Half-lives, Half-breath, Hope: Jacob and Joseph

About one quarter of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph, dreamer and diviner, the child of Jacob’s old age, the child Jacob favors over all his sons (Gen. 37:3).

His brothers hate him for that. Joseph himself seems to stoke their hatred. At 17, he dreams that he and his brothers are sheaves of grain – and each sheave bows to his. He tells his brothers. In turn, “they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams” (37:8). Joseph dreams again: Now his entire family bows to him, as eleven stars, the sun, and the moon. Even Jacob is shocked: “Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground? So his brothers were wrought up at him and his father kept the matter in mind” (37:10-11).

Sometime soon after, it seems, Jacob sends his favored child to check on his brothers. He is to see how his brothers are doing, how the flocks are faring, and to come back to report to his old father. He goes unaccompanied. Alone.

His brothers see him coming; their rage takes over. They strip him of the special tunic his father had made for him. They throw him in a pit. They debate. Should he die? Should they sell him? Does he, in that dark pit, hear every word? Joseph’s brothers harbor a murderous hatred, but, in the end, they leave Joseph’s life – or death – to slaveholders: “Come,” his elder brother Judah says, “let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves” (37:27). Sold into slavery, carried to a foreign land, does he play back each word in his mind?

At seventeen, Joseph is cast into a dark pit and sold into slavery. He rises to become the right-hand man of Potiphar. He falls again, accused by Potiphar’s wife. He spends at least two years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He rises again, becomes the right-hand man of the chief jailor. At thirty, he becomes Pharaoh’s vizier because he is not only a dreamer, but a dream interpreter. Pharaoh even gives him a new name: Zaphnath-Paaneah, a name which might mean “Egyptian,” though Jewish tradition reads it as “revealer of secrets.” Finally, Joseph is given Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On, to be his wife.

In a position of extraordinary power and prestige, his life secure, beloved by the ruler of the most powerful country in the known world, he might, one imagine, send word. He is alive, he is well. But he does nothing. He sends no word to the father who loved him best, the father who coddled him and who relied on him.

Joseph named his first child Manasseh, from a root that means to forget, to make disappear from the memory. Joseph is explicit: I name him Manasseh, he says, because “God had made me forget my hardship and my parental home” (41:52).

The years go by. And by. Joseph is about 39 when his brothers appear in Egypt, hoping to buy food in a time of famine. Two more years will pass before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and only after repeated manipulations. He will pin crimes on them, he will hold one brother prisoner and threaten to make another his slave. He is 41 years old when his father, Jacob, finally discovers that his beloved son is still alive.

Jacob, aged and broken, revives. “Enough,” he says. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!” (45:28).

We read this story as a quintessential narrative of sibling rivalry, one of so many describing murderous hatred among brothers. Cain kills Abel. Esau wants to kill Jacob. Joseph’s brothers almost murder him.

But if this story was just about sibling rivalry, why does Joseph not let his father, who loved him so, know he is alive?

When he learns that Joseph is alive Jacob’s breath, his ruach, lives in him again (45:27). Believing Joseph dead, Jacob had lived a half-life for twenty-four years.

Surely Joseph knew his father loved him with an abiding, consuming love. How could he let his brothers get in the way of such a love? How could he leave his father half alive for over two decades?

Remember the second dream? His whole family had made obeisance to him. His father was angry, accusatory, he “kept it in mind.” And then, he sent his son to his eleven brothers, brothers who hated him.

Did Joseph believe his father betrayed him to his brothers? Did he decide that a new identity, a new name, a new world could be his only future? Did he think: I will kill the past; everyone in it tried to kill me?

His tears gave him back what he could not kill: hope. Joseph cries, often. First, when he overhears his brothers talking about what they had done to him (Gen 42:24), next, when he sees his younger brother, Benjamin (43:30), and again when he reveals himself to his brothers (45:2). He cries and kisses his brothers after the revelation (45:14-15), and when he finally sees his father again, he weeps on his father’s neck “a good while.” (46:29). Somehow, in all his pain, he could still cry for what he had lost, cry and thus, hope.

In this broken world, where terror and horror surround us every day, perhaps we can hope that our own tears can heal – ourselves and others. May it be so.

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Not History. Still Truth.

dancing_figuresI know it didn’t happen that way. It may not have happened at all.

Instead of a grand Exodus, there may have been a release of Semitic slaves from Egypt – that, after all, is attested in Egyptian annals. Or a small group of slaves may have escaped the horrors of forced labor.

We have no proof that Moses existed, that any larg(ish) number of Israelites won their freedom or made their way through the wilderness. There is no archeological record to prove that a mass number of people trekked through the landscape between Egypt and Canaan.

Neither is there any historical corroboration for the actual existence of Joseph. Or Abraham, Isaac, and the rest of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

These stories are literature. They are myth. They are folktales. Though they are certainly attached to the experience and time of their composition, they are not history.
This fact has never prevented them from telling us truths.

We are, this week, standing at the juncture between the conclusion of Bereishit and the first parsha of Sh’mot. Waiting for the ancient freedom ride to begin, I have been preoccupied with a particular vision. It seems as real to me as the desk I write at, the gum tree branches against the gray sky outside my window, the sound of Beowulf, our cat, snoring in the kitchen.

I see the first aron. I see the second aron.

The first is the Ark of the Covenant which contains the tablets of the law – both the shattered version and the whole one. The first was inscribed by YHVH (Ex. 31:18) and destroyed by Moses. The second was created and carved by Moses, but inscribed by divine and patient agency (Ex. 34:1).

The second aron is the one that contains Joseph’s bones – aron also designates a coffin.

An ark. A coffin.

The mixed multitude that trembled with fear, that danced in rejoicing, the mixed multitude that will experience a lifetime of vicissitudes in the wilderness, that people carries with them both memory and hope, both death and the law that sustains life.

The act of ritual remembrance has been one of the most powerful ways by which we have maintained our multifaceted, diverse, and ever-changing sense of what it means to be Jewish. We know who we are when we can identify who we come from. This is fact, even when our ancestors are mythical creations, the stuff of stories told around campfires under ancient skies and brilliant stars. They are real to us – or can be. Their flaws are our flaws; their struggles are heartbreakingly familiar.

What child with brothers and (or) sisters does not worry that her mother favors a sibling? So, too, did Esau suspect Rebecca, and not without reason. How many women have found themselves trying to do everything right, only to be pushed aside, misused, even abused? Both Tamars of Tanakh will be, though Judah’s daughter-in-law will win the day in the end. David’s own daughter will be disgraced and humiliated by a half-brother who mercilessly ignores her pleas and rapes her. Afterwards, like so many women of our own time, she will be told to hush, to keep silent, to say nothing.

Memory binds us. And the law? Most Jews of our time hardly live by it. Yet it still sustains us, still teaches us, still asks us to consider: What is ethical speech? What is thoughtful, kind behavior? Do we not know this in our bones (did Joseph?): Treat the stranger kindly and love your neighbors.

Perhaps there are few Jews who study the commentary Hillel directed us to explore. But most Jews know something of its existence. Our law can be our hope to be better human beings as well as better Jews.

I see those people (who never existed?) before me. I see them carry that aron, the one holding our ignorance and failure in the form of shattered shards of stone, but holding the whole ones, too, the Second Chance.

I see them carrying the other aron, the coffin holding memories of an earlier time, of a patriarch and our family of origins, of a man who acted both cruelly and mercifully.
This Shabbat, we begin the story of Exodus. We will read of terror and darkness, of death and daytime horrors. We will read of freedom and joy, too. Memory and law, knowing where we came from and who we must be: This is my vision of those two arons.

Perhaps it is not history. But it is true.

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