Elisheva: challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings. Parashat Va’era

Early in the sidra is a partial genealogy, which leads us rapidly to the Levitical line. A genealogy of the Levites takes us from Levi through Kohat to Amram father of Aaron and Moses. Unusually, three women are named in this genealogy:

Amram married Yocheved the sister of his father, and she gave birth to Aaron and Moses (Miriam is not mentioned here).

Aaron married Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon; and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar.

Eleazar Aaron’s son took him one of the daughters of Putiel to wife; and she bore him Pinchas.

It is unusual for the wives to be named in these genealogies and so we must explore this further to see what Torah is trying to tell us.   Amram and Yocheved are nephew and aunt –both descendants of Levi, so Aaron and Moses are, so to speak, doubly Levitical.

It is not clear who Putiel is – he appears only here. Nor do we know how many daughters he had, or the names of any of them.

But Elisheva is given a much fuller ‘yichus’ – she is the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon and we know from later in bible that her tribe therefore is that of Judah.  Not much is known of Amminadav, but Nachshon features further in text and tradition.  We learn in the book of Numbers that under God’s instruction, Nachshon ben Amminadav was appointed by Moses as ‘Nasi’, leader/prince of the Tribe of Judah (Num. 1:7), to stand with Moses and to help him lead the people.  We can also see that through Boaz he will be a direct ancestor to King David; and curiously he sits exactly half way in the biblical genealogy that leads directly from Judah to David.

Because of his descent from Judah and his many regal descendants, Nachshon is praised in the rabbinic literature. Most famously – even though the biblical text does not mention him there – he is said to have shown real faith at the Reed Sea. The Israelites having left Egypt after the final plague, found themselves trapped. In front of them was the water and behind them the furious pursuing army. They complained bitterly to Moses asking why he had brought them there only to die in the wilderness.  And while they were standing there, each one angrily refusing to go further, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped into the water and when it reached his nostrils, the waters parted. (BT Sotah 36a; Mechilta Beshalach)

This is the brother of Elisheva, a man apparently of great qualities – and as Elisheva is introduced to us as his sister – an unnecessary addition in the generational genealogy- it is assumed that something else is being alluded to here beyond the blood relationship. Elisheva brings into the Priestly line that will descend from her and Aaron the qualities of leadership embodied by her own family which will provide the Royal line.

Elisheva will give birth to the four sons of Aaron, two of whom, Nadav and Avihu, will suffer a terrible and violent death shortly after being inducted into the priesthood. The other two will continue the hereditary line of the Cohanim – the Jewish priests.   She is, with Aaron, the root of the priestly tradition. And she also brings together the two formal leadership roles within the biblical tradition – she brings the royal line of Judah which is already generations old, (Judah having been blessed by Jacob on his deathbed as being the Royal line), together with the brand new line of hereditary priesthood.

Elisheva is understood in tradition to be a woman who had reason for great pride and joy by virtue of her relationships to male leaders:  The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) tells us that on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan “Elisheva had five additional joys over other daughters of Israel. She was the sister-in-law of the king (Moses), the wife of the High Priest (Aaron), her son (Elazar) was the segan (deputy high priest), her grandson (Pinchas) was anointed for war, and her brother (Nachshon) was a prince of the tribe of Judah [and the first of the twelve tribal leaders to make a gift offering for the inauguration]  One can add to this list that it was Betzalel ben Hur her nephew  of the tribe of Judah, who was the architect appointed by God to build the Mishkan.

Talmud however goes on to note “yet she was bereaved of her two sons”

I find this extraordinary. The Talmudic text is well aware that Elisheva, like Aaron, is bereaved of two of her adult children in a moment – destroyed when beginning their work as priests, but offering strange fire before God. We don’t really understand what happened here – were they drunk? Idolatrous? Inefficient?  Improperly dressed? – but we do understand that they die instantly. And we also understand that while a male response is described to these deaths, (Moses speaks to Aaron about God’s demands for the priesthood, Aaron is silent, Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron are instructed to bring the bodies out of the mishkan and put them outside the camp, Elazar and Itamar are instructed about their priestly duties, along with Aaron…) Nothing is said about the response of Elisheva, the mother of the dead boys.

Aaron is famously silent – we are told this and it is understood that he is able to accept that the greater good of the priesthood is more important than the individual fates of his two sons. But his enigmatic silence is at painful odds with the complete erasure of the response of Elisheva. I cannot for a moment imagine that she would have taken the deaths quite so phlegmatically.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:2) we see the situation from the viewpoint of Elisheva. “Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, did not enjoy happiness in this world. True, she witnessed the five crowns [attained by her male relatives] in one day…but when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”

The Midrash not only allows her mourning, it accepts that the deaths of her sons affected her profoundly so that even the achievements of her other male relatives would not give her any happiness.  Mourning as a parent is all-consuming. It is not ever something that one can recover fro;  the best that can happen is that joy can once again be experienced tinged with sadness, with an awareness that life is incomplete and will remain so.

Elisheva, the woman who brings together the lines of power and leadership – monarchy and priesthood, who is the foremother therefore of all those who have to care for the people, who have to lead it thoughtfully and in is best interest; Elisheva, matriarch and founding spirit of all the leaders whose job is to serve, to provide security, to be thoughtful about the impact of their decisions in the wider world –  brings not only the qualities of power that leadership needs, she brings another quality – the awareness of incompleteness and imperfection that we must live with.

It is a truism that peace/shalom is never fully here – the most we have is an absence of conflict and we must work to stop such conflict breaking out and gaining ascendancy. Our hope for each other uses the prefix le – leshalom, TOWARDS shalom, rather than b’shalom –IN/WITH peace because we are constantly striving towards it – we only reach our individual shalom when we are dead, as the biblical language confirms.  It is also true that every joy we have in life is good but it is temporary and it is always susceptible to change. We live in a world of uncertainty and entropy, change will happen and we must be able to cope with it.

Elisheva had so much in life – she came from a successful and value driven family, she married into another one, she had children and grandchildren, she features (albeit briefly) in bible. But as the midrash tells us, she did not enjoy happiness in this world, she lived in the liminal space where the pain of her mourning, and her awareness of the continuing fragility of the lives of those we love can  tinge, if not overshadow all happiness.

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. There are many reasons given – to scare away demons who may be lurking and to remember the destruction of the Temple  are two of the most famous, but the most likely is to remind everyone in the room that joy is transitory and good times must be enjoyed when we encounter them.

Life is hard and we shall all encounter a mixture of good and bad, of ease and difficulty, of problems and effortlessness as we go through it.  We will all meet difficulties, many of us will face fear and anxiety, some of us will have to deal with tragedy. We cannot allow fear or pain or sadness to overwhelm us but neither must we suppress the realities that they exist.

Elisheva encountered both extreme highs and lows of life. Bible is silent on her way of dealing with it, but rabbinic tradition uses her as a model, in the full knowledge that the people it is writing for would also face good times and bad, and needed to find resilience beyond that of blind faith. Elisheva lives on after the tragedy of the deaths of her sons, she continues to experience joy and sadness, she is able to experience both but neither of them can be untouched by the other. She is a human being who copes with life.

The name Elisheva can mean either “my God has sworn an oath” or it can mean “my God has satisfied”. What is the oath that is sworn? That God will remain our God through the ages, through good times and bad. And in what way is Elisheva ‘satisfied’? She has had a lot of good in her life, which enables her to deal also with the bad.

We learn from Elisheva that we can both enjoy life and mourn for what we no longer have, or might never have. We must live with the mingling of light and dark, knowing that each will tinge the other but each must be lived through. We learn that holding a constant sense that we are still connected to God, even in the dark times, even when may be afraid or sad or even angry with God, will help us through our lives.

No one gets away with a life that has no loss and no pain. No one escapes pain – it is an elemental human condition and closely allied to the ability to love. The men around Elisheva take refuge in their status, but Elisheva stands out, a scion of the royal line, the mother of priests. She may appear to have everything, but what matters can be taken away in a heartbeat and then the “everything” shows what it truly is – momentary, material, and irrelevant. Elisheva reminds us that relationships not only underpin our lives, they provide connection and the place to be ourselves. Everything else will pass.

Serach bat Asher:the woman who authenticated Moses and went alive to paradise. Parashat Vayigash

Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official.  Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.

Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.

Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5:  “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”

Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob.  Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.

So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.

She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46).  That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.

The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel.  She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.

So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.

According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan)  This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.

Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)

Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.

Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest.  This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.

So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.

 

 

 

 

Tamar: taking her destiny in her own hands she will enable the messiah. Parashat Vayeshev

judah-and-tamar-chagallInserted into the Joseph narratives that take up much of the last half of the book of Genesis, is a chapter about Judah and about his family. It is also a chapter about the actions of a woman who is determined to right a wrong and how she achieves this goal. Situated as it is so discordantly in the Joseph narrative it is easy to turn the page, to ignore the text as we continue to read about Joseph’s troubles and his subsequent elevation. Because it deals with sexual acts, and with apparent impropriety, it is studied much less than it should be. The lens of the narrator is narrow, detail is sparse, but it is a text worth a great deal of attention, for it reminds us that in bible the women were actors in the story and not observers, they were out in the public space, their behaviour often created pivots in the chronicle. The story of Judah and Tamar shouts out “notice me” – the sons of Jacob are yet again challenged by a woman and this time they cannot cheat her or hide from her or marginalise her. Tamar is a risk taker while all the time behaving within the law. She is a model for modern Jewish women, her story reminds us our destiny is in our own hands.

Judah leaves his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman, the unnamed daughter of Shua, and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.  Without comment from the narrator, time passes and he takes a wife for his first born son -Tamar. What do we know about her? Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery though we may assume that she was also a Canaanite woman. There is one tradition that suggests that she is the daughter of Malchitzedek, King of Shalem and Priest to the Most High God, and certainly she behaves in a way that bespeaks confidence and determination to get her rights fulfilled.

Tamar is married to Er, who was “wicked in the sight of God, and God killed him” (38:8). She was then married to his younger brother Onan, specifically (and anachronistically) for him to perform the act of yevamah, to provide a child who would legally be the child of the dead and childless Er.

But Onan knew that the child would not be formally his, as so when he went to her he deliberately spilled his semen on the ground rather than create a child who would inherit the portion of his dead brother, and the bible tells us “Vayera b’eynei Adonai asher assah vayamet gam oto: The thing that he did was evil in the sight of God, and he killed him too” (v10)

What did Er do that was so wicked he deserved to die? Bible doesn’t tell us. While there is a strand of tradition that suggests that the boys die as punishment for the wickedness of their father, so that he should feel the pain of the death of a child as he had caused his father to feel that grief when he did not protect Joseph, the general consensus of tradition is that the sin must have been Er’s and must have been similar to that of his brother. Hence one Midrash suggests that he did not want Tamar to spoil her beauty by becoming pregnant and therefore his relations with her were designed to prevent pregnancy. This I think tells us much more about the commentators than it does about the text, but the reality is that he does not provide a child for his wife before his sudden death.

Onan’s wickedness however is clear, and it is not the sin that bears his name. It is not the spilling of the seed that was the real problem in God’s eyes, it was the fact that he did not want to give his dead brother a stake in the future, a child who would inherit both the name and the material benefit that would have belonged to Er. He denied his dead brother an heir and he denied his wife the protection that having the child would give her.

What we are told and what we are not told in this text is fascinating. The bible is keen to make sure we know that Judah has left his brothers, that he has built a deep friendship with Hirah an Addullamite (va’yet). It tells us of his Canaanite wife bat Shua and his children with her. It tells us that the action takes place in Chezib – and here is the clue to the whole sorry tale, for the name Chezib comes from the root-verb כזב (kazab), meaning to lie, to disappoint, to fail. As an idiom the word is also used to describe a brook or stream that has dried up – a river that disappoints, rather than one that will provide water. Judah has three sons, and yet the likelihood of his having descendants after them diminishes as the disappointment and the lies build up.

The bible signals that the story is about deceptions and disappointment, and Judah as the fourth son of Jacob and Leah is born into deception and disappointment, even while he will ultimately become the ancestor par excellence, the tribe from whom we will descend.

After the deaths of the two older sons, Judah tells Tamar to “stay a widow in the house of your father until Shelah my son grows up” Assuming the practise of yevamah, this appears to be a reasonable request, though why Tamar is kept in her father’s house rather than that of her in-laws bears further examination. But it seems that he is trying to keep her at a distance, for bible continues that same verse with the words “Lest he also die like his brothers”.

The superstition that a woman who loses more than one husband is somehow responsible is dangerous and a killer of men who come close to her has deep roots. It is a classic example of blaming the victim. Widows were economically and socially vulnerable, classed in bible along with orphans and strangers in the land/refugees. There are many exhortations to protect the widows in biblical texts, but in this story in the first book of Genesis, before Torah had been given and before its challenge to established norms, the superstition drives Judah, and sadly his behaviour means that the idea of the “black widow” has permeated into our awareness too.

Widowed now himself, Judah goes to see his great friend Hirah in Timnah. We do not know how much time has passed but Tamar is able to observe for herself that Shelah has grown up and that he has not been given to her as a husband in order to both provide a child in his brother’s names. Tamar is trapped in a situation that does not allow her to marry within the family of Judah nor to marry anyone else. She must feel desperate.

Judah doesn’t tell Tamar that he is travelling near to where she is. He has left her exiled in her father’s home living as a widow and he seems to have no communication with her, nor any interest in her continued well-being.  Someone unnamed tells her that Judah will be travelling through and Tamar takes her chance.

She removes the widow’s weeds she is wearing and covering herself with her veil she sits “petach Einayim” – which could mean “at the entrance to Einayim” but which also means “at the opening of the eyes”. This is a pivot in the story. There has been up till now lies and deception, the suppressing of the reason that God found Er wicked, the betrayal by Onan of his brother’s rights to the future.   Tamar has been hidden from sight in the household of her father, there is no communication between the two households, she is out of sight and out of mind. But here she is, sitting by the roadway Judah will travel, determined to be noticed, to open Judah’s eyes to the injustice done to her.  Her action is eye opening.

Judah certainly sees her. He notices her. At least, he notices there is a woman there and he makes the assumption that she is a prostitute. And the reason for this? Because her face is covered.  Think about this. He reaches his conclusion that this is a woman available for hire for sexual relief because her face is covered. In today’s world a veiled face is supposed to designate modesty, protecting the beauty of the woman from the crassness of the world – yet here in bible the clear assumption is that the veiled face designates woman only as object. She stops being a person. She doesn’t exist as living breathing yearning thinking woman. She is a prostitute, available for the pleasure of men who pay. There is at least some honesty in this approach – the reality of the woman is unimportant in the world of the biblical text, who she is is irrelevant to the man who buys her. In today’s world of extreme tzniut used to oppress women in some communities, the deception is back. Telling women that their covered state and hiddenness from the public space is a way of increasing their holiness, protecting their modesty etc is a lie to hide the fact that their very self is being controlled by others, to keep them as possessions and as subjects rather than as active and authentic people with their own agency.

Judah is polite, he speaks to her with courtesy, not knowing who she is at all. The same verb is used as with his relationship with Hirah – vayet eleha – he turns to her. This could be the beginning of a real connection, but it is not because he does not see someone with whom connection can be made. He sees only the possibility of a sexual moment and this is what he asks for. So she begins the negotiation “what would you give me in payment for sex?” He offers her a future payment, a young kid from the flock, and she counters with the request for a pledge that she can keep until such time as the payment is made. It seems that Judah is unused to this type of negotiation. He asks her what such a pledge should be and she requests three deeply personal and unique items that will be recognisable and indisputably his.  Having given them to her, they have intercourse and Tamar conceives at last.

The interlude over, she leaves and removing the veil she puts on her widows weeds once again. Judah keeps his promise, sending the animal as promised with Hirah his friend, and expecting the return of his pledge, but she is gone, and when Hirah asks around where the prostitute who had been sitting there was, the response is that there had been no prostitute. This he relays to Judah, who doesn’t seem to be at all perturbed by the woman’s disappearance with his personal possessions, and seems rather to hope that by ignoring what has happened he will escape any shame. But how can he just leave his pledge, his signet, cords and staff, as if nothing has happened?  These days we might call it identity theft, we would desperately search for our missing items and try our best to make good the loss. Judah’s response “tikach la, pen nihyeh lavuz” is more than laconic, it is negligent and it is fearful of any shame attaching to him and his friend. Why?

Three months later the news reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, and the assumption is that she has prostituted herself. No communication has happened between the two as yet and when she is brought to Judah in order to be punished by burning, she still does not immediately identify the father by name. Instead there is a sort of choreography – she is brought to the household of Judah from her father’s house. She does not appear to meet Judah, instead she sends the pledged items he had given her and says “Clarify please whose are these tokens? The signet the cords and the staff?” It is of course a rhetorical question but it is a dangerous one. For a man who had been trying to avoid shame, Judah could have taken and sequestered the items. She would have been burned to death along with her unborn children. But instead he acknowledged them and speaks of the justice and rightness of Tamar’s act – she had simply been trying to fulfil the requirement for a child for his two dead sons, and in doing that to protect her own vulnerable situation too.

Like Rebecca, Tamar has twins. Like her too the birth is eventful – the first child puts out a hand and then withdraws it but not before a scarlet thread has been tied around it, the second child is then born, and the elder one is fully born second. Their names are given, but not it seems by Tamar. The elder child is named Zerach which means brightness or shining. The younger is Perez – meaning to burst forth, to breach. There are many echoes of Rebecca here, the colour red, the description of the older child in terms of his appearance and the younger in terms of his actions.  There is a clear subtext that these children were designed to be born, they are necessary in terms of the biblical narrative. They would not have been born had Judah followed his plan to keep Tamar in purdah to protect his one surviving son from what he saw was her danger – a superstition roundly exploded in the story, for Judah is not endangered by his encounter with Tamar.

The story is tidied up – both dead brothers have a child to take their place in history. Tamar does not need to marry again, her status is established. Judah has come to realise that his behaviour was not as righteous as that of his Canaanite daughter in law and has acknowledged this.  But the questions arising from the story only multiply. Why this story at all? Why put it here in the Joseph narratives? Why did the children need to be born?

One question is partially answered in the genealogical line given in the book of Ruth, the Moabite woman who also took her status as childless widow into her own hands and had a child by a family member of her dead husband in order both to honour his future and to protect her own vulnerable status. We will learn from this genealogy that King David will descend from the line of Perez – that both Tamar the Canaanite woman and Ruth the Moabite woman will pivot history in order to bring about the birth of the messianic line.   But why does King David and why will his messianic descendant need to be born of such deceptive sexual encounters orchestrated by the women? This is a question yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Why is it in the Joseph narrative? With the themes of clothing to hide identity, of deception and betrayal, of promises made and not kept and of the painful loss of children, with mis-communication and with the lack of communication, with fear and shame and hopelessness and exile –  there is much to connect these narratives.  But Tamar herself is not echoed in the Joseph stories, except maybe in parody when the wife of his master desires him and lies that he tried to sleep with her. Tamar stands alone in these narratives, a woman who is married twice to unworthy and wicked men yet who retains her own integrity and keeps her eye on the future. Blamed as a husband killer when we know from bible that God kills the men because of their wickedness, exiled to her father’s house and marginalised from the narrative, she uses her marginal status and plays out the scene whereby she becomes not-woman, a body, a prostitute for hire at the roadside, and moves her descendants into the centre of the narrative.

One of my favourite lines of any film comes in “My big fat Greek Wedding”. It tells the story of a woman of Greek descent trying to find herself and her place in society outside her father’s home and the struggles she endures as she grows. Her father makes a decree about her future and she is despondent. Her mother tells her that indeed she must obey, the father is the head of the house. In their culture, his word is law. But the mother goes on to say, the father is the head but the mother is the neck, and the head points whatever way the neck dictates.  It speaks to me of biblical narrative, when the men make the decisions and hold the power, but with great regularity the women subvert that decision making, and from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah onwards they gently manipulate in order to produce the desired outcome. The list of these women in bible is long, yet often they escape our attention as they escape the attention of the men with whom they live. Tamar is a rare exception – by getting herself noticed she will disrupt the course of the narrative and change history.

Vayigash: making peace is a process with which we have to keep faith, however unlikely it may seem

Making peace between two hurt and damaged parties must be one of the hardest activities in the world. Often, simply the absence of war must be enough for us, something which may look like peace but which is a far more shallowly rooted plant than we would like to acknowledge.

Sidra Vayigash tells the story of the making of peace between brothers – not a new story in the book of Genesis, and when one looks closely not even a real and complete peace – but at least it is more than the simple absence of war.

The sidra opens with the encounter between the powerful Egyptianised Joseph and his distraught and powerless older brother Judah. Judah cannot bear having to return to his father to tell him that Benjamin, only remaining son of Rachel, is held hostage in Egypt. With an impassioned speech he offers himself as hostage instead. This has an unexpected result – the man before him cries loudly and reveals himself to be the long lost boy who had been so hated by his older brothers they had thrown him into a pit to die a slow and pitiless death, but who had been rescued from that fate and sold into slavery instead. Now he stands before them, the second most powerful man in Egypt, and he is weeping and embracing them and forgiving them and even suggesting that everything had been God’s plan – they bear no fault for what they did.

This is the third meeting of the brothers with Joseph, and one has to ask – what finally prompted him to reveal himself and to effect reconciliation with them? Up till now he had treated them quite cruelly – accusing them of being spies, demanding that Benjamin be brought to Egypt, framing Benjamin as a thief and in an act of summary justice ruling that Benjamin must remain in Egypt, leaving his father totally bereft.

What is the riddle enmeshed within the story for us to untangle here? Is it about revenge? About justice? About the ongoing quest for repentance and forgiveness? And if so, is there real repentance and can we say that there is real forgiveness?

The whole of the book of Genesis speaks of rivalry between siblings, of the terrible situations such jealousy can cause; about the ways that people can continue to live with a partial resolution, and about the quest for a real resolution.

Here in Vayigash comes the resolution par excellence – but even this is not some fairy tale ending, but a qualified and measured response which is part of a longer process.

Joseph meets his brothers three times before he reveals himself to them. Each time he ends in tears which he sheds privately. In the first encounter the brothers have come down to Egypt for food and Joseph is the man in charge of rationing. We are told “when Joseph saw his brothers he recognised them, but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them.” (Gen. 42:7). He accused them of being spies, confined them to jail for three days and then demands that they return to Canaan and bring back Benjamin to Egypt. He is completely unaware of them as human beings – they are objects for his anger and revenge, and tools for him to contact his full brother Benjamin – nothing more. He does not trust them, he does not care about them, he knows nothing much about them and doesn’t try to find out whether they feel bad about what happened to him, or whether they have felt remorse about what their father had suffered with Joseph’s loss.

When he meets them for a second time, Joseph is brought a step closer towards reconciliation. This time he asks some questions which bring him into a connection with his family – he asks about his father’s health. When he sees Benjamin he is overcome by emotion – but he takes care that no one shall see his tears and hurries out of the room to weep in private, then washes his face and returns composed. (Gen. 43:30). It is through Benjamin, his full brother, the one who had not conspired to murder him that Joseph begins to reconnect with his past. But he controls himself and his emotions enough to set a test – in effect he recreates the same scenario that had him sent into slavery as a young boy – he puts the older brothers in charge of the fate of the younger one, what they do will determine his life or death. So he puts his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, sends his steward to retrieve the men and discover the stolen goblet – and now how the brothers respond will be crucial – will they let Benjamin be taken into Egypt and lost to his father, or will they try to save him

And so to the third encounter – Judah, wholly repentant and distraught, pleads with Joseph on behalf of his father who has already lost a child dear to him. He offers himself in place of the boy – and Joseph sees that the brothers really have changed, they have made teshuvah and when given the opportunity to sin again they set themselves against it.   Joseph finally gives way to his feelings and sobs so loudly he can be heard all over the palace. He confronts these Canaanite strangers as brothers and forgives them. There is reconciliation and the book of Genesis is able finally to witness a sibling rivalry that is resolved, to show that with repentance comes forgiveness, and so it is possible to move on in one’s life into new and different places.

But there is more to this story than a happy ending – we know that life is no fairy tale, and neither is bible. The reconciliation between the boys is certainly more than we have ever seen before, but we should not forget that it took over 20 years to achieve, that during it there was much pain and anger, thoughts of revenge and retribution, a clear denial of what had gone on and long term suppression of guilt and responsibility. We know that Joseph did not contact his family – not even his father or his beloved younger brother – who lived with the knowledge that he had gone to his death in a horrible way, that there was no certainty however, no possibility of complete and completed mourning. We know too that Joseph had to struggle with his own feelings about his brothers. A gap of 20 years did not automatically resolve the pain and the animosity – just because time had passed it did not mean that time had healed, and anyway there had been such hostility between them for so long that even before they had placed him in a forsaken pit they were unable to even speak civilly with him.

Having forgiven them he set them up in Goshen, far away from the palace where he continued living. When their father lay dying they had to send for Joseph – evidently he was not a frequent and dutiful visitor to his resettled family, and he waited till his father lay dying before introducing his own two sons to him.

The narratives about rivalry between siblings, begun with the murderous anger of Cain against Abel, finally end here with the tears and embraces of Joseph and his bothers. There is forgiveness and some limit to the ongoing anguish, but all is not sweetness and light. It never is and we would find the bible unbelievable if, after all that had gone on, there would be no hint of the shadowlands of pain left as a result of those relationships over so many years. As Ishmael and Isaac could never fully reconcile, as Jacob and Esau were able to weep and kiss and then go their separate ways, so too there is a boundary to this rapprochement. What makes this story different is that it is enough – there is repentance, there is forgiveness, there is insight, there is an element of acknowledgement of wrongs on both sides.

Making peace is never easy, it doesn’t simply happen, it takes time and it takes insight and it takes some unqualified repentance and some unqualified forgiveness. There will be the urge to punish, to take vengeance, to hide one’s tears in private and present a tough and intractable face in public. There will be the urge to accuse the other of all sorts of crimes, to see them as less than valuable. All this is normal and natural and part of the process, but for peace to come about – even for this curious state of cold peace that we are so used to in our modern world – there has to be a willingness to keep faith with the process, to meet the other side again and again, to keep trying.

The person who broke the impasse between Joseph and his brothers was not Joseph, it was Judah, one of the brothers who had been central to the plot to destroy him years before. Judah, who is our named ancestor, from whom the word Jew is derived. It was Judah who put himself on the line for a more important principle, who offered himself as hostage if it would free Benjamin from slavery and return him safely to the old man who was their father. Judah was the one who took the risk, who took the initiative and approached the harshly judgmental and uncompromising Egyptian potentate if front of him. He is our ancestor and he is our role model. He shows us that even in the most unlikely of situations our insight and our willingness to act upon it, will save us. May we continue his work in our own generation, and help to bring about some form of peace in our own time.

Vayeshev: the different personalities of Jacob’s sons bring balance to our tradition

The Book of Genesis tells the stories of a succession of families, but the thread of sibling rivalry goes through them all – from Cain and Abel the sons of Adam and Eve, through to Joseph and his older brothers. And it has to be said that the rivalry between Joseph and his siblings overshadows all the other sibling squabbles in the intensity and passion with which it is played out – the near murder and the series of betrayals. From this sidra until we end the book of Genesis, everything, – including the going down to Egypt by Jacob and his family which will lead into slavery and ultimately the redemption by God – emerges directly from this sibling struggle.

On the one side of the conflict we have Joseph, oldest son of his mother Rachel, beloved and spoiled son of his father, the dreamer of dreams. On the other side we have ten of his eleven brothers, including Judah, the oldest son of his mother Leah, the son who loves his father much more than he himself is loved.   The struggle between Joseph and Judah is not only a personal one, it is ideological, and that ideology is played out in our history.

The language of Joseph’s dreams implies that he will travel far from his family’s home into the wide world outside it and live his life amongst other peoples. Joseph dreams universal dreams, and though only 17 years old he senses that his star is rising, he is destined to make his mark on history, and he is keen to go further into the world, to rise above the parochial concerns of his immediate family.

In contrast to the outward looking Joseph, Judah represents the brother who never even dreams of leaving home, nor of wandering very far from his father’s sight. Tradition tells us that he was a studious man, a conserver of traditions, a man who cared deeply for his family and his inheritance, and was not at all interested in any interchange with the world outside – indeed he actively chose to repulse any attempts to ally his family with other groupings.

So which of these streams, the inward Judah or the outward Joseph, represents authentic Judaism?

The truth is that both are, and that both are needed to form the balance that makes Judaism the firmly grounded yet dynamic and responsive religion that it is. Our calendar contains festivals that are particularistic and festivals that are universalistic, our prayer books contain prayers that are particularistic and prayers that are universalistic. Judaism even recognises the possibility of two messiahs – one from the line of Joseph and one from the line of Judah (the House of David) because it understands and acknowledges both aspects of existence – the need to remain rooted in traditions and texts as well as the burning need to reach outwards and upwards – towards other societies and peoples, towards the stars.

Both aspects of Judaism are authentic and both are needed. Our texts and our historical narrative tell us that again and again. The problem we face is that in our day the polarisation between the two is again very strong: part of the Jewish world is increasingly internal, drawing stronger and stronger boundaries against modernity, and part of the Jewish world is choosing to be porous and open to the point of apparent assimilation. We need each other and we need the different ways to be Jewish, and as Jacob and Judah eventually do – but not yet in this sidra – we need to honour each other’s difference and recognise that we are and always will be family.

vayigash: the power of speech, the power of silence

            The longest speech in the book of Genesis belongs to Judah, pleading before an Egyptian potentate for the life of his youngest brother Benjamin, and indirectly also for the life of his father.

            The word ‘Vayigash’ is usually understood as ‘and he approached’, or possibly “he went up towards” something so daring in this context it could easily have cost him his life. To come close to a great leader in order to persuade him to change his mind – the whole of the book of Genesis seems to be building to this moment, and everything hangs on what Judah is about to do. 

            Tradition tells us that the verb can be taken three ways – that he went up to plead for mercy for Benjamin; that he went up prepared to battle Joseph for the release of Benjamin;  or that he approached God, praying for direction to be able to save the lives of his family.

            The speech itself is carefully constructed; no spur of the moment outburst this but essentially it reads as the argument of a defence lawyer at the height of his powers.

            The speech is beautifully layered and structured, full of images of the plight of Jacob, and we are told how it moved Joseph to the point where he simply had to stop what he was doing and reveal his true identity.  As a literary text it is perfect, as a strategic defence it performs brilliantly.  But somehow my attention is drawn to what is not in the text, to all the things left unsaid.

            Why for example doesn’t Judah criticize Joseph for the false accusation that he and his brothers were spies?  Why doesn’t he flatter this most powerful man into changing his mind?  Or even ‘call him’ on his promise that Joseph had originally said only that he wanted to see the youngest brother, but now he was making him a slave?  The Midrash even comments that Joseph was breaking his own Egyptian laws – that the law allowed one to punish the thief by taking away everything that he owned, but it did not allow one to go so far as to make that thief your slave – and yet Judah did not use this unlawful behaviour of Joseph’s to build up his defence against his brother.

            When the cycle of Joseph stories begins there is a surfeit of words.  Words are used to bring evil report, they are used in conspiracy to murder, they are used to describe dreams, they are found almost impossible to utter civilly by the older brothers to their arrogant sibling.  As you read the early stories you can’t help but be struck by the number of times ‘davar’ or ‘diber’ is used.  They are perfect examples of what  war time posters reminded the population – ‘careless words cost lives’. 

            Here as the stories are coming to an end, one is struck by the silences. The silence of Joseph who chooses not to reveal himself to his brothers. His earlier silence when he did not send word of his survival to his family in Canaan many years earlier.  The grief of Jacob which is described as his inability to speak any more.

            As the narrative builds up, it seems that we go from too many words to too few, until this speech of Judah, the longest single speech in our text, both formalizes the silence and releases the words.  Joseph is no longer able to contain the words within himself.

            Joseph’s major failing was his arrogant boasting.  He couldn’t help telling everyone about his dreams; he couldn’t help telling on his brothers to their father, he couldn’t help himself using words to build himself up while at the same time putting others down.  It was why his brothers hated him.  He may have been his father’s favourite, but while favouritism is never a recipe for happy families, it doesn’t have to create the kind of sibling hatred  this family developed. After all Benjamin took his place as favourite child. Benjamin became even more precious because his only blood brother had gone, presumed dead – and yet Benjamin was not the object of hatred, but was recognized as the one person able to comfort their father in his desperate grief.         

            Biblically, words are seen as the building blocks of creation – God created our world by the power of the spoken word and equally could destroy us with a word.  We ourselves know the power of speech, that words, once released, have a life all their own, can never be taken back or made unsaid.  Prayer, based on well chosen words, has taken the place of sacrifice in our ritual system.

            Less well known is the power of silence – that the absence of words can be more powerful than their presence, for in the silence, when we take away the distraction of words, we can experience and encounter a far deeper meaning.  While words can divert us from what is really important, or else can be used to defend us so that we don’t confront ourselves and our lives. 

            The silence in Judah’s speech teaches us something important. Judah does not flatter, nor does he criticize. He is past the point scoring so often associated with argument, totally focused on what is substantially important.  He doesn’t use verbal tricks but prefers to be silent rather than to condemn. His impassioned speech contains no falsehood or accusation.  He speaks only words which focus directly and clearly to his cause.

            The speech of Judah is a text book study in defence advocacy.  It is also a textbook study in good human relations.  He only says what should be said.  He doesn’t say anything hurtful.  At this time, when so many are thinking about making resolutions about their behaviour in the year to come, Judah’s model is a wonderful one to emulate. Speak what should be said; Keep silent on what should be kept silent.  

 

 

Vayigash

            The scene in which Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers is emotionally charged and powerfully transmitted to us. Overcome by his feelings in response to Judah’s plea that him that he keep Judah as his slave in the place of Benjamin, Joseph clears the room and, left alone with his brothers, he introduces himself and asks the urgent question:  “Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai?”  I am Joseph. Does my father still live?”  Unsurprisingly the brothers are too shocked to respond, so Joseph has to continue and introduce himself in a slightly different way – “Ani Yosef achee’chem – I am Joseph your brother.”  Then he begins to reassure his stricken brothers, pointing out to them how the whole chain of events that has brought them here must be managed by God, from the selling of Joseph in Dotan to the famine which had brought them all to Egypt.  The reconciliation between brothers, a theme that has been avoided since Cain killed Abel at the beginning of Genesis is finally happening, with the stated guilt and repentance on the part of the wrong doers, the punishment exacted by the wronged party, the forgiveness on both sides – and the recognition of God’s part in the problem all along.

            All the way through the Book of Genesis, God has been actively and some may say unhelpfully present in the text, creating situations for people to deal with as best they can, which generally isn’t too edifying for us to read.  Adam and Eve are faced with a forbidden yet deeply tempting fruit tree in their perfect garden- Why?  When they do the inevitable, what happens?  Adam blames Eve, she blames the snake, and they are all forced to move on.  When Abel’s sacrifice is accepted but Cain’s is not – well why not?  We know that there was nothing special about either, but the anger of the rejected Cain led to fratricide within the earliest chapters of the book.  Look where else God meddled – the destruction of Tower of Babel when people were getting on so well together but now were scattered and unable to communicate with each other; Abraham told to bind his beloved son Isaac as an offering for God, and consequently damaging his relationship with Isaac (and God) irreparably.  Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb, predestined to have an unequal relationship.  And yet no one calls God on it, no one confronts God’s role until Joseph does. 

            Joseph, the assimilated Jew.  The man who to all intents and purposes became Egyptian, with an Egyptian name, and Egyptian wife, and Egyptian children.  Joseph, the boy who dreamed his dreams, who showed little of what we might call spirituality in his vanity laden adolescence.   Yet paradoxically it is Joseph who describes himself as one who fears God – et ha’elohim ani yarei (42:18). 

            It is a curious verb – yod resh alef – meaning “to venerate, be in awe or fear”.  Until Joseph’s use of it, it is not used positively, nor is it used about God, – except once in the akedah when God tells Abraham not to kill Isaac, for now he knows he is a Godfearing man (ki yarei elohim ata  Gen 22:12)  But it is already too late in Abraham’s case, for whatever the test was up on that mountain, Abraham had not passed it for he never spoke to his son Isaac or to God again. 

            Only Joseph describes himself as one who is in awe of God, who fears and admires and reverences God.  And only Joseph uses this verb in a positive way – that he will be, to coin a phrase, honest decent and truthful in his dealings with the foreigners whom only he knows to be his brothers.  It is Joseph’s use of the verb to describe himself and the positive essential value which drives him,  which makes him the candidate to effect the sibling reconciliation which has for so long been so elusive in the family story.  Finally there is a person who sees yirat adonai, the fear and awe of God, as a positive statement about themselves and their lives.  It is the characteristic which enables the person to know a little about the Almighty with whom they are dealing, to know a little about how little they know, to avoid the cosiness which can beset such a relationship and also the projections which can blur it.  Yirat adonai is, as the psalmist wrote, “t’horah, omedet la’ad”  – pure, standing forever. (Ps19) – it enables us to be clear eyed in our dealings with God, and to understand a little, and engage a little.  So it is no surprise that towards the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph is able to see God’s part in the events of his life, and, once his brothers have shown their shame and their unhappiness at what they did, (and Joseph has satisfied his own need to show how his early dreams were indeed correct), that he is able to acknowledge and forgive not only his brothers part in the way his life has turned out, but also God’s part in it too.

            The search for meaning in our lives is something we all do, whether in a religious structure, or in another philosophical framework or setting.  Those of us who use the religious tradition find in it many complex and often mutually incompatible things.  We can be overwhelmed by the richness of interpretations, constrained by our own needs and our own baggage.

 Interestingly, that same psalmist who praised yirat adonai, listed his six stakes of Judaism as being

Torat Adonai (the Teaching of God), Edut Adonai (the Evidence of God), Pikudei Adonai (the Duties of God), Mitzvat Adonai (the Commandments of God), Yirat Adonai (the Fear of  God) and Mishp’tei Adonai (the Judgments of God).  Taken together in the poem they make a bridge that links heaven and earth.  No mention is made of a required belief, or of much that people often say is core to religion-  instead there is teaching and witnessing, doing and considering, acting and fearing – these are what bring people closer to God. 

Joseph, Egyptianised, assimilated, the boy who never tried to contact his home again, is saying in this statement about himself that he never lost his love for his roots, that he was religious in his own way, in the best way – for he was one who could say “et ha elohim ani yarei”.

            The episode where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reconciled with them takes place within one chapter. The beginning of it is bound by the question that Joseph asks his brothers “Ha’od avi chai?” -does my father still live?    The end is  marked by Jacob’s disbelieving statement “Rav, Od Yosef b’ni chai”   It is too much – Joseph my son yet lives.

            The echo is too deliberate, too obvious to miss. The whole episode is a complex and beautiful literary structure, and at its heart is the point where Joseph kissed all his brothers, and wept upon them, after which his brothers were able to talk with him.   It is for this that Jacob still lived, for this that Joseph’s life was spared.  The reconciliation enables us to finally close that first chapter in the moral development of humanity, when it can be shown that even great and terrible hurts can be forgiven and laid to rest.  All it takes is  Yirat Adonai:  not the intimate relationship that Adam and Eve had with God, not the fearful and self serving one that Cain had, nor the argumentative one Abraham had, nor the timid one of Isaac nor the bargaining one of Jacob.  The first important person we have in the text  who didn’t have a vision or a face to face conversation was the first person to make explicit that he could see God’s hand in his life.  Joseph was the first to describe God’s part in his misery as well as his great prosperity.  Joseph was the first to lay responsibility not only on his brothers but also on his God.   Yirat Adonai is the prerequisite to relationship with God, it is the first step towards a brit, a covenant of mutual obligation.  With the possible exception of Moses’ view of the back of God, or his death at the kiss of God, we never again see God quite so intimate nor so cosy as he was with the Patriarchs, but Joseph, the link between the Patriarchs and the Peoplehood, gives us another way to God, the way we have to this day.  To live our lives with a sense of the awe and mystery of God, to relate to God as a Power so large and transcendent who yet relates to us, to make our decisions in the light of that sense of God, that is a way to truly be religious.   Whether we are dati or hiloni, Orthodox, orthoprax, scriptural literalists, innovative halachists or identify with any of the many streams within Jewish practise and identity, however we express our religious sense this sidra reminds us that to have a sense of awe about God, to be y’rei Adonai, is the core of our religion. And from this sense of awe and awareness, everything else can flow.