Va-Yiggash – on pain, on performance, and on power

In last week’s parshah I spoke about the dangers of the pressure to forgive. This week we are reminded that when people show true remorse for their actions, and in particular when they have learned from past behaviour, forgiveness is better for all involved. Judah was one of the brothers instrumental in throwing Joseph into the pit. It is notable that at that time he felt one of his brothers to be expendable. Knowing the pain he caused his father (Rashi has a midrash about how Judah suffered pain when he told Jacob about Joseph’s “death” to reinforce this idea), he could not allow Benjamin – the other of Rachel’s sons – to be sacrificed for the good of the group. Thus Judah has learned about loyalty, compassion, and is willing to sacrifice himself for those he loves. He earns Joseph’s forgiveness. Two touching moments follow. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and Jacob is brought to Joseph. What do these scenes tell us? Joseph had been hiding his true self for a long time. Of course his brothers did not know who he was, but even prior to their arrival in Egypt, Joseph was essentially a stranger. He was not able to be fully himself in the palace, particularly when cut off from his own community. This is a reminder of the relief one can feel when we shed whatever mask it is we may wear.

Many of us perform different social roles – we can be one person at work, one at home with our own families, one with our birth families, one with friends, etc. Even though we are different things to different people, we can still strive to be genuinely who we are. Part of Humanistic Judaism’s value is acknowledging that there are many ways of being Jewish, and that one should not artificially pretend to be something one is not. Joseph models the freedom that comes with integrity. He is happiest when he can fully be who he is. The reunification between Joseph and Jacob is very sweet. Both have suffered in the absence of one another, and this scene gives a sense of closure to the hurt amongst members of Joseph’s family.

Unfortunately, there are less happy lessons in this week’s portion as well. The famine Joseph had dreamed of arrives and Egypt is suffering. Joseph is able to control the economic and social situation in Egypt given his prophetic abilities. His brothers are given land and title and food because of Joseph’s work. They even enslave Egyptians as part of their economic management strategy. We know that in the story of the Exodus it is the Israelites who are enslaved. We should be reminded that power can be a wonderful thing but can also sow the seeds of a misuse of that power. Joseph attained great success and did a lot of good. He mitigated the effects of famine and thus earned his powerful position. But no one likes to feel that someone has power over them, and this is the problem. The Israelites will find themselves on the other side of that power dynamic soon enough. We must remember that it is important to be empowered, to feel in control of oneself and one’s behaviour, and to enjoy a sense of self-worth that comes out of who we are and what we do. It is also important to remember that we can use our power to similarly empower others and we can use it to disempower others. When our power infringes on that of others, resentment and anger are soon to follow. Though it may seem trite, we all do better when we all do better. This is another lesson from this parshah.

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Miketz – on foresight, on forgiveness, and on food/famine

In this portion the Joseph story continues. Because of his ability to interpret dreams he becomes a vizier to the Pharoah. His prediction of plenty followed by famine not only wins him a seat of power, but also saves Egypt. From this we learn, like in last week’s parasha, that Joseph is a character from whom we learn to make our own luck. He becomes a success in spite of the odds. We also learn that it is important to plan ahead. In a world in which people tend to live far beyond their means, it is worthwhile to consider the lesson of prudence here. The saving of grain in the story leads to the saving of people.

In this portion, Joseph’s brothers (not having the benefit of foresight) are suffering in the famine and go to Egypt to ask for help. Joseph recognizes the brothers but they do not recognize him. This is connected with Joseph’s ability to “see” the big or complete picture. The brothers have a hard time seeing or recognizing what is going on, but Joseph is attentive and benefits from that attentiveness. Joseph sets up a test for his brothers. He tells them to return with their youngest brother Benjamin. Benjamin, replacing Joseph as Jacob’s favourite son – for he is the last remaining son of Rachel as far as Jacob knows – did not accompany his brothers the first time. Though Jacob is reticent to let him go for the second journey, he realizes they all may starve and thus he consents. On their return, Joseph makes it seem like Benjamin stole a special cup. He is testing the other brothers to see if they have learned their lesson. Will they stay faithful to Jacob and defend his favourite son, or will the old feelings of jealousy prevent them from doing justice? We find out the answer next week.

What is clear from these tests is that Joseph is willing to forgive his brothers. He has the power to turn them away or even put them to death in retaliation for their ill treatment of him. But rather he creates conditions by which they can prove themselves worthy of his forgiveness. This suggests that forgiveness is a positive value, but that in order to forgive someone they must show that they have learned something or would act differently. Forgiveness is a hot topic in contemporary society. We are told from life coaches, therapists, and self-help books that when we forgive someone we are doing ourselves a favour; holding a grudge is as bad for the grudge-holder as it is the one who committed the original offense. That is true, except I’d like to add a caveat that the Joseph story illustrates nicely. We are told to forgive. We are also told “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It is exhausting to put pressure on ourselves to forgive those who continue to hurt us. It is good for us to find a way to let go of that hurt
to be sure, but forgiveness itself needs to be earned. In the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we ask others to forgive us. We also – and this is crucial – consider how we have acted and how we may improve. Forgiveness is only really possible if we are willing to take responsibility for our behaviour and try to be better. Forgiveness goes hand in hand with change and growth. Joseph sets up this test because he wants to forgive his brothers, but he also wants to ensure that they are worthy of that forgiveness; that they have learned their lesson and are better for it.

Miketz is one of those Torah portions which makes us realize how literary the bible can be. The plot includes twists, suspense, and humour. The characters are knowable and relatable. We want justice to win out in the end. We are engaged readers. The literary aspects of the Torah, and how one can read the bible as literature, are much-discussed issues in the fields of biblical criticism and literary studies. It is useful to sometimes stop and take note of the well-crafted writing of some of our earliest authors and appreciate the story for the story itself.

Because the test that Joseph sets up for his brothers is the stuff of great literature, we tend to overlook what is going on with Jacob. Consider the story from his point of view. He has lost his favourite son and now is threatened with the loss of another. While showing favouritism for a child is never a good parenting strategy, we can have some sympathy for Jacob in the choice he has to make. He either lets Benjamin go or he risks starvation. There is a midrash that speaks of “Jacob’s Dilemma” which says “You may learn from the story of Jacob that it is a man’s worst trial to have his children ask him for food when he has nothing to give.” The famine is a plot device that gets the brothers to Egypt, but is important to consider in itself as well. Hunger is devastating and there is still far too much of it. Jacob reminds us of our responsibility to feed the hungry. The midrash about Jacob works nicely in conjunction with something Rashi noted about this portion. He makes the link between the word for corn/food in the Joseph story (shever) with the word for hope (sever). Indeed, it is difficult to ascend in power and position (the way Joseph does) when hungry. It is difficult to have hope without bread. Joseph offers his brothers food and thus sparks the hope that they may reconcile. Let all of us work for a world in which both bread and hope are in abundance for all.

Vayashev – on siblings, on sex, and on self-determination

In this Torah portion the main narrative is the beginning of the Joseph story. We also have an interruption of that narrative to tell the story of Tamar and how she is able to become the mother to the Davidic line. While the two stories appear to have little in common, it is useful to ask why they are juxtaposed and what we can learn from that juxtaposition. In the Joseph story we learn that because he is Jacob’s favourite son, and because his dreams indicate that he expects to be superior to his brothers, the other brothers try to get rid of him. This highlights the power of sibling rivalry and the huge impact it can have on family dynamics. The text is unclear about whether Joseph himself believes he is/will be superior to his brothers – he merely relates his dreams (one is that seven wheat sheaves bow to him, the other that eleven stars bow to him). The text and many of its interpreters imply that Joseph did not realize how upsetting this would be to his brothers. One has to wonder, though, whether Joseph’s gloating means that he is partly responsible for his unpopularity amongst the brethren. Either way, the brothers plot to get rid of him. They discuss killing him and throw him into a pit. Ultimately, they sell him to traders and he ends up in Egypt.

​This is where the break in the story comes in and we hear of Tamar.Tamar
has been widowed twice and, through the practice of “levirate marriage” (if a man dies childless his brother marries his widow to continue his line) is entitled to marry Judah’s son Shelah. Sensing Judah’s reluctance to follow through, she dresses as a “harlot” and seduces him. She later reveals that he is the father of her twins and therefore finds her way into his family and his patriarchal line. Because this is along the lines of the law, Tamar’s act is one of justice. She knows what is right and bends the rules a bit to make sure it happens. In this part of the narrative we also learn that the first of the twins to emerge gets a red cord tied around his wrist (to signify being the first born) but the other twin is able to usurp his brother’s position and is born first. This reminds us of Esau and Jacob and the rules of primogeniture.

​One reason the story of Tamar interrupts the Joseph narrative is because when we meet Joseph again he is now an adult living in Egypt. The narrative interruption makes the passage of time more smooth. Another reason, however, is that there are similarities in the stories. Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife but he refuses her. For this he winds up in jail where he would almost surely rot except for his ability to interpret dreams. The Torah portion ends with this prophetic ability being proven. Both Tamar and Joseph become entangled in complicated sexual situations. While Tamar acts as a harlot in order to secure her position in Judah’s house, Joseph risks his position in the Pharoah’s house in order to maintain his ideals. Tamar’s sexual act is in accordance with the law, while Joseph’s would be an adulterous contravention of it. Both, therefore, are righteous.

​Rules such as levirate marriage do not leave women with much choice (neither, of course, do most marriage and sexual rites of the time). It is interesting in this portion that we get a sense of the practice of a cult prostitute, or temple priestess, that many of the areas’ cultures would use in order to fulfill the rites of prayer. It seems that Judah, mistaking Tamar for one of these priestesses (the name for which comes from the same word as Kodesh/Kadosh – holy) suggests that some women held powerful positions related to sexuality. It also suggests that prostitution was not wholly and uniquely seen as a negative act. This is something contemporary sex workers point to as proof that a condemnation of their profession is not “natural” but constructed.

​Tamar uses her sexuality to secure her rightful position. Joseph relies instead on his prophetic power. From a Humanistic point of view we do not typically believe that dreams are prophetic. With the rise of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis we know that dreams are much more an expression of our repressed pasts than a foretelling of our future. Still, though, Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams can be used as evidence that he was, if not prophetic, perceptive. The abilities to make connections between the events of the past and the future, as well as to understand the motivations of people from a psychological point of view, are really what create prophets and prophecy. Like Tamar, Joseph will free himself from his low position – from a pit to a prison to a palace – by using his skills. Both Joseph and Tamar prove that they have been underestimated and will attain success in the end. Both, then, are a reminder of the human power to decide our own fate. We have to work within the circumstances we have (both Tamar and Joseph find themselves in most unpleasant circumstances), yet we do have some power in how to navigate through.

​Nachmanides points out that the reason Joseph refers to Potiphar’s wife as “my master’s wife” while refusing her is that he is making clear that he is choosing to obey his God rather than his master. While we may not believe in his God, we can applaud the willingness to follow one’s own convictions and moral decision making, even when being told/ordered to do otherwise. This is something Jews have understood for a long time. Many of us have chosen to break unjust laws. Many of us have chosen to disregard those in authority in order to practice our culture/religion. Many of us have followed an ethical code that is more true to our values than to our society’s. Joseph and Tamar show us that making choices according to our ethics, even when others judge those choices as immoral, is part of our Jewish heritage.

Va-Yishlah- on brothers, on brutality, and on borrowing Gods and traditions

In this portion we have examples of the best and the worst of human behaviour. We have the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. We also have rape and murder. Jacob knows an encounter with his brother is inevitable as he moves towards his land. He prepares for battle and separates his assets into two camps in the hopes that one would survive in the event of attack. He is informed that Esau is approaching with four hundred men – indeed suggesting that attack is likely. When the brothers see one another, however, they embrace. The text does not tell us for sure whether they had been planning to do battle and then softened at the site of one another, or whether Esau was approaching with peaceful intentions all along. What is clear though is that despite their painful rivalry the brothers are able to find peace. One reason that is given for this, in addition to the hopeful implication that the inextricable bond between brothers is stronger than their quarrels, is that both admit to having enough. Their rivalry over their father’s favour was very likely about insecurity. At the time, their futures were uncertain and uncertainty can make people behave poorly. Now that the brothers are each affluent in their own right, they are able to see their brother less as an enemy and more as a friend. This is a reminder that behaving with goodness is the responsibility of all, but that it is easier to do so when our basic needs are met. This should compel us to address poverty in our present day in our pursuit of Tikkun Olam.

In this portion we also have the renaming of the house of Jacob to “Israel.” This happens in a couple of different textual moments. The disjointed nature of some of the writing in this portion suggests multiple writers, perhaps with competing ideas of how the story should be told. At one moment, Jacob struggles with a being by the river Jabbok. When he successfully fights the being off, the being tells him that his name should be Israel. The text tells us that this being is supernatural; he is in the shape of a man but something more like an angel or demon. Many commentators have interpreted this moment as a struggle between Jacob and himself. Whether the incident is really a dream, many feel that the being is Jacob’s “shadow” (from Jungian terminology), or other aspect of the subconscious. Is this his feeling of dread approaching his brother? Perhaps. Perhaps it is some other source of inner-conflict. We find that his triumph over the being can be read, in this light, as the triumph we too may experience when we face our “inner demons” head on.

As soon as “Israel” is named, it becomes tainted with scandal. We have in this portion the very troubling narrative of the rape of Dinah. Most commentators understand that Dinah is raped,and violently, although the JPS version suggests that there may be a way of interpreting the text as suggesting improper sexual relations as opposed to rape. This would make the scene about intermarriage as opposed to sexual violence and change its interpretation entirely. We know that Hamor, father of Shechem the rapist, encourages Jacob to allow intermarriage between the tribes when he goes to ask for Dinah’s hand in marriage for his son. Shechem gets circumcised and convinces the other men to do so as well in the hopes that this will make the marriage possible. All of this makes the rape narrative murky. The response by Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi, ostensibly to the rape but also perhaps to the suggestion of tribal intermingling, is to kill all the men who have just been circumcised and take their goods and women for their own. If it is the aspect of sexual relations between the tribes, as well as sex before marriage, that is the crime in this text, there is no doubt that Dinah’s brothers slaughtering the entire town as a response is an inexcusably violent and horrific response. If the crime was rape we may read their response as justifiable, although certainly the extreme violence of it and the killing of innocent men along with the guilty one should give us pause. Certainly commentators have seen Simeon and Levi as justified, even though Jacob forbid this sort of action directly.

The text is silent on Dinah’s will (she does not speak during the entire narrative) and so we cannot know whether this was a rape in her view. The text is also silent on the other women who are taken as part of the onslaught. Obviously this is not a world in which women have the power to say “no” and so the circumstances of Dinah’s rape are even more murky. The text is clearly using it as symbolic of something else. This does not prevent commentators from using this narrative to perpetuate familiar problematic tropes about rape. Some blame Dinah for the jewellery she adorned. Others read the text, which says she went out to find the local women, as her choosing to traipse about and therefore, in some sense, she’s “asking for it.” All of this shows us that sexism is endemic to our Jewish society as well as our broader societies. The text can help us see the problematic tropes and offers a chance to discuss and demystify them in our communities.

Towards the end of the portion is the story of Rachel dying in childbirth. In the last portion I mention that her death along the road becomes emblematic of the deaths of many Jews while leaving/moving/in exile, etc. Rachel named her son “Ben-omi” for “son of my suffering” (it can also be “son of my strength,” which suggests an interesting dichotomy). He is renamed Benjamin “son of the right hand” or “son of the South.” Although Jacob builds a pillar to commemorate the spot where she dies, Rachel’s own naming of her son does not stand. This is a particular Torah portion in which the words of women do not seem to amount to much. Dinah disappears from the narrative (and most commentators believe from the house of Jacob altogether – worrying for those so concerned about intermarriage and the purity of Jacob’s line), and all that is left of Rachel is a pillar (reminding us of the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife became).

The final aspect of this week’s Torah portion that is interesting from a umanistic perspective is the naming of the God-character. The text tells us that when Jacob arrives “in the city of which is in the land of Canaan” he is thankful for his safe arrival and so sets up an alter. He calls it “El-elohe-yisrael.” The JPS Jewish Study Bible notes that “through this confession El, the supreme Canaanite deity, is identified as the God of Israel” (69 n20). Immediately after this is the rape of Dinah and the suggestion of Hamor that the groups intermarry. We know that the Israelite culture borrowed tremendously from Canaanite culture, and here is a moment in which the text gives us proof. Perhaps fears over how much integration would be too much is what influences the telling of the rape story that immediately follows. Later in the story, after the retaliation by Simeon and Levi, Jacob moves again. Again, he is grateful for safe passage. He thanks God, who once again renames him Israel (suggesting this was a separate version of the story than the one in which the angel/demon tells Jacob of the name change that we have earlier in the text). God also says to Jacob “I am El Shaddai.” While this is one of the names for God, its origin is uncertain. Some have argued it is a reference to Ugaritic, others Mesopotamian Gods or even Goddesses. Again, however, we have a sense that as Jacob and his tribe move, they pick up from the cultures around them. It is ironic that the response to suggestions of intermarriage are treated with such violence in the very narrative that gives us proof that it is the very intermingling of cultures that gives us the culture we call “Israel.” Just as Jacob earns the name “Israel” through his travels, the Jewish people have become part of the tribe of “Israel” (and its successive generations) through the global migrations that have brought us into contact with others. This is clearly not a view of the text that most rabbis would celebrate, but for us it is a sign that our culture, like all cultures, has always been a process of human creation and has evolved and changed as we have. This is not something to bemoan, nor is it something to address by attempting to fix or freeze our culture in one arbitrary “original” or “authentic” moment. It is something to acknowledge. Change and tradition have always been mutually constituting processes. While that may seem to be a contradiction, it is also undeniable and is encoded in our very foundational text itself.