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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Parshat Vayigash: The Reunion

As I mentioned in the introduction to the midrash I posted this past Shabbat, I have returned with another installment of the story of Joseph and the ego.

Last Shabbat we read Parshat Vayigash (Bereshit/Genesis 44:18-47:27). This is the dénouement of the saga of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. The narrative begins with Judah offering himself as a replacement for Benjamin, whom Joseph is going to keep as a slave.  This after Joseph had his silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s bag in order to test the brothers.  Judah, who had been intimately involved in throwing Joseph into the pit and selling him into slavery, becomes therefore becomes the hero of this story.

When Judah pleads with Joseph to take him, it is too much for Joseph to bear.  He orders his servants to leave the room and reveals himself to Jacob’s other 11 sons as their long-lost brother Joseph.  Having already broken into tears twice in the previous parashah, he does so once again; this time a cry that can be heard throughout the house of Pharaoh issues from his mouth.  It was as if the pain of what happened to him in Canaan merged with the joy coming from the realization that his brothers had actually changed, and so this cry encompassed the entire spectrum of human emotion.

The bravery of Judah as he offers himself in Benjamin’s place is the highlight of this saga as I see it.  It is a symbol of our ability to change; Joseph’s ultimate reaction symbolizes our capacity for reconciliation.  And yet, in the ancient rabbinic tradition, Judah’s reaction is often portrayed differently.  Ignoring the pshat (surface meaning) of the text, the rabbis imagined Judah standing up to Joseph not with grace and courage, but filled with anger and vengeance.

In her exquisite analysis of the book of Genesis/Bereshit entitled Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Jewish Publication Society, 1995) Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes: in“a whole range of midrashim, Judah’s speech is not simply a plea for mercy: it becomes an angry, reproachful, even menacing attack on Joseph.  The very thought of separating Benjamin from his brothers—Joseph’s judicious sentence, with its prospect of shalom, ‘peace,’ for the other brothers—sends Judah into a paroxysm of rage.”

When Joseph tells his brothers to return to their father in shalom and leave Benjamin with him, Judah, in common parlance, goes ballistic.  He literally wrestles Joseph (still incognito).  In the variations of this theme, the story ends with Joseph revealing to himself not out of love, but in order to stop Judah before he defeats him.  In other words, he reveals himself in order to save face before the Egyptians.  In all of these midrashim the “encounter is marked by anger, royal power, and menace on the side of Judah, and by a strategic retreat on the part of Joseph…[Judah] speaks harshly, challenging the ruler with all of his personal power, attacking him for his past dealings with the brothers…” (Zornberg, pp 319-20).

As Zornberg states, these interpretations don’t exactly sit well with the Torah text.  In her further analysis, she focuses more on the issue of shalom (see above) as the root of Judah’s anger.  She posits that shalom, which means wholeness as well as peace, had been the ideal of Jacob’s family.  The birth of 12 sons was seen as a sign of the wholeness of his house, since 12 is a number of cosmic completion, as with the zodiac.  The loss of Joseph was a “fracture of that symbolic wholeness”.  She also recounts that, when Joseph was attacked by his brothers, he had been on a mission from Jacob to “seek the shalom, the peace, of your brothers and of the sheep [they were tending]”.  While on this mission, he is cast into a pit and eventually sold into slavery.  Believing that his son Joseph was dead, the shalom, both peace and wholeness, of Jacob and his family was irrevocably shattered.

These are other overtones of which neither Joseph nor Judah is aware, but which catch the reader’s eye in with the repetition of the word shalom.  When the brothers return from Canaan with Benjamin, Joseph inquires of the shalom of their father.  The brothers reply “it is well (there is shalom) with your servant, our father.”

And now, Joseph (still unknown to his brothers) has the nerve to tell his brothers that they should leave Jacob and Rachel’s only other son, Benjamin, the beloved son of Jacob’s old age, and return le’shalom, in or to peace.  But Judah knows that there can be no wholeness and no peace, for his father or for the brothers, if Benjamin remains.  And so, he stands up to the second most powerful man in Egypt with power and passion.

This interpretation fascinates me, not only because it turns the entire text on its head, but because it is so blatantly evident that the rabbis created these narratives to further elevate Judah, the namesake of the kingdom of Judea and the Jewish people, over Joseph.  That these were written at a time when the Jewish people did not have any political or military power, it wasn’t enough for Judah to simply show his moral fiber. He needed to be a strong and mighty hero.  He needed to be the “lion” of Judah defeating the “ox” of Joseph.  These being the two animals to which the brothers will be compared by Jacob in his deathbed blessing.

But this interpretation also fascinates me as part of the narrative of the ego which I have been writing these past few weeks.  At first glance, I was unable to see a connection, but something Zornberg wrote put this into perspective.  She reminds the reader that classical midrashim (and other rabbinic texts) portray the young Joseph as someone whose actions actually destroy shalom.  We know from the Torah that he told everyone about his dreams that seemed to represent his brothers and father eventually bowing down to him. But, beyond that, midrashim claim that Joseph would take any opportunity he could to tell of his brothers’ various misdeeds to their father.  It wasn’t enough that he was already the favorite son.  He needed to insure that this would never change by telling tales, perhaps even lies, in order to discredit his brothers in their father’s eyes.

If this isn’t ego, then what is?  For the ego’s objective is to keep itself at the center by convincing us that we are the most important person in the universe.  The whole world revolves around us.  And if there is any chance that this façade may be destroyed, then the ego will do whatever it must in order to maintain its primacy.  It will do it’s best to convince us that others don’t matter.  This parallels how Joseph (in midrash) did all he could to insure that his father would remember that his brothers mattered much less than did he, for they were not worthwhile, honest individuals.

And now we jump ahead to the confrontation between Joseph and Judah as portrayed in midrash.  We know from the Torah that Judah has changed.  He is not the one willing to sell his brother into slavery.  He is now not only strong and sure of himself, but he realizes that there are forces bigger than he, and other people more important than he.  It is his duty to maintain or rebuild wholeness in his family, and in the world, by insuring that another beloved son of Jacob does not disappear.  He is the antithesis of ego.

But Joseph does not see this initially, for he is still ego. All he sees is a further opportunity to torture is brothers and assert his primacy.  The brothers are at a disadvantage at the start.  For they can only see part of the picture, as they do not know it is Joseph standing before them.  However, Joseph, as ego, sees the whole picture and takes full advantage of this.  It’s easy to say that he is just testing his brothers by toying with Benjamin.  Yet, it is never clear until the very moment of his revelation that he ever intended to do anything other than keep Benjamin, his only “full” brother, for himself.  For that is simply what he wanted.

In the Torah narrative, what changes his mind is the compassion exhibited by Judah.  In the midrash, it is the courage, brute strength and anger that forces him to release Benjamin.  Still, he does so not totally of his own volition.

When trying to negate the ego, both of these traits are necessary.  We must have compassion on ourselves.  After all, we are human and we have active egos.  And with compassion, even the ego can ultimately realize that we are all One.  But the compassion must be wedded to strength, because the ego doesn’t give up easily.

And so, if Joseph revealed himself as written in the Torah, it was because his compassion was further awakened by Judah's compassion. If the revelation took place as in the midrash, it is because he realized that he had no choice.  It was a last ditch effort to save face motivated by both fear and a little pride, but in reaction to Judah’s power.

As Judy Chicago wrote in her poem Mergers, the world will be  “Eden once again” when “compassion is wedded to power.”  We are prone to view one as negative and the other as positive.  However, as with everything, these are both labels that we (or the ego) create.  For neither is inherently good or bad. They simply are.  They are both necessary in life, and together they can overcome pride and ego.

When compassionate power (or powerful compassion) brings down the ego, it is like when Joseph stepped down from his place of power and separation in order to embrace his brothers and interconnection.  It is important to note that he is no longer focused just on Benjamin, the favored brother that was most like him (oh, how the ego would love that), but all of the brothers.  And this will lead to the ultimate reunion with Jacob.  This reunion is Joseph’s return to his source, the One.  It is the uniting of all the seemingly disparate parts into a spiritual whole.  This is his return to a place of true shalom, both peace and wholeness.  This is place from where we all come and to which we will all return if we walk the path with both compassion and strength together, one step at a time.

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