Friday, December 16, 2011

Vayeshev (Wanderings)

Yaakov and David as Fathers

The first Rashi I ever learned, or rather heard, is the opening one of this parashah. My parents had a friend named Isaiah who, like most of my parent’s circle, New York–Jewish progressive intellectuals, was a non-observant Jew who had grown up in a traditional home. But unlike most of their friends, who had either been born in America or come as small children during the early decades of the last century, Isaiah had spent enough years in the Old Country to receive a Heder education somewhere in White Russia, and still remembered his Rashi. This particular Rashi spoke to him in a deep way. At the time of my story, in my teen years, he was already well into middle age, and hoped to see his two daughters “settled,” so that he could spend his sunset years in peace and quiet, “shepping nakhas” from grandchildren. Instead, as my elder brother phrased it rather cynically, one of the daughters was too pretty for her own good, and the other too homely. Hence, our Isaiah identified with the patriarch Jacob when Rashi said: “Vayeshev Ya’akov. ‘Jacob dwelled’—Jacob wished to dwell in tranquility; yet there descended upon him the trouble of Joseph and his brothers.”

Thinking of Yaakov’s troubles with his children calls to mind some interesting parallels between the figure of Yaakov and that of King David. Both occupy roles of central importance in the Jewish imagination. On the Midrashic-Kabbalistic level, Yaakov is conceived as the “third leg” of the Kisei ha-Kavod, the Divine Throne, a figure who somehow harmonizes the strikingly opposing pulls of Abraham and Yitzhak: the expansive generosity of Avraham, expressed in unlimited hospitality, welcoming and reaching out to strangers; and the rather closed, introverted, somewhat harsh and even judgmental figure of Yitzhak. Moreover, unlike Abraham and Yitzhak, who also sired a Yishmael and an Esau, Jacob was the patriarch of the entire nation, Yisrael Sabba, after whom the nation as a whole is called: Israel. As for David: he epitomizes Jewish kingship. He is the founder of the eternal royal dynasty in Israel, the father of the future King Messiah, who will one day ingather all of Israel to restore our days as of old. In Kabbalah, he is identified with Malkhut / Shekhinah: the feminine attribute, representing God’s earthly sovereignty over the concrete, corporeal world, which unites with Yaakov-Tiferet.

Yet on the human level, that of simple, straightforward reading of the text, both were very problematic figures, at least in their role as fathers. Yaakov’s favoritism towards Yosef sparked a round of jealousy, conflict, and near murderous hatred. Yaakov was taken aback when Joseph told everyone around him about his dreams, with their obvious message of his imagining—was this fantasy or prophecy?—himself ruling over all the others. Yet he himself planted the seed when he favored him blatantly by giving him the striped coat—or, some say, the long-sleeved coat, going down to the palm of his hand (reading the word passim as derived from pas, palm)—so unlike the shepherd’s jerkins of his hard-working brothers, which symbolized his chosen, even aristocratic status within the family.

King David had it even worse. Two of his sons—Adoniyahu and Avshalom—tried to replace him on the throne during his lifetime. Another son, Amnon, raped his half-sister Tamar, and was murdered (the first “honor killing”?) in revenge by his brother Avshalom. When Avshalom, who led a violent uprising against David, was killed in a grisly accident while chasing wildly through the forest, David was not relieved at the death of his mortal enemy, but weeps Avshalom bni, b’ni b’ni Avshalom—“Woe, my son Absalom, my son Absalom; would that I could have died in your stead” (2 Sam 19:1; a phrase used in the title of one of William Faulkner’s novels). In the case of Adoniyahu, we are told (1 Kings 1:6) that David “never in his life told him: why are you doing such-and-such a thing?”—that is, he never attempted to discipline or teach him right and wrong. The overall picture that emerges is of a sentimental, indulgent father, utterly lacking in a clear notion of what was really happening within his own family.

Some thoughts on the situation of fathers and children: There is a classic image of the pater familias on old age, surrounded by a large, harmonious, loving family. But it is rarely thus in actuality. Parents tend to be blind to the weaknesses of their own children. Thus, Yitzhak loved Esau blindly—a pattern repeated in Yaakov, who loved Yosef. Why? Was he preferred because he was brighter and more resourceful than his brothers? The text, at the very beginning of this week’s parashah (Gen 37:3), tells us that this was because Yosef was his ben zekunim—“the son of his old age,” a phrase that usually denotes the youngest child. But this verse is somewhat strange: what about Benjamin, who was much younger, the only one born in Eretz Yisrael, and whose mother died in birthing him? Midrash Tanhuma says Yosef was “the son who supported him in his old age,” a role we see clearly in Egypt, where he enjoyed great political and economic power—but that is clearly not the simple sense of the verse. Yaakov no doubt favored Yosef because he was the son of his beloved Rahel, for whom he worked so many years, who was initially replaced in the bridal bed by her weak-eyed sister, and who died tragically young.

But was he the most fit to be the leader of the clan? It’s not at all certain; the functions of primogeniture, taken from the immature and impetuous Reuven, were divided among Judah (ancestor of the Davidic dynasty), Joseph (who received a double portion of territory), and Levi (the priestly tribe). But Yehudah was in his own way a powerful figure: he was a natural leader, who knew how to lead his brothers without giving himself airs of superiority (unlike the narcissistic and somewhat effeminate Yosef) or arousing hostility. He was what the Israelis call a “khevreman”—someone who was down-to-earth, who knew how to be a peer and a leader at the same time (some say this was the secret of Arik Sharon’s success). Inability to do so is a fatal flaw in many politicians; perhaps some of the criticism Obama is getting today is because he seems somehow aloof, not a “regular guy,” having grown up very much as a loner, in limbo between the two worlds of white and black in America.

One more interesting parallel between the two, which occurred to me while writing this: both Ya’akov and David were led to favor that son which they did because of their love, or even lust, for a woman; to put it simply, even coarsely, these stories illustrate the great power of sex. Yaakov fell in love with Rahel at first sight, when he met her by the well, because she was “fair of figure and fair of appearance” (Gen 29:17); after her death, he favored her son Yosef, who no doubt resembled her. David’s connection with the voluptuous Batsheva began when he saw her bathing on the roof and he sent to bring her to his palace. In due time, after the fruit of their adulterous liaison died, a second child was born, Solomon. Although by this time he had had many children by many different wives and concubines (see 2 Sam 3:2-5; 5:13-16), it was Solomon whom he chose to continue his royal line. Batsheva, in turn, enjoyed the dignity of being the dowager queen both during David’s lifetime (see, e.g., 1 Kgs 1:11 ff.) and after his death, when she is shown sitting on the throne next to her son Shlomo (2:19).

What are we to make of all this? Why dwell upon the human quirks and shortcomings of our illustrious forebears? A conventional answer is that the Torah, and the other books of the Tanakh, constantly stress that even the greatest figures are human beings, that they are not “plaster saints,” but men of flesh-and-blood, with all the passions and foibles and mistaken judgments implied by the human condition. There is no perfection save that of the One and unique God.

But beyond that, there are two more important points. First, that we learn something about human life from these stories—in these cases, inter alia, of the mistakes parents make—of over-indulgence, of blind spots, of favoritism. While not written as a handbook for parents each of us, in his own life situation, may draw significant lessons from these stories. Secondly, our Jewish tradition holds that the guiding hand of Providence acts in the world through the noble and ignoble motivations of real human beings, even if these be of the basest sort. In another incident told in this week’s parashah (Genesis 38), Judah sees a woman dressed as a whore and, his desire being kindled, he goes to her. But the Midrash tells us that, while the brothers were busy selling Joseph; Reuven, Yaakov and Yosef himself were bewailing the latter’s fate, and Judah was seeking a tumble in the hay, “the Holy One blessed be He was bringing down the light of King Messiah” (Gen. Rab. 85.1). The woman was in fact Yehudah’s mistreated and widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and one of the children born to her, Peretz, was destined to continue the line that was to culminate in King David.

* * * * *

A Brief Postscript to Vayishlah: Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisrael—first by the spectral figure he meets at the Yabok crossing, and then by God Himself. But notwithstanding the words, “your name shall no longer be called Yaakov,” repeated twice (Gen 32:28; 35:10), and unlike the other figures in the Torah whose name is changed (Avram to Avraham; Sarai to Sarah; Hoshea to Yehoshua), who from then forth are called by the new name alone, in this case the Torah constantly switches back and forth between the two. What pattern, if any, is there here? A close reading of the chapters following the name change shows little consistency. Indeed, God is often referred to, and describes Himself, as “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob”—e.g., to Moses at Mount Horeb (Exod 3:15), in the opening phrase of the daily Amidah prayer, and in many other places (one striking exception is Elia at Mt Carmel: 1 Kgs 18:36). The only pattern I see is that, in most scenes involving Yosef, he is called Yisrael. But why? What does it all mean? The matter requires further study.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to thsi blog for December 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010


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