Monthly Archives: November 2013

Parashat Mikeitz: The Sons of Ya’akov, Am Yisrael

Parashat Mikeitz picks up right in the middle of the grand saga of Yoseph’s life. After having shared his prophetic dreams of glory with his family, and having been clearly favored by his father for reporting on his brothers, these brothers sold him into slavery. This section begins with Yoseph’s rise to power in the Pharaoh’s court as a dream interpreter, and the eventual appearance of his brothers in search of relief from the famine that had stricken the region. In this narrative, we see one of the greatest pieces of family drama in the Torah. Packaged in this story is a glimpse into the very nature of human experience and relationship.

Yoseph’s seat of power in the Pharaoh’s administration, and his adoption of Egyptian dress and custom, prevent his brothers from recognizing him. While the drama plays out we get a rare view of both sides of the story. The Torah is renowned for its pregnant silence in the background of ostensibly emotional scenes, most notably in the near silence between Avraham and Yitzhak during the Aqeidah, but here we are given a candid view of emotion attempting to be hidden by Yoseph and his brothers. We are not only shown Yoseph’s private tears in response to seeing his brothers and finding out that his father is still alive, but we are also shown many of the individual brothers’ responses to the situation they are in.

Throughout the rest of the parshah the narrative is one of manipulation, personal growth, and the beginnings of familial reconciliation. Dramas play out within the family between the patriarch and the many sons, and between Yoseph and his brothers. The most striking aspect of the whole process is the emotional development and exchange of these characters. Simultaneously, we get little to no hint of God throughout. God is evoked only in the speech of the characters and does nothing to intervene or affect the story. Instead we have pure human drama laid bare before us.

Rashi, the 11th century French interpreter of Torah, picked up on this trend as well. He noticed a slight grammatical switch in one line (Gen. 42:3). Rashi noticed that when the brothers decide to go down to Egypt to retrieve food, they are counted separately as Yoseph’s brothers, as opposed to Yaakov’s sons. Rashi sees this as hinting at the fact that each of the brothers had his own personal reaction to the situation due to their own individual relationships with Yoseph. This development of individual characters in their own private relation to their situations shows just how lost in ourselves we can get.

In a way, this is the first time we’re shown the truly individual aspect of human life in the Torah. Although the brothers are together, and Yoseph has his Egyptian helpers, these characters are all shown trapped in their own individual lives. Yoseph can not break character, the brothers individually try different ways to figure out how to work around the series of events orchestrated by Yoseph, and all the while all are struggling with the guilt and hurt of their past actions. This complex interweaving of personal responses to a collective past, from Yoseph’s alienation and hiding from his brothers to his brothers’ confusion and guilt,  is a parallel to our own relationship to Judaism.

In our story today we can see the roots of the conflicts in the Jewish world, be they personal or cultural, within our families and our relations between denominations. Guilt and lack of understanding, and the attempt to hide both of these emotions, pervade all of the conflicts that I have experienced within the contemporary Jewish world. These are the very themes underlying every moment of the drama between Yoseph and his brothers. I have certainly played both the part of the one hiding behind the other culture while trying to tease out the intentions of my more traditional brother, and I have played the role of the traditional element attempting to understand the hidden agenda of my hiding brother.

At the end of this week’s portion very little is resolved, but Yehudah, the brother whose idea it was to sell Yoseph into slavery, accepts responsibility for his brother Binyamin in the face of Yoseph’s demanding him as a slave. This one step into responsibility that ends the Parshah is the beginning of the end of the lies and deceit surrounding the brothers. Yehudah’s step in the right direction, displaying loyalty and the bravery to take responsibility for his brother rather than selling him into slavery, shows us our own path to resolution within our lives. In spite of our differences and the histories we may have, Am Yisrael is a family. It is a family with many facets which often clash and disagree. Today we are just like this first generation of the nation of Israel, Israel’s direct sons who are the main characters of this Torah portion. In this story, they show us that we needn’t agree, or be exactly the same, but that we must be responsible for each other, and have the bravery to display this responsibility. The future of today’s Jewish family has yet to be written, but let us use the example of the sons of Yaakov, the sons of Israel, to reconcile Am Yisrael once again.

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Parashat Vayishlah – The Past is Never Behind You

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, is the last act of the story of Yaakov. His

transformation from trickster to prince, as the 11th century French interpreter Rashi puts

it, is central to this parshah. Is it really a transformation, though? Is true transformation

even really possible for us fickle human beings? Yaakov’s story gives a guide to the ways

in which we do and do not change, and most importantly, how we can never truly be free

of our past.

 

Vayishlah begins with Yaakov being confronted with the possibility of seeing his brother

Esav again after many years apart. The last time they met, Yaakov tricked him out of his

birthright and fled in the face of Esav’s death threats. Now, Yaakov is returning to the

land of his father with wealth and a family, and sends gifts to attempt to appease Esav

as still he fears his brother’s wrath. In spite of the many years spent away, marrying two

women, and building a family and a fortune, Yaakov is forced to face his past, embodied

in his brother.

 

Right before Yaakov finally meets with Esav again, a being comes and wrestles with

him through the night. As dawn breaks, and Yaakov is winning, the being tells Yaakov

to let him go. Yaakov refuses to until the being, often thought of in tradition as an angel,

blesses him. The being then renames him Yisrael, proclaiming that it is a symbol of his

successful struggles with men and with the divine.

 

Rashi interprets this name change from Yaakov, with a Hebrew root that is related to

trickery and deceit, to Yisrael, with a Hebrew root related to nobility, as an integral shift

in Yaakov’s character. Furthermore, he interprets the next line, when Yaakov asks the

angel its name and the angel responds, “Why do you ask me my name?” as telling us that

angels, in fact, have no fixed names and that they change according to the mission that

they are on.

 

Angels, then, are bereft of past and future: Their names unfixed, their short-term purposes

defining their very existence. In Jewish tradition humans and angels are often compared

to each other with angels tending to complain about the humans silly choices. Here we

may get a look into why our tradition would hold us up and against the angels. They help

define our relationship to our world and to God by showing us what we aren’t.

If angels are defined specifically for one purpose, with their very identities erased and

changed at their purpose’s completion, we are the exact opposite. The rest of this week’s

Torah portion displays this as Yaakov’s past as a trickster catches up to him in many

different ways. In spite of his attempt to put the past behind him, and to even tell Esav

that stealing the birthright wasn’t particularly beneficial to him anyway, Yaakov’s

children reflect his trickster roots through multiples acts of deceit and trickery.

Looking at Vayishlah from this perspective gives us a peek at our own relationship to our

past and our future. Even if we make changes as drastic as those that Yaakov made, we

can never escape our past. We can even confront our past and attempt to grow beyond the

things we feel are holding us back, but still, we can never truly get rid of them. Unlike

angels, our names don’t change based on our given objective at any individual time. Our

past tails us, ever connected to our present, ever coloring our future. We can strive, and

progress and improve so much that we may warrant a change of name like Yaakov, but

even then we cannot simply detach from our past.

 

Although this may sound like we are trapped the other option is much less attractive.

Without this continual growth and building of history attached to our names our lives

would cease to have the deep meaning we can now derive from them. Without a past to

regard and move forward from we too, like the angels, would be without identity, stuck in

an ever-present now that changed our very essence every time we completed a task. But

this is not the world assigned to us – this is the world, according to the Jewish tradition,

assigned to angels.

 

We are instead gifted with the ability for growth in a long stream of acts and deeds that

define us well after their completion. Interestingly enough, this Torah portion displays

that through Yaakov’s name being changed. But is his name changed? Throughout the

rest of Genesis, the character is still consistently referred to as Yaakov, alongside his new

name Yisrael.

 

As I have grown older, and collected all the more experience and baggage, I’ve found

that the past re-emerges in ways one would never expect. People you believed you would

never see again reappear when least expected, words you let loose into the world come

back to haunt you, and actions you thought would never have any consequence can

return to shift your life’s path entirely. We are not independent agents, floating in an

ever-present now like the angels, defined only by a singular task which upon completion

will wipe out our very identities. Unlike an angel, Yaakov never transformed fully into

Yisrael, but added an extra layer on to his person as he grew and changed. Just like

Yaakov we are growing, evolving, and changing individuals, allowed to experience the

shift from the past to the present to the future, all the while never leaving our past behind

us, but instead continuing to learn and grow from these experiences.

Parashah Toldot: Dysfunction, Redemption and Learning to Swim

The story of Yitzhak and Rivkah’s sons Yaakov and Esav is a compelling and difficult one. In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov , the eventual namesake of the people of Israel, is seen committing some very questionable acts. His brother, Esav, is clearly not the brightest human being, and we see Yaakov tricking him out of all of the inheritance that he believed he was to receive from his father. The first time, Yaakov takes advantage of Esav’s ravenous hunger, and makes him pledge his birthright for a bowl of stew. The second time, under his mother Rivkah’s recommendation and with a great deal of her help, Yaakov tricks his now-blind father into believing that he is Esav coming for his deathbed blessing. Not quite the behavior we’d expect or desire from the person who gave his name to Israel.

 

The name of this week’s parshah is Toldot, or generations in English. Prior to the story of Yaakov and Esav, we are given a narrative of Yitzhak repeating almost exactly his own father Avraham’s ambulations around the land of Canaan. On the same theme, our introduction to the story of Yaakov and Esav is focused on parental favoritism, Yitzhak favoring Esav, and Rivkah favoring Yaakov. When looked at from a zoomed out lens, we see what this parsha is really about – trans-generational relationships.

 

If we accept this as being the main theme of Toldot, then we should take a step back and not just look at condemning Yaakov, but instead figure out what the generational factors here are. It is clear that Rivkah pushes him towards some of his behavior, and it is also quite clear that his father’s affections are showered upon his brother and withheld from him. It’s a common trope today, in our post-Freudian world, to focus on how our parents messed us up, and how our foibles and failings can be traced back to their foibles and failings. Looking at Toldot, we see that this certainly isn’t a new idea.

 

So was this behavior Yaakov’s fault? Was it Yitzhak and Rivkah’s? Even Avraham and Sarah’s? Are our own failings ours, or are they our parents’? The Babylonian Talmud teaches us that a father’s responsibility to his son is “to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim too“ (Kiddushin 29a).

 

The first three responsibilities are the religious traditions of circumcision, redemption of the firstborn from God via paying a Kohen, and teaching Torah, but the last three are quite practical. The Talmud goes on into pages and pages of debating and interpreting what each of these things means, except for the responsibility to teach a child to swim in which there is no debate, only an explanation that “his life may depend on it” (Kiddushin 30b).

 

So it goes with the relationship between parents and children. For every attempt to do the right thing, either by teaching your child correctly, or living up to your parents’ expectations, there is always another way to interpret or debate the outcome. It is always possible to blame yourself for your child’s failings, or take credit for your child’s successes. It is similarly always possible to blame your parents for your failings, or to credit them your successes. In the end, one can never truly know which pieces of their parents’ parenting or their own parenting have affected the eventual outcome. Foresight and hindsight are both almost impossible when attempting to uncover which pieces of these very basic relationships will be highlighted in the future or have colored our lives.

 

I think that we can absolve Yaakov of at least some of his guilt through an acknowledgment of this reality of the relationship between the parent and child. This trickster-like behavior was clearly being taught to him by his mother as a way of gaining the attention and affection of his aloof father. In a way, we can see this parshah as all prelude to the fruition of Yaakov into Yisrael which comes later in Bereishit. By suspending our own judgment we can see the tragedy in the way the portion, which is Yaakov’s entire youth, plays out.

What a child takes from a parent’s attempts at education is out of control of the parent; what a parent does to attempt to educate a child is out of control of the child. In spite of our choices to trick our brothers, push our children to do the wrong thing, or disrespectfully swindle our parents, as we continue to live we gain new chances to do the right thing. The Talmud’s clarity on why it is important to teach your child to swim is clear. In my opinion, though, the swimming that the Talmud is referring to is not simply swimming. It is the knowledge one needs to continue moving forward in the world; to continue receiving the chance to make the right choices that will redeem his or her life. Yaakov’s redemption through his own actions later in the Torah show us that the indiscretion of youth, or the damaging meddling of passive aggressive parents, is not something that stands alone as a root of human development and personality. In Yaakov’s youth and family we can see our own, and in his later redemption we see hope for ourselves and our own families.

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