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Parashat 12/14/2011

Parashat Vayeshev
Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Recognize, please, is it your son’s tunic or not?  (37:32)

Recognize, please, whose are this seal, this wrap, and this staff. (38:25)

… and he fled, and he went outside.  (39:12)

… the Sea saw, and it fled… (Ps. 114:3)

Our Sages often seize on linguistic similarities to make either homiletical points, or exegetical, halachic decisions.  Two of these homiletical examples appear (at least half of them) in our parashah as quoted above.  Now since I love a good pun (“You are keen! / ‘Twould cost you a groaning to take my edge off” – Hamlet) I’ve generally looked at these correspondances, and their Rabbinical twists, with a wry (Jewish wry?) smile, but little more.


For example, the first two verses quoted above, we have the repeated phrase hakeir na, please recognize.  In the first case the brothers (who have, at Yehudah’s instance, just sold Yosef into slavery) slaughter a goat (Rashi tells us that goat blood is the most similar to human blood, and of course there was no DNA testing back then) and dip Yosef’s multicolored tunic into it to feign his death by mauling.  They send it to Ya’akov and almost sarcastically taunt him with Yosef’s supposed death.


When they perceive how deeply affected their father is, how inconsolable over the loss of his favorite son, they “depose” Yehudah from his leadership position.  He moves to a different part of the Land, marries, has three sons, marries off the first, who dies childless.  He has his second son perform the levirate marriage with the widow, Tamar, a supremely righteous woman, but he also dies.  Unwilling to give her his third son, he puts her off.  She however, desperately wanting to bear children into the Patriarchal family, disguises herself as a harlot and seduces Yehudah, who gives her his seal, wrap and staff as a pledge against sending her a goat as her hire.  When he sends the goat, of course she is nowhere to be found.  She gets pregnant from the union with Yehudah, is found out, and Yehudah sentences her to death.  As she is being led to her execution she sends the three items and asks him to recognize that in fact he is the father of the child.  Given the circumstances, it is unlikely that she was being sarcastic; rather our Sages tell us that she was giving him the opportunity to own up to what happened, without her embarrassing him directly.  [Think about what she was prepared to give up before you go make a joke at someone else’s expense, let alone be insulting.]  The Sages read into the similarity of expression that Yehudah was punished midah k’neged midah – measure for measure.  Just as he had deceived his father, so he was deceived with the same words.  It sounds just like a cute way to juxtapose the two incidents and draw a moral from it.


The second pair of quotes links Yosef, who fled from Potiphar’s wife, and the Sea that split (fled) during the Exodus.  Using the similarity of expression, the Midrash tells us that the Sea split in Yosef’s merit, garnered by his self-restraint in the incident with Potiphar’s wife.  When the Sea “saw” Yosef’s coffin [which the Israelites were carrying back to the Land of Israel, per his deathbed adjuration], it fled from before him.


On the halachic (legal) side as well similarity of expression between different passages in Torah is often used to derive laws.  This technique is called gezeirah shavah, literally “similar cut” or “similar decree.”  For example, the expression heinah is used regarding the prohibition of sleeping with one’s granddaughter (Vayikra 18:10) and also, in verse 18:17, with the prohibition of marrying a woman and her daughter [at the time multiple wives were permitted].  From this linkage we derive the prohibition of incest with one’s own daughter, which is not stated explicitly anywhere in Torah.


Why does there seem to be such an emphasis in the Rabbinic literature on this kind of word-play?  Surely it’s not just a diversion!  I think the answer is to be found in our tradition’s understanding of the nature of the Hebrew language.  Since the Hebrew language is the language of creation, and the Torah is the blueprint of creation, the expressions used in Torah are not just arbitrary symbols we have assigned specific meanings.  Rather the quality of each letter, each word, each phrase, each sentence of Torah reflects the underlying structure of the object or idea it represents.  In English, the word “chair” has no particular relationship to the idea of a chair, or to any particular chair.  It is a symbol, no more and no less.  The Hebrew word kise’ on the other hand, contains in its sequence of sounds and letters the fundamental impulses of creation that make up the essence of chair.


An example from modern physics may help clarify this.  While classical physics dealt with particles (like electrons and protons) and the forces between them (like electicity and magnetism), modern physics has discovered that all of the phenomena that we used to describe as particles are actually waves of an abstract field that permeates all space and time.  Different numbers and configurations of particles correspond to different modes of vibration of these fields; think of the sounds produced by a violin, which are a reflection of the modes of vibration of the strings and the sound box of the violin.  Different modes of vibration, different pitch and timbre.


In a similar vein, the sequence of sounds in a Hebrew word mirror the particular vibrational structure of the underlying infinite basis of creation, that makes up the referent of that word.  This being the case, we can see why our Sages are alert to similarities in phraseology in Scripture – the same words and phrases reflect the same underlying spiritual reality, and therefore testify to the relatedness of concepts or halachot that might otherwise appear quite different.  So for example, Yosef fled Potiphar’s wife, and the Sea fled before Yosef’s coffin.  In both cases we have some kind of opposite values repelling each other, rather than attracting.  Perhaps Scripture is telling us that purity and impurity cannot mix; one must drive the other out.  Or in the case of the gezeirah shavah, Scripture is apparently telling us that there is a deeper connection among different forms of incest than one might otherwise assume – perhaps in the event that children are produced there is a similar kind of spiritual defect (like a genetic disease) among the different cases.


I am certainly not at a level where I can discern the deep structures in every (or any!) word of Scripture, but there is a clear lesson for us in what we have just discussed.  That is that our speech matters.  Words are not just words.  Even if we are speaking a language that does not have Hebrew’s correspondance with the essence of the matter, words can affect our relations with other people, our thinking about the world around us, and our understanding of who we are and our place in the universe.  As our Sages say, “life and death are in the power of the tongue.”  It is critical that we be careful of what we say – that we purge from our speech all negativity, all hurtful speech, all the snide remarks and jokes at other peoples’ expense.  A wise man once said, “Speak the sweet truth.”  Jewish laws of proper speech forbid saying negative things about someone else (except in very strictly defined circumstances, to save someone else from being harmed) even if they are true.  We are undoubtedly all aware of the hurt that can be caused by speaking ill of others – we have surely, at some point in our lives, been either on the giving or the receiving end.  We are moving into a Presidential election year, a time when the atmosphere is filled with the worst kind of speech imaginable.  If we cannot change the political culture of an entire nation, we certainly can, and we must, work on what we can change – ourselves.  Our spiritual growth depends on it.