people in Israel became disenchanted with Zionism; the projects of nation building, of aliyah absorption, of Jewish cultural renewal, no longer seemed quite so interesting, and a counter-reaction of privatism began to be felt, expressed in the arts, in literature, in popular music—as well as in a cynical attitude towards anything that smacked of the collective, in the adoption of privatization à la Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher as an economic philosophy, and in the gradual collapse of collective life in many of the kibbutzim.

A second major theme of this parashah is that of trust and betrayal of trust. As mentioned earlier, we find lies, dishonesty, cover-ups, and ambiguous acts almost every step of the way, many if which we list above. I would only add here that mutual trust and truth is the basis for a truly healthy society. Individualistic ideologies are often accompanied by a high level of suspicion, of fear of the stranger, the assumption that everyone is lying. Perhaps it is part of the capitalist ethic—that each man’s home is his castle, and that “there is no society, only individuals.” From there, it is only a short step to the law of the jungle and to the idea that “Each man is a wolf to every other.” But one cannot place a policeman on every street corner, and the proliferation of written contracts and laws and lawyers cannot guarantee their enforcement; all it assures is that legal practice becomes a lucrative business, rather than a holy calling as it was to Hazal long ago. The traditional Jewish ethos is based on the presumption that people ordinarily tell the truth, and that lying is the exception, coupled with the idea that all but the most hardened and cynical will tell the truth when taking an oath in the name of God.

An aside: in two of our four stories, sexuality plays a central role—and with it an element of deception. Tamar dresses as a harlot to seduce Judah into fulfilling his duty as a levir; he in turn conceals the truth until forced into the open; and Potiphar’s wife tells a story that is the exact opposite of what happened in reality. It would seem that wherever there is sexual impropriety, there is shame and embarrassment, and from this there follow lies and cover ups—in ancient times as today. One of the leading stories on the news in Israel this past week has concerned a high-ranking police official, a hitherto leading candidate for the post of National Police Chief, suspected of sexual harassment and worse by a number of his female underlings—a story replete with claims, counter-claims, innuendos and rumors, polygraph exams, etc. This is an area in which concealment seems inevitable; acts that are customarily performed in the dark must remain “in the dark.”


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