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Friday, December 16, 2011

Parshat Va'yeishev: Living in the Shalshelet

This week we begin reading the story of Joseph with Parshat Va'yeishev (Bereshit/Genesis 37:1- 40:23). In this parashah we read of Joseph's contentious relationship with his brothers, his receiving of an “ornamental tunic” (read: Technicolor Dreamcoat) as a sign of his father's favoritism and of his dreams which seem to symbolize that his family members would some day bow down to him.

Then Joseph is thrown into a pit by his brothers and eventually they sell him to a traveling nomadic caravan rather than kill him. The brothers convince Jacob that Joseph must have been killed. Once the caravan arrives in Egypt, Joseph is sold as a slave to Potiphar. While in Potiphar's house, his (nameless) wife attempts to seduce Joseph numerous times, but to no avail. We read of her first attempt, “After a time, his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, 'Lie with me. But he refused (Genesis 39:8).” In her final attempt, she grabs hold of Joseph's garment and again exclaims “Lie with me!” Joseph breaks free and runs away, leaving his garment in the hands of Potiphar's wife. She accuses him of attacking her and he is thrown in jail.

I would like to focus specifically on the phrase “but he refused.” In Hebrew this phrase is one word, vay'ma'ein. But there is something unique about this word. For in the Torah text there are cantillation marks that were added in order to tell the Torah reader how each word or phrase should be chanted in synagogue. The mark above vay'ma'ein is called a shalshelet and it only appears four times in the entire Torah. Therefore, it is always interpreted as having special meaning. The shalshelet is a wavering note that is held for a long period of time. For this reason, the traditional interpretation is that it reflects ambivalence on the part of Joseph. Rather than being the virtuous man immediately refusing her advances, he does indeed consider her demand before refusing. But, there is more to it.

In his commentary on the parashah ( my friend Joseph Shapiro likens the confrontation between Joseph and Potiphar's wife to his own experience being married to a woman and eventually finding the courage to come out to her as being gay. We know that Rashi (12th century France) wrote that “although Joseph was indeed seventeen,[he is called a na'ar/youth because] he ‘behaved like a boy, penciling his eyes, curling his hair and lifting his heels’ (Genesis Rabbah 84:7).” I am not suggesting that the rabbis of old believed that Joseph was gay or transgender. However, a number of contemporary commentators and scholars have remarked on how Joseph was seen as defying what we consider to be traditional gender stereotypes, which both feminized Joseph and showed him to be different than everyone else. And so for many LGBTQ folks struggling with identity, the Joseph narrative is one that rings true.

In Shapiro's commentary, he focuses on Joseph refusing to submit to Potiphar's wife numerous times. Joseph finally flees the scene, leaving his garment in her hand, rather than succumb to her demands to "lie with me." She cannot accept this humiliation and so she blames Joseph for making the advances.

Shapiro compares this to his own process of finally deciding to leave his own “house” rather than continuing the charade that he had been living all those years. He recounts the pain of "laying next to my heterosexual spouse in bed, having finally accepted my homosexuality, and listening to my spouse say, “Lie with me,” and wanting to – needing to – refuse." A very different context than with Potiphar's wife, but a need to react similarly to the biblical Joseph.

In discussing this with him, the thought occurred to me that both this Joseph and Joseph in the Torah were actually living their lives in the shalshelet. They were living, whether for hours, days, weeks or years, in that wavering, uncertain place. Unsure whether to follow ones heart or do what was expected. For Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, as a slave he could have been expected to do his mistresses bidding. Yet he states that he feels loyalty to his master and could not betray him by sleeping with his wife. On the other hand, tradition also portrays him as wavering between giving in to his urges or doing what was right in God's eyes.

For the other Joseph, and for so many men in his situation (myself included, at one time) the struggle is between playing the role that he had chosen in order to meet society's expectations or making the choice that would reveal his true self as something other than what society and family imagined. But in a way it is also about whether or not to do what was right in God's eyes. Traditional Judaism may teach that homosexuality is forbidden. And yet, being true to oneself is also being true to God. And so he, I and so many others eventually made the choice to be true to God and ourselves by 'coming out', whether or not it met societal or familial expectations.

Yet, this is not something that is limited to issues of sexual orientation or identity. For at various times in our life we all live in the shalshelet, that long, drawn out, wavering place where all seems uncertain. The place where we hear voices telling us what to do, while other voices within and without are telling us to do something else. But one cannot live in the shalshelet forever. Eventually we all need to make choices. And so, we need to find a place of stillness where we can listen to the melodies of the shalshelet and eventually discern what our true melody is and what we should do.

I couldn't help but think of a recent even that also exemplifies this process. The hassidic reggae superstar Matisyahu has made his career around the image of being a talented musician performing in traditionally secular venues while wearing traditional Hassidic garb, a long beard and payos (long side curls). This was who he was. Or so the world thought.

Then this past week he shaved his beard and hair, removed the equivalent of his ornamental tunic and announced to the world that the facade of Matisyahu no longer existed. He was now once again Matthew Miller, his given name. There was no more hassidic reggae singer.

I would not say that Matisyahu was a fraud, for I don't believe he was. For years that was his identity, both inside and out. But it met a need and served a purpose for him (see the many articles online for a detailed explanation). Yet, he is clearly a different person now and so the outer garb was no longer true to who he is now.

Like Joseph, he was living in the shalshelet, that liminal space, and was finally able to hear the melody that was true for him. He then shed his clothes and embarked on the path to expressing that true melody.

We must remember that neither Matisyahu, nor any of us, is a static being. We are always changing and evolving. Sometimes we rid ourselves of old garments because they never truly represented who we are, such as with my friend Joseph and me. Others remove the old garments because they are no longer the same person they once were, like Matisyahu.

Dwelling for a time in the shalshelet allows us the time and opportunity to assess where we are spiritually. Whether through prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practice, we can hopefully discern the truth in the given moment. Then we can take the necessary steps to reveal to others what has been revealed to us. Only then are we truly expressing our divine selves and not just what others or our ego want us to express.

May we all take the time to dwell in the uncertainty of the shalshelet so that we can emerge more serene and more connected to that which makes us aware of our connection to the divine and what God desires of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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