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Parashat 11/24/2010

Parashat Vayeshev

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

There is a strange interlude in our Parashah – in the middle of the story of Yosef and his brothers, his descent to Egypt, slavery and imprisonment, his brother Yehuda (Judah) makes a descent of his own, into harlotry, incest and (almost) tragic perversion of justice.  Yet in each instance of descent, the seeds of a greater ascent are planted.  Let us consider how.

In Yosef’s case it is fairly easy to see the descent and ascent.  Yosef tells his brothers his dreams, they get jealous, sell him into slavery, he is framed and thrown into prison, interprets Pharoah’s servants’ dreams and (next week) gets elevated to be viceroy of the whole country.  From that position he saves his family, his adopted country and much of the known world from a great famine.  He rules Egypt for 80 years, the longest reign in the Bible, and dies a revered figure throughout the world and beloved of Gd.  He is the only figure in the Bible known as haTzaddik – the Righteous One.  Further, Yosef’s descent to Egypt prepares the way for Ya’akov’s entire family to descend there after him, to be enslaved, to be redeemed by Gd and made into a holy nation at Mt. Sinai.

Yehuda’s case is a bit different.  Yehuda was the leader of the brothers; it was he who suggested selling Yosef, who was allowed to take Binyamin to Egypt, who confronted Yosef in his role as viceroy (in two weeks), who was sent ahead by Ya’akov to prepare the way, and who was confirmed as leader by Ya’akov on his deathbed (49:10).  Therefore, when the brothers saw the pain that they had caused their father, they deposed Yehuda – Rashi quotes the Midrash as saying “We followed you when you said ‘sell him’ and we would have followed you if you had told us to return him to our father.”  Thus Yehuda “went down from his brothers” and entered a business partnership with a local Adullamite.

In the course of time (the time frame being the 22 years from the time Yosef departed from Ya’akov till the family went down to Egypt: Yosef was 17 when he left to find his brothers, he was 30 when he ascended to the viceroyship, he ruled through the 7 years of plenty and Ya’akov came down to Egypt in the 2nd year of the famine, so 22 years, in recompense for the 22 years that Ya’akov stayed away from his father) Yehuda marries, has three sons, marries off the eldest, who “wasted his seed” and was therefore killed by Gd.  (Rashi explains that he did not want to spoil his wife’s beauty by getting her pregnant.)  His younger brother Onan takes Tamar in yibum (Levirate marriage) but commits the same sin (not what we nowadays call Onanism) and suffers the same fate.  Thinking that perhaps Tamar is a femme fatale (in Talmudic parlance a katlanit, “black widow” whose husbands die for some unnatural reason), Yehuda puts off allowing his third son to perform yibum.  Tamar then dresses as a hooker, seduces Yehuda, and has twin sons by him.  One of the two sons, Peretz, is a forebear of King David, and therefore of the Israelite monarchy and of Mashiach!

There is another strand in the lineage of King David and Mashiach that is somewhat twisted.  The line of Peretz goes through Boaz, who marries the Moabite princess Ruth after her first husband dies and her mother-in-law returns to Beth Lechem.  Now Moab, as we learned a few weeks ago, was the offspring of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his elder daughter.  So we have two cases of incest, albeit sponsored by the participating women from the highest of motives, that give rise directly, if remotely, to the Redeemer of Israel and of all mankind.  Why does Gd take such a circuitous route, not to say one that leads through the mud of forbidden relationships?

Our Sages give an astounding answer – Gd did it to “fool the Satan”!  Now the Satan in Jewish thought is referred to as the adversary, or the prosecuting attorney (against us in the Heavenly Court) and is often associated with the Evil Inclination.  When we are told that Gd had to “fool Satan” perhaps we should read that as Gd’s using our inclination to do evil, or in other words, our earthly passions, which normally pull us downwards, for distinctly spiritual goals.  Now in these two cases, we have incest, which is surely one of the worst, most perverted and abusive inclinations, harnessed and used for redemption, the ultimate spiritual goal.  Somehow, in order to go to the highest level, we must sink to the lowest possible level.  In the same vein, the Israelites in Egypt are described as having sunk to the 49th level of impurity, one slippery rung above the point of no return, before being redeemed.  Yet a scant 7 weeks later they are on the cusp of the most intense spiritual experience a nation has ever had – standing and listening directly to Gd revealing Himself on Mt. Sinai.  If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we may know of individuals whose spiritual quest really began to take off (or just began) only when they had hit rock bottom, through alcohol or drugs or simply through difficult life experiences.  Our Sages tell us that “where a penitent stands, a completely righteous person cannot stand.”  There is something in the descent that actually powers the subsequent rise, and allows it to reach otherwise unobtainable heights.

Somehow it appears to be built into Creation that descent precedes ascent.  Maybe this all-too-human experience is a parallel to the actual mechanics of creation.  The very existence of Creation can be described as a descent – the descent of the infinite Gd into the finite.  From the infinite light which is Gd’s existence, He descends as it were into the mud and darkness of physicality, infusing it with light and holiness.  “Out of a worthless lump of clay/Gd has made a man today.”  And from this mud and clay arises a being who can come into communion with Gd, whose mind and heart can soar to the heavens and imbibe infinity, who can make celestial bricks of sapphire for Gd’s throne out of the inert clay of materiality.  The entire play of Creation is one of descent of the infinite and ascent of the finite, to be reintegrated into a greater whole with its Divine Source.  We must all experience this.  We should take strength in the knowledge that even when we slip and fall, it is only another step towards the top of the mountain.  We only have to pick ourselves up and keep moving upward.