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.

 

God learns about humanity, and God and Noah learn to live with imperfection

Parashat Noach contains both the story of the Great Flood with Noah and the Rainbow, and the story of the Tower of Babel. It is the source of much of what our children think they know about the bible and all of us probably have in our head the picture of the Ark with a giraffe’s head popping out of the roof, and a tower that looks quite a lot like the one at Pisa.

But there is SO much more to these stories than nursery decorations and we read them as fluffy children’s stories to the detriment of our understanding about what religion is really for.

For what we see in parashat Noach is the first description of God learning in response to the actions of humankind. And we begin to see humanity also starting to learn something important about what we are, and what God is. In last week’s sidra we read about the two different creation stories, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the first murder – fratricide – in the story of Cain and Abel. It ends with God’s dismay at the evil humanity has committed on the earth and the decision to blot out everything created, with the exception of Noach.  Almost as if the Creation was a hobby to be done and erased at a whim.

Now Noach is problematic in so many ways. He never speaks to God at all, either to agree or to argue.  Nor does he speak to the other people in the world to warn them to change their ways and repent in order to gain God’s favour. He takes his time getting on to the boat, only doing so when the rising waters force him to do so, leading rabbinic commentators to suggest his faith is not so strong after all. His first act on returning to dry land is to build an altar (the first ever to do so in bible), and then to sacrifice by burning fully some of the animals he has saved.  He builds a vineyard and makes wine, he gets drunk and his sons see his nakedness. He curses the children of Ham who was the son who had seen him and told the others.  

He isn’t exactly the role model we would like to have had, and yet we are all b’nei Noach, the descendants of Noach – we have to deal with the flawed and slightly repellent individual the bible depicts in the text. And so does God. God has to see that Creation can’t be erased and rebuilt repeatedly; that built into humanity is a series of flaws that we – and God – just have to deal with.  The text tells us that when God smelled the olah, the burned offering that was sacrificed on the very first altar with the intention of creating a conduit between human beings and God, then God paid attention, smelled the sweet savour and resolved never again to curse the ground for the sake of humankind. And that God did so BECAUSE God understood that humanity is essentially and integrally imperfect. God resolves that whatever Creation is, God will work with it rather than try to suppress or destroy its reality.  And of course the sign of the promise from God is the rainbow, a symbol both of violence and of the beauty to be found even in the most grim of situations.

So both humanity (in the guise of Noach), and God demonstrate in this sidra that there is finally an understanding on both sides of our frailty and likelihood to mess up. And both humanity and God begin to see that once we acknowledge the shortcomings we have, we can get on with living better. God changes the divine mind, and Noach tries, albeit with some hiccups, to deal with all the things life has thrown at him. 

There are of course some that he simply can’t deal with. He is a survivor of catastrophe and he drinks in order to blot out memories. He has poor relations with his youngest son Ham, though he manages to relate rather better to Shem and Japhet, albeit in a way that could be seen by modern eyes as divisive of them. He has saved the world and allowed it to be destroyed at the same time.

What we know after the stories of Noach is that humanity is always going to be complicated, fraught, dafka – but that we will continue to try to reach God in our own imperfect ways, and that if we do so, then God will always respond. God may not like it, but is resigned to our deficiencies. We may not like all that God does, but are prepared to challenge and if necessary to forgive God. Our relationship isn’t perfect, there is an element of co-dependency, but together we and God find how to live with each other in the world we are jointly responsible for maintaining.

Not really a story for the kids after all.