Vayeshev – the transformation from brat to tzadik begins here

The narratives of Joseph occupy a large tranche of the book of Genesis – in the next four weeks we will focus almost entirely on the life and the experiences of this eleventh son of Jacob and first son on Rachel.  By the end of the book of Genesis we’ll know more about Joseph than about anyone else in his family before or since. We’ll know about his dreams, his relationships, his skills, his political exploits, his love affairs, his character flaws and strengths, his successes and his failures; his problems.

The narratives about him are long and somehow ponderous, telling the stories repeatedly, hammering the same points – the sibling rivalry, the parental favoritism, the tricks of hiding precious articles and retrieving them later;   It is hard to understand just why we are told every last detail about the life of this particular man, what we are supposed to make of this weight of information.

Tradition tells us that the stories of Joseph foreshadow the future experiences of Israel.  Reading the text we see that they also reconcile many of the themes that have come before. Joseph acts as a linchpin in the Genesis narratives – reliving and reworking the lives of his ancestors, and finally dealing with some of the issues which had held them back, finishing the business so to speak, and so allowing the people of Israel to move on in their religious journey.

The narratives of Joseph end one chapter of identity and open another.  No longer will individuals know God in the way that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob personally experienced and encountered the Divinity.  With Joseph comes the exile into Egypt which will culminate in Sinai and peoplehood.  A different sort of belonging to God is introduced here – one can not really say people are ‘relating to God,’ because in all of these narratives God is at one remove, a spectator in the story, hardly present except in the shadows at the edge of perception.

The metamorphosis which occurs with the life of Joseph is almost entirely a human one rather than one that speaks of divine interest – though it does have a flavour of fairy tale to it Political rather than theological, the transformation is very much of this world:-  A family changes radically when the favourite child falls victim to his own beliefs.  A poor immigrant succeeds beyond his wildest expectations in his adopted country.  A servant becomes a political master, changing the way the country structures itself and its socio-economic policy.  A slave becomes a prince.  A penniless Jewish refugee with no family or friends builds himself a life amongst a people not his own.

With Joseph we have a new construct with which to view our lives.  He is a Diaspora Jew, maybe even a secular Jew, certainly a political rather than a theological Jew.  Elie Wiesel describes him as “the first person to bridge two nations and two histories, the first to link Israel to the world…. In the context of the biblical narrative he was a new kind of hero heralding a new era…”  (in ‘Joseph, or the Education of a Tzaddik’ – Messengers of God p144/5

So not a patriarch, but certainly a recognizable human being and role model, giving us a different way of being.  Our problem in many ways is that we are far more like Joseph than like anyone else in the narratives – building our world on a political rather than theological basis, allowing God to be a spectator in our lives, at the margins of our identity.  Joseph is a role model with outstanding flaws for us to deal with, focusing so entirely on the present world that he seems to ignore the next one, becoming not so much integrated between two cultures as appearing to be assimilated into one almost without trace of his origins visible.

Yet Joseph is described in tradition as a Tzaddik – a Just and Righteous person.  The weight of the narrative must be trying to tell us something more – Joseph’s position as the mid point between the clearing up of past rivalries and the foreshadowing of future exile and oppression must yield more for us.  Again it is Elie Wiesel who identifies the critical point – “One recognizes the value of a text by the weight of its silence. Here the silence exists, and it weighs heavy…. “ First there is Joseph’s astounding silence during the brutal scene at Shechem, in which all his brothers except Benjamin participated.  When his brothers faced him with their hate – Joseph was mute.  More striking yet is Jacob’s silence – from the day that Joseph was taken we are told, he did not speak for 20 years.  He didn’t even speak to God.  He didn’t search for his son, didn’t go to the place where his son was last seen – he lived instead in a solitary, silent place, only resuming his conversation with and prayers to God after the family reunion, when God encouraged him to go to Egypt.

And what do we make of God’s actions – God too is silent.  Jacob didn’t address God in his interminable inconsolable grief, but neither did God address Jacob.

And Joseph in Egypt, as wealthy political potentate – where were his words, the one’s he could have sent back to Canaan to tell of his life’s story and put his father’s mind at rest?

All the words that began this story, the terrible words that Joseph spoke about his brothers, the words of peace they could barely bring themselves to utter, the words of his dreams, the words he was to bring back to his father – all those words at the beginning of Joseph’s stories descended into silence when Joseph descended into the pit, and the silence became heavier and heavier until the moment of the family reunion in Egypt, until Joseph could no longer suppress the words, no longer restrain himself.  But this time his words were changed, they became the words of a man who had transformed himself, not just from the arrogant sibling who considered that the universe should worship him, into  caring and beneficent brother;    not just from immigrant slave to ruling prince.  The transformation was from spoiled and self-centered brat into Tzaddik, a man able to forgive the wrongs done to him, a man able to transcend his history and reflect not only his humanity, but the reflection of God that is at the core of all humanity.   The heavy silence was not a time of nothingness but a time of real change, change that ultimately allows us to move on from the preoccupations of this world – the rivalries and jealousies, the acquisitiveness and the defence of the self – and move into the book of Exodus, into the beginning of the redemption.

Tradition tells us that Joseph was a Tzaddik.  A Tzaddik not because God had made him one, not because he was brought up to be one, not even because his life inevitably trained him to be one.  Joseph was surely a Tzaddik because in the face of the pain of his conception and the difficulties of his upbringing, in the face of his own weaknesses and drives,  he still managed to overcome his experiences and actually transform himself, actually allow his humanity to develop, to become something he didn’t have to be, without any supernatural help.  Everyone else changed as a result of their encounters with God. Joseph changed despite not encountering God in any observable way.  As a role model, this is the Joseph we should be reflecting – not the assimilated but the searching Jew, who found God in the unlikeliest places because God is there to be found.

 

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.