Friday, December 10, 2010

Vayigash (Individual & Community)

For more teachings , both on the parashah and on Hanukkah, see the archives to my blog at 2005_12-10-archive/html. as well as at January and December 2007, January and December 2009.

A Battle of Titans

This week’s parashah begins at the very peak of the tension between the brothers and the mysterious Egyptian viceroy whose actions are tormenting them. They have been rushed back to Egypt because his silver divining goblet is missing and has been discovered in the sack of Benjamin, the youngest son, their father’s favorite, the only surviving child of his beloved Rachel and the sibling of the missing and presumably dead Joseph—and it is this brother whom the Egyptian official wishes to hold hostage. What can they do to save him? Reuben’s offer of the life of his own two sons in exchange for Benjamin is (typically) rash and half-baked. At this point Judah steps forward, offering to stand as surety for the lad—and by the end of the conversation, the man breaks down and reveals his true identity as their long-lost brother Joseph.

But our Sages see a subtext to this drama. It reflects the personal and historical conflict between Judah and Joseph over the question: Which one is deserving to be the leader of the Jewish people in the future? Who shall be “king”? No less than three midrashim on the opening verse of this lection portray the brothers observing the two speaking, as they stand aside saying: “Kings are discussing / contending with one another, what affair is it of ours?” (Gen Rab. 93. 2a, b, 5). The clear implication is that this is a struggle for the future leadership of the people; a kind of anticipation of the future split in the Israelites kingdom between Judah in the south, and Israel, led by various royal dynasties, many of whom came from the tribes of Joseph, in the north.

What follows is largely based upon a lecture I heard many years ago from the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who elaborated upon the question: What qualities are demanded or expected of a leader of the Jewish people? He began by comparing the two mothers. Joseph was the elder son of Rachel, while Judah, though the fourth son of Leah, was the only one worthy of consideration (Reuben, Shimon, and Levi had all, for one reason or another, shown themselves unfit for leadership).

Rachel was beautiful, and was Jacob’s first and life-long, intense love—but for many years she was childless. There was something poignant, almost sacrificial about her life story (like her name rahel, meaning “ewe,” one of the sacrificial animals). She died young; her life was filled with frustration, with non-realization. Leah, by contrast, was plain and unloved, but she was the mother of six children, and was clearly the mistress of the house. The Rav suggested that the root of her name, lil’ot, to be tired, exhausted from hard (and at times fruitless or pointless) work, fits this characteristic. She was the baalaboste, the woman who organized and ran Jacob’s large a household, who was on top of every detail, every aspect, every need of her husband and children, whether large or small. At the end of the day she was exhausted; she was hardly a romantic figure, but she was the person who made this home exist. The Rachels of this world may be more appealing emotionally, aesthetically, romantically and sexually, but it is the Leahs who make things happen, who make things go.

We now turn to Joseph and Judah as such. The Rav saw Joseph as an embodiment of the type referred to by Maimonides in the final chapter of his Shmonah Perakim (“Eight Chapters”; i.e., Introduction to Pirkei Avot), as the type of the person who tends by his nature towards the good, who does not need to struggle with his desires and impulses in the same way as do others; he is in some sense “naturally” good. This is the type referred to in later Kabbalistic literature as the Tzaddik, a term which has two meanings: in the Kabbalistic sense, as a channel or vessel through which Divine flow and abundance comes into the world; on the simple level, as a righteous man, a person who has so conquered his Evil Urge as to no longer know the desire to do evil.

By contrast, Judah is characterized as a person of strong drives and impulses—he had a powerful sexual drive, and he was capable of strong hatred and action. But during the course of his life underwent decisive changes. Thus, we first encounter him as an essentially negative leader, suggesting to the brothers that they throw Joseph into the pit; later, we see him following his powerful sexual impulse when he goes to the so-called harlot whom he sees by the roadside—who turns out to be his daughter-in-law in disguise. But he was capable of change, and of admitting his own faults and mistakes. When Tamar turned up pregnant, and was about to be executed for “dishonoring” the family, she relied upon Yehudah’s decency and honesty; she did not name him as the father, but simply said, “I am pregnant to the man to whom these things belong.” And he admitted, “You are more righteous than I!” (This statement is somewhat reminiscent of the scene of his descendant King David's confession before Nathan the prophet, when confronted with his adultery with Bathsheba, “I have sinned to the Lord.”) In this week’s reading, far more dramatically, Judah steps forward in an impressive, manly manner as surety for his young brother Benjamin, telling the Egyptian viceroy that under no circumstances could this boy be taken as a prisoner or hostage, for it would break his father in a decisive manner.

Hasidic texts elaborate upon this theme, describing Judah and Joseph as the archetypal baal teshuvah and tzaddik. Judah is the ba’al teshuvah, the penitent, the person who undergoes a process of inner change, who matures dramatically, who somehow undergoes an inner process through which he comes to admit his past mistakes and shortcomings. Yosef, the tzaddik, the righteous man, walks the straight and narrow his whole life; if one were cynical, one might even call him the yeled tov Yerushalayim—the “nice Jewish boy,” the person who is almost too good, whom one suspects of either self-righteousness and conformism, or of a kind of timidity, a lack of daring, a fear of taking existential risks. Did Joseph at any time undergo dramatic inner change? If he did, it’s not explicit in the text; at most, there is perhaps a certain mellowing, a certain willingness to accept others, such as that seen in the final scene of his life, Gen 50:15-21). (This discussion brings to mind a brief but revealing conversation I once had with a well-known Jewish theologian. I was discussing my rosh yeshivah, an outstanding Orthodox scholar and thinker, praising his noble ethical character, when my interlocutor said, “Yes, but he never underwent a dark night of the soul”—meaning, he never had real doubts about his faith, and this in itself was a major shortcoming.) (On tzaddik and ba’al teshuvah in Hasidic thought, see e.g., Mei Shiloah, Vol. I, Vayeshev, s.v. vayeshev ya’akov. I thank Avraham Leader for drawing my attention to this teaching)

But Joseph also had a very serious failing (from this point on, this is my own reading, not the Rav’s): there was something about him which was haughty, even arrogant. He did not know how to get along with his brothers, or with his peers, as an equal. He had a great deal of charm, which helped him to get on in the world, and captivated the women; he was even beautiful, a term only rarely used about men. Thus, I can well understand the brothers’ resentment and even hatred and jealousy of Joseph; had I been among them, I probably wouldn’t be able to stand him either. He seemed preoccupied with himself, narcissistic—and had the bad taste to go around bragging to others of his dreams of future greatness. The brothers, who were all a good deal older than him, must have seen him as a little pipsqueak: Who is this guy going around and telling us that he is going to lord it over us?

Judah, by contrast, was down-to-earth, a man of the people. He knew what it means to have powerful impulses, powerful desires, to want to seize the most from life—but he had also undergone certain experiences which made him mature. He saw himself as the first among peers; he was not aloof, didn’t go around talking about dreams of grandeur and greatness. He is, throughout, “one of the Khevre,” one of the gang—but with that, he somehow or other has that quiet, mysterious quality known as charisma or leadership.

It is interesting that in Chapter 37, when we read about the sale of Joseph, the Torah refers to his brothers as if they were a faceless mass; the only one mentioned by name, who speaks to them and perhaps suggests a different course of action, is Judah. This is true leadership (and one may well argue that his suggestion, harsh as it was, was the only one which could save Yosef’s life). Against him, as we said, Joseph was a kind of loner. Perhaps because he was so clearly highly intelligent, highly motivated, and had such a strong sense of his own worth, he also had little patience for fools—even if they were his own brothers! He managed things from above (perhaps he was the first embodiment of that modern type, the manager or administrator!), not realizing that a leader must strike a delicate and subtle balance between leading his peers and being one of them, listening to them, empathizing with them. Whether as a young man among his brothers, in Potiphar’s house, in the prison, in Pharaoh’s service, or again when the brothers and his own father come down, he is always a doer—an organizer, an arranger, an economic planner and social engineer—but always as an elitist, one who sees himself as apart from, and above, others.

All this is expressed in the later part of this week’s sedrah (Gen 47:13-26), in which Joseph organizes the Egyptian economy. (Thomas Mann calls the fourth and final volume of his great quadrilogy Joseph the Provider, modeling Joseph on FDR, but he hardly seems as benevolent and caring as that figure—whom I of course only know through parentally-mediated myth.) He gathers all of the excess grain produced during the seven years of plenty in Pharaoh’s granaries; then, during the famine years, he doles it out, or rather sells it, to the population—at first for money, then for livestock, and finally for their land and for their own persons! The people survive, but at a terrible price: they are all displaced to the cities, and become indentured servants of Pharaoh. “And the [whole] land belonged to Pharaoh” (Gen 47:20). This was, if you will, the first state economy, which is perhaps more than a little reminiscent of or if you will a foreshadowing of the type of state economy developed in the Soviet Union and other planned socialist economies in the twentieth century. It is called Communist, but in truth there is nothing Socialistic about it; it might better be designated as state capitalism, representing that place where state-planned Communism and monopoly capitalism meet—at least in their effect on the life of the little guy.

Someone once said that anti-Semites may be divided into two groups: those who think that all Jews are Communists, and those who think that all Jews are capitalists; in either case, they are seen as the source of all evil in the world, and hence deserving of hatred. Bu then there is a third group: those who think that Jews are both Communists and capitalists—never mind the contradiction. But perhaps they’re not so far wrong. In Joseph and Pharaoh’s Egypt, the two extremes met in a point which belies the difference.

* * * * *

Much has happened in recent weeks in the area of religions and public life that calls for comment and reaction, if not outraged protest—but there’s neither time nor room left. I hope to prepare a supplement this week to address all that needs addressing. Until then, Shabbat shalom to all.


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