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.

 

Shemini: When Silence is the only response

One of the saddest moments in bible is found in Shemini – Aaron and his sons have just been inaugurated as priests in a week long ceremony and now the tent of meeting is being dedicated. The first offering is given by Aaron and is accepted as a fire descends from the heavens to consume it. The people bow down and worship. And then Nadav and Avihu the two older sons of Aaron offer a strange fire before God and the fire descends once more from the heavens – to consume their lives.

Aaron’s response – “va’yidom Aharon” – is to be silent. How can this be? To have finally reached the climax of priesthood only to see two children of your children destroyed by the object of that ministry. To be a father twice bereaved yet not to protest and shout out. Why does Torah tell us that Aaron, the man whose speech was smooth and fluent and who would act as the mouthpiece of his brother Moses in Egypt, had no words at this moment?

Words can be so healing – we are taught always to express clearly what we need in order to communicate with others, to use words to acknowledge our feelings be they painful or joyous. From private prayer to modern psychotherapy we are taught about the power of words to change or to complete us. Creation begins with words: God speaks and creation comes about. We transmit our tradition in storytelling, we see ourselves as a people who argue with God, who are not ever silenced – we are a noisy, challenging people who will argue with a text, giving voices to the long dead sages of our tradition. Yet “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). And this silence is seen in our tradition as a right and proper response – the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah comments on this verse: “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Clearly we have to look deeper. Why is the silence of a man so unfairly hit by tragedy seen in our tradition as a response to be rewarded? Why should he not be crying out against a God who did not protect the young men whose only wrong seems to have been an excess of religious fervour, who certainly did not deserve to die?

In the Talmud we find the statement that “the world is preserved only because of those who stop themselves from speaking out in difficult moments of strife” (B.T. Hullin 89a). We also find that it is an attribute of God to be seen to be silent at such times, – a rereading of the verse ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ is understood not as “who is like you amongst the Elim – the mighty gods of other peoples”, but rather as “Who is like You, able to be silent?” – “Ilmim” (BT Gittin 66a). Sometimes silence is the only response. Anything else would diminish the enormity of the experience.

In Jewish tradition one does not speak to a mourner until the mourner speaks to you. It is a tradition that understands the depth of grief. When grief is intense any statement is bound at best to be irrelevant and at worst a serious intrusion. That is not to say we ignore a mourner or their grief, we do not cross the street to avoid meeting them nor leave them in their pain – but there is a communication that surpasses language, which any words would disrupt or divert. In mourning that may be simply sitting with and being with the mourner, in shared silence. It may be a warm embrace or a fleeting touch of the hand. It may be a meeting of the eye, a moment of contact which says “I am here and I care”. There is nothing more to offer than the compassionate presence – certainly there is nothing further to say.

There are times in our history when words are not just unhelpful – they might be actively destructive, causing a break in the relationships between us or between us and God. And these are the times when the silence of Aaron becomes understandable.

The text emphasizes that Aaron’s two elder sons were acting “before the Eternal.” Both the offerings they made and their death were “before the Eternal.” The plain sense of the text indicates that, apparently moved by religious fervour, they added an extra incense to the usual incense offering without having been commanded to do so. That is all. One would have thought this is no great crime for young men who have just finished their priestly training and are one day into the work. They are simply intoxicated with the role, acting out of extraordinary piety to add yet more offerings to God. At most they are guilty of what we are told in a later passage in Leviticus – that “They drew too close to the presence of God” (Leviticus 16:1). Surely we could expect for Aaron to respond to their violent and sudden deaths by arguing with God, just as Moses had done on several occasions before this. Surely Aaron could justify the actions of his sons to God and demand some compassionate – even miraculous – response. But Aaron was silent. He made no attempt to communicate his anguish – and surely his anger – to God.

This is unusual in our picture of Aaron, which has been improved in rabbinic teachings so that he becomes an active pursuer of peace (Avot 1:12 etc), a man who advocates peace and who is the earliest practitioner of what we now call “shuttle diplomacy. Yet in this situation his skills are redundant. There is nothing to do, nothing to say. His tragedy is too raw, too personal, too much. Should he speak what could he say? If he is able to put into words even the smallest part of his pain he would surely only create a rift between himself and God – how could he not? And what benefit would his speech produce? God is clearly not going to perform a miracle, turn back time, resurrect his dead. There is nothing, nothing at all, he can say.

This week we will be commemorating an event as raw, as incomprehensible, as painful as the event in Shemini – it will be Yom HaShoah and we will be coming together to be with each other in order to remember. But what will be able to say in the face of the enormity, the singular extra-ordinary time when our people were persecuted and destroyed with terrifying efficiency on a grand scale by national governments? There are those who railed against God, whose words led them to a permanent rift, losing their faith and any possibility of comfort from our Jewish God. There are those who attempted to make sense, who spoke of the implicit guilt of the victims – just as there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu must have been guilty of arrogance or even idolatry. And those whose attempts to make sense of the Shoah lead them to see the State of Israel as having emerged from it as a sort of divine compensation. There are those who are able to forgive God for the silence in the Shoah, but will never forgive people and so live lives of alienation and bitterness. But any response is too small, too diminishing of the event, pointless. Some things require us not to understand, not to argue against, not to justify nor to console – they are things about which the only response is a silence in which we can be. Not a silence that suppresses or ignores, but a silent being together.

During the service of brit milah (circumcision) there is a verse taken from the book of Exodus about the blood of the Passover lamb – God says “va’omar lach b’damayich chayee” –I say to you by your blood you shall live. The Dubner Maggid asks – why the extra word – lach – for you? And answers his own question – this is about the precious blood that is spilled – God will respond, will not leave you in despair. But B’damayich chayee can also be translated a different way – damayich does not have to mean ‘your blood’ but ‘your silence’. Sometimes it is only with silence that we can go on – any other response would be too destructive to us, would drag us into a vortex of pain from which we would be unable to emerge.

I cannot find it in me to believe that the shedding of blood is the call to which God will always respond, regardless of the teachings of our tradition. But I can understand the need for silence, that silence sometimes is the only thing that will allow us to go on, to not be desperately searching all the time for an elusive explanation, for a response that will make sense, for a grand plan in which such terrible sacrifice is given honourable meaning. Like Aaron knew, some things are beyond words, beyond reason, beyond our ability to contain or order their meaning. Sometimes you just have to simply be, to witness, to remember, and to be with the people who themselves experienced the horror in compassionate wordless togetherness.