Rosh Chodesh Tevet
By Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Dec 12, 2015
I’m wondering who among you remembers the 1974 film Swept Away by Italian director Lina Wertmuller. It features a shipwreck that deposits an aristocratic female passenger and a lower-class male ship-hand onto a deserted island where, not surprisingly, initial conflict transmutes into emotional and sexual connectedness. “Swept Away” has endured in my memory all these years because of the way in ends: The pair see a passing ship and must decide whether or not to hail it. Should they remain on their island paradise or risk their loving relationship by returning to society? The woman favors leaving well enough alone by allowing the ship to pass by. But the man chooses to test whether their relationship can endure a shift that will put it under pressure. Needless to say, they fail the test.
Many possible lessons can be drawn from this film. For me, it cautions against unnecessary testing of ourselves and others. This is among the lessons also taught by the famous opening scene of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” where the aged king’s vanity leads him to pit his three daughters against one another by asking which of them loves him best. By the time this most painful and profound of the bard’s dramas reaches its tragic conclusion, the daughter whose integrity kept her from passing her father’s test is the one who stands by him even to the point of death.
Let’s shift focus now from a 20th century film and an Elizabethan play to the longest, most complete narrative in the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers —where we confront another testing situation. A series of misjudgments and crimes on the part of Joseph, his brothers, and their father Jacob have brought Joseph to Egypt. In this foreign setting, he has an opportunity to grow up and become his own person. He is persecuted for resisting Potiphar’s wife and languishes in prison even after helping the also-imprisoned chief baker and cup-bearer. But, mi-ketz — in the end — there comes an opportunity to put his dream-interpretation ability to benevolent, rather than self-aggrandizing, uses. Joseph explains Pharoah’s doublet dream by highlighting its wider, national significance, whereupon the ruler engages Joseph to be the viceroy who will enable Egypt to survive the coming seven lean years. Both Joseph and Pharoah sense ruach Elohim — the spirit of God — operating, and they lean in toward that spirit, forging an alliance that epitomizes the way in which Jewish resourcefulness has often enabled our people to survive, even thrive, while benefitting their host society. Such alliances have generally proven unstable, however. Eventually, there will arise a pharaoh who knows not Joseph — whose megalomania unleashes the drama of Exodus, Revelation, and Return to the Land. But before that, bnai Yaakov — the sons of the patriarch Jacob — need to become bnai Yisrael — progenitors of the twelve tribes and thus of Am Yisrael,the Jewish People. That physical and spiritual enlargement cannot happen until Jacob’s sons are reunited, and that reunion must be more than a mere coming back together.
At this season when families gather across meals and tables, most of us have at least one story of familial misunderstanding, even alienation. Hopefully, many of us also have experienced — or at least can hope for — a time of new understanding and reconciliation. In achieving reconciliation, often the best alternative is to conclude that “what has been, has been” and go forward without dredging up the past. But sometimes ruach Elohim and their own courage guide estranged family members toward a reconciliation of enlightenment and catharsis that enables them to grow as individuals and a group. This level of rapprochement usually requires leadership by a member of the group, and it is often galvinized when the group faces a challenge together.
The sons of Jacob confront such a challenge when the world famine predicted in Pharoah’s dreams drives them to Egypt for rations. Operating at cross purposes throughout this week’s parsha, the two camps of Joseph on the one hand and his 10 older brothers on the other would find it virtually impossible to just let bygones be bygones. They need a ritual of some sort to purge the bad feeling and bad faith between them. Both sides need an opportunity for the final stage of tshuvah — when the offending person faces the same situation that was mishandled before but this time does the right thing.
And so Joseph improvises a series of tests for his brothers, while in the process he himself continues to be tested. His knowledge and that of his brothers are asymmetrical: he recognizes them but they don’t know him. Their power too is asymmetrical, but in reverse from the past: as a boy, he had been at their mercy while now he is master of the situation within which they are suppliants. The whole situation is fraught with irony and pathos, especially as Joseph seeks knowledge of his father, who back home in Canaan, fears the loss of yet another son.
In all this, we join many commentators in questioning Joseph’s motives. Why didn’t he long ago send word to his father that he was alive and well? Isn’t he cruel to toy with his brothers in the cat & mouse game of grain sacks, hidden money, and planted goblet? In order to judge Joseph favorably, we need to be sure that what he puts his brothers through is not a protracted scheme of revenge but a necessary course of education. For the nineteenth century German commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch, the brothers’ coming to know Joseph’s true character requires their experiencing him in a position of power, where he can do with them as he pleases — but he acts for their benefit. Joseph himself can get past the ruthlessness with which his brothers ignored his entreaties from the pit only by having proof of their complete change of heart. When he overhears them connect his demand to bring Benjamin to him with their crime against Joseph years ago, he knows that repentance is doing its work. He feels sure that his tests are having their hoped-for effect. Had Joseph established contact with his father during the prosperous years, he and his brothers would almost certainly have remaining divided into two bitterly warring camps.
In chapter 42: verse 7, we read: “When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, and he knew them.” Ibn Ezra explains the seeming duplication of “recognized” and “knew” thus: “When Joseph first saw the group he recognized them as his brothers. He then looked at each one of them and knew them individually.” In his youth, Joseph had been unable to see himself as his brothers saw him, and they were unable to grasp his existence as an individual worthy of life and regard. As their reunion in Egypt develops, several of the brothers gain clear outline as individuals to the point that we can imagine the lines of relationship crossing from one to the next, creating a network of individual bonds as well as a common bond among all. This is important because testing other people runs the risk of depersonalization — of turning the other into an objectified instrument of one’s own purposes. At this point when bnai Yaakov are turning into bnai Yisrael, it is vital that each brother — each unique person who is also the progenitor of a tribal community within the Jewish People — be acknowledged in his individuality. The supreme test for Joseph, his brothers, and their father Jacob is determining if they can be united in a loving, life-affirming way while also respecting one another’s distinctiveness.
The testing of Joseph and his brothers comes to a positive conclusion for them, their father, and our fledgling People. Underneath the tests that Joseph imposes are the Divine purposes that first appeared to Abraham and Sarah — and are later manifest to Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The Torah sometimes presents people as directly tested by God; Abraham during the Akedah and also Job stand as the clearest exemplars. That kind of direct divine testing strains our theological understanding. Direct testing by either another person or God makes me uncomfortable; as here with Joseph, I feel strongly that such testing must earn its place. It is one thing for someone to be confronted with a testing situation that arises out of life, and quite another for someone else, even God, to set up a test in a manipulative way. In the case of Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away, the shipwrecked man’s test is created by the filmmaker’s artistic license. In the case of King Lear, the test created by the royal father for his three daughters is not one to which they should have been exposed: “which of you loves me best” is not a question that siblings should confront or parents, ask.
In our lives, we face implicit tests of our character at many turns in the road. Parents strive to rear children who will rise to the challenges they meet, acquitting themselves as human beings and Jews. The United States and other countries are being tested today with regard to climate change and the resettlement of refugees. Life is full of enough tests of our character that most of the time we don’t need — and should not set up — further tests of ourselves and others. Rather, we should draw upon Torah and other sources, including our relationships with people and with God, to meet the tests that cannot be avoided and to create a world in which, on the whole, people are tested to their limits as little as possible.
The Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, writes thus about Pharoah’s dreams in Parshat Miketz: “From this we learn to prepare ourselves well in days of plenty — in those times when holiness is apparent to us. We should fix that radiance firmly in our hearts, so that it may be there for the bad times when holiness is hidden.”
We celebrate this 6th day of Chanukah at an unusually bad time, when darkness threatens to obscure life’s holiness — a time when bonds of civility and trust have been pressed near the breaking point. May we summon spiritual resources shored up over time and space to meet the tests before us.