Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Father Knows Best: Parshat Vayshev

By Annie Levy

Verse Per Verse

To paraphrase the famous Phil Larkin quote,
"They mess you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you."

Jacob's life was shaped through parental favoritism. He was his mother's favored son, just as his own father, Isaac, was ultimately preferred over Abraham's other son, Ishmael. So maybe we can't be too hard on Jacob for his part in Joseph's seemingly inflated sense of self; for Jacob, favoring one child above the other is learned behavior, bordering on hereditary. But now the stakes are higher; this is a big family and there are many additional bigger, stronger siblings noting the imbalance of paternal affection.

We have arrived at Vayeshev, the story of Joseph, he of the notorious colorful coat, where being your father's favorite leads to a complicated journey to identity. Although the parsha begins with Jacob being settled in the "land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan," this story will unsettle us, literally, and lead us down into Egypt where we will remain until our hard earned exodus.

But before Joseph gets sold into slavery, before being put in charge of the house of Potiphar, before he ends up in prison an accused rapist and before he becomes dream interpreter to his fellow incarcerated, before the story we know so well where we all end up in Egypt, there is small moment, a brief interchange that serves as the point of no return for Joseph.

When Jacob sends Joseph out to join his bothers, after Joseph has raised familial tension levels to their boiling point by recounting his dreams, Joseph reaches Shechem, the place where Simon and Levi enacted their form of justice for the rape of Dinah, as commanded by his father. But his brothers are nowhere to be found. There is a great moment of disorientation and listlessness on Joseph's part when he arrives in Shechem and his brothers are not there. Indeed, he is described in the Torah as "wandering" or "blundering" or "straying" in a field. There are not many moments in Torah when a person loses his way, even temporarily, so this is a moment begging to marked.

And when we look, what do we see? It is an important moment for the young Joseph– life as he knows it is about to end completely, forcing him to embark on a strange new journey unlike anything he has dreamed about. But he has inherited such a moment as this from his father, whether he knows it or not. Jacob has had two such life altering moments so far in his life, moments prior to great change. The first was the night Jacob ran away from home after fooling his father into giving him his brother Esau's blessing and birthright. The second was the night before Jacob is reunited with his brother for the first time after stealing the birthright. On both occasions and in both prolonged moments, Jacob is visited by the divine: Once through a vision where heaven and earth connect and once through a wrestling match where Jacob and heaven connect and Jacob is renamed Y'srael.

Now, nothing seemingly as dramatic happens to Joseph in this, his crossroad moment, just a brief encounter with a man who has seen the missing brothers and thinks he overheard them say that they were pushing on to a different location, Dothan. The name `Dothan' can come from the word `dath' meaning justice or law (Moshe Reiss). Is Joseph being summoned to his brother's justice? Or perhaps this just proves we often do not know the significant role we play in each other's lives. Joseph presses on after his brothers and whatever will be, will be.

So who is this man who alters the course of one man's life? Maimonides suggests that this man is an angel, sent to make sure that Joseph completes the journey his father sent him on and thus begins the journey he is destined to take. This is interesting to note, considering that God never does speak to Joseph directly, in stark comparison to his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Perhaps this is why Robert Alter argues that trying to see the man as "a messenger of fate" has "little textual warrant," but the point is Joseph is being "directed… to a disastrous encounter." (This makes the man a prime example of what Free to Be, You and Me will later describe as offering "the kind of help we all can do without.") But, Rambam points out that, no matter who this man is, angel, messenger, bystander, his words have larger significance than his intentions in speaking them. For this journey that his words will force Joseph to take will fulfill the prophecy made to Abraham, his great grandfather, many years before. Thus leading us right back to the Larkin quote, "They may not mean to, but they do…"

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this is so interesting. And it makes me think about giving advice--the opportunities we all have to become "messengers of fate" for other people.

    As I've gotten older, I've really tried very hard to stop giving advice. It's not easy! I never know what impact my advice will have on someone else, and what happens if they follow it? I am responsible then! The problem is that I will never truly know what it feels like to stand in someone else's shoes, to be in that particular situation. So sometimes what seems obviously and objectively "right" to me is not always the right thing for that particular person to do at that particular time. I might mess that person up.

    All this being said, there must be times when it is proper for me to show some chutzpah and give that advice. Times when an intervention of sorts is necessary. Times when people do need to be pointed in a certain direction--if it is for their own good.

    I now have a friend who works himself to death. He is killing himself. He is always exhausted. And he believes that to be successful in his chosen career (his passion), he must constantly work at it. Do I strongly advise him to slow down? Because in truth, this hard work IS getting him places. And it probably is necessary for him to reach the level of success he dreams about. But it's unhealthy, as far as I can see. Do I choose to be a messenger of fate for him? (Not that he has to listen, but what is the point of giving advice if you do not think there is at least the chance the other person is going to take it?)

    Anyhow, a rant. Fascinating blog.