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Parashat Vayeshev 5778 — 12/09/2017

Parashat Vayeshev 5778 — 12/09/2017

Bereishit 37:1-40:23

L’ilui nishmat Marie Smallow

Our parashah begins the story of Yosef and his brothers, which led to the family’s descent to Egypt, where they became “a nation, large, mighty and great.” All of this was part of Gd’s plan, and it started with Ya’akov’s favoritism towards Yosef. That fueled the brothers’ hatred for Yosef and his subsequent sale into Egyptian slavery.

Our Sages mostly criticize both Ya’akov and Yosef for their behavior. Ya’akov shouldn’t have given Yosef the special cloak: “One should never favor one child over the other children in a family. It was because of an expensive garment bought for two sela’im [RAR: not a lot of money] that Jacob gave to Joseph – more expensive than anything he had given to any of his other children – he was envied by his brothers and the issue ‘snowballed’ until our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt.” (Shabbat 10b) Ya’akov was also criticized for not responding compassionately to Rachel when she complained that she had no children, and for sending a messenger to Esav (“he should have let sleeping dogs lie”).

Similarly, Yosef was criticized for acting in an immature manner: the words v’hu na’ar / he was a youth mean that he acted in a foolish way: “…coloring his eyes, curling his hair and walking with a mincing step…” (Bereshit Rabbah 84:7) And the Sages wonder what he was thinking when he told his brothers his dreams! Even in Egypt, Yosef is criticized for primping at the mirror and worrying about his good looks, while his father was pining away for him back in the Old Country. And even after 10 years in prison has instilled a deep sense of humility in Yosef, he is criticized for asking the wine steward twice to help him get out of prison; his lack of faith that Gd was working things out cost him two more years in prison according to the Midrash.

Even Avraham comes in for his share of criticism – the entire Egyptian exile is associated with Avraham’s asking, “Whereby shall I know that I will inherit [the Land]?” Apparently that little bit of lack of faith on Avraham’s part had to be rectified by centuries of bondage. And when Avraham balks at Sarah’s demand that he send away Yishmael and Hagar, Gd tells him to obey her!

Abarbanel, on the other hand, reads the whole story differently. Ya’akov favored Yosef because of his sterling character, which was better than his brothers’, although how showing this favoritism openly is a good idea is not explained. And Yosef innocently tells the brothers his dreams, because he can’t imagine how they would produce jealousy. I guess one man’s innocence is another man’s cluelessness. In other words, everything the Sages appear to criticize is explained away in Abarbanel’s approach.

I don’t want to analyze why Abarbanel took the approach he did, but I want to note that we have two apparently diametrically opposed ways of looking at Ya’akov and his family. On one side they are portrayed as great human beings, not perfect, but very great. On the other is a kind of hagiographic tendency, where anything potentially negative is carefully airbrushed out. How, in fact, are we supposed to view the progenitors and leaders of our people?

I think any answer to that question will hinge on the issue of what the Patriarchs are supposed to be. Are they Archetypes of cosmic forces, or are they great human beings, trying to navigate the challenges of human life? If we take them to be archetypes, do they have to be perfect? If they are human beings, what are they supposed to be modeling for us? (I’ll leave aside the question whether they are actual historical figures, because we are only dealing with how they are portrayed in Scripture and in Rabbinic thought; their actual historicity is irrelevant to this issue.)

Perhaps the answer is that the Patriarchs fulfill both functions. In Kabbalistic thought they are associated with the three sefirot: Chesed (Avraham), Gevurah (Yitzchak) and Tiferet (Ya’akov). In this sense, the Patriarchs represent very primal forces of nature, or impulses of intelligence at the very basis of the creative process by which Gd manifests the creation out of His own Essence. So we find in parashat Vayera that Avraham, the man, feels uncomfortable because he has no guests to shower chesed on, and is thus prevented from fulfilling his role as the archetype of chesed. Gd therefore arranged for the three “men” (angels) to come visit him, even though he was recuperating from his brit milah.

On the other hand, the Akeidah tested Avraham’s yirat shamayim / “fear/awe of heaven,” as the angel tells him after stopping him from actually slaughtering Yitzchak: “Now I know that you fear Gd.” [my italics]  Now yirah is not associated with chesed at all, rather it is associated with gevurah (strength, setting boundaries), and Yitzchak is the archetype of gevurah. But Avraham, the man, needed to strengthen the attribute of gevurah in his individual personality in order to become a more perfect Avraham.

I think we can extend this analysis to all the Patriarchs, and to Ya’akov’s sons, the tribal forefathers. In their role as archetypes, they give us a vision of the perfection that we hope to achieve. In their role as human beings, albeit great ones, they give us a vision of the path we all must tread to reach that perfection.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayeishev
This parshah begins with telling us that “Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, the land of Canaan.”  “Canaan” seems to derive from the Hebrew “kana”, to bring into synchronicity.

It seems that “dwelt” is more stable than “sojurnings” and we can get a sense that the difficulties that Jacob experienced with his uncle Laban and his brother Esau are now over and he is living peaceful in a land where all the parts work together harmoniously.

And yet this peace and harmony are upset when Jacob gives preferential treatment to his son Joseph and more deeply when Joseph angers his brothers by telling them and his father two dreams that seem to indicate he will dominate over them.

Yet Gd’s hand is in this as Joseph tells his brothers when his ability to dream and to interpret dreams have led him to become de facto ruler of Egypt (Mitzraim: restrictions) and his brothers and father have left Canaan, the land of harmony, to obtain food from Egypt, the land of restrictions after Joseph has arranged for Egypt to store up food during the seven full years that he predicted will be followed by seven years of famine.

One way to look at this is that when our land of harmony is of limited scope, its harmony can be easily broken by misbehavior, and then we find ourselves not living, but sojourning, in a land of famine, forced to leave it to struggle for food in a land of restrictions, a superficial world that nonetheless allows us to survive, even though not in the harmony we had previously enjoyed.

And a message that I draw for myself and for our world is that it is very important that we always act open-heartedly, treat everyone fairly, extend the range of harmony we enjoy, and that we do not mind and fully forgive the seeming offenses of others.

But also that we do our best to remember that Gd’s Plan may not be clear to our vision and so we need to do our best to be open to whatever comes, to somehow gracefully adapt.

Then we extend the range of Canaan, of harmony, to include the realm of Egypt/Mitzraim, restrictions, and harmony prevails, Jacob is “Israel” “one who prevails over Gd (in Gd’s limited role), and our souls and our world return to awareness of the Oneness that Is Always All There Is.
Today! Let this happen today and let it last unendingly!

Baruch HaShem.