Monday, February 9, 2009

Vayigash - Then Judah approached Joseph

In the first part of Vigash, Judah begs Joseph not to punish Benjamin because of the pain it will cause their father who has still not gotten over the loss of Rachel’s other son. This causes Joseph to break down and confess who he is to his brothers.
When Joseph sends his brothers back home to bring Jacob and the entire family back to Eqypt so he can take care of them, he says to them just as they are leaving, according to your Plaut translation, instead of Bye Bye, have a nice trip, he says, “Do not be quarrelsome along the way.”

Do not be quarrelsome? What is that about? They’ve had this great reconciliation, everything is hunky dory love fest, and by the way, don’t fight on the way home? I love this. This line justifies the whole parsha for me, this line is as human a line in the Torah as I have ever read. I love you and all is forgiven and no fighting in the car! Does Joseph know his brothers, or what?
Now Rashi, according to the Jewish Study Bible, says that the plain sense of this line, do not quarrel amongst yourselves, is that the brothers should refrain from blaming each other for the sale of Joseph which would eventually make them resent Joseph.

But Robert Alter takes a different tack, he translates this line as, “And he sent off his brothers and they went and he said, Do not be perturbed on the journey.” Perturbed? Another translation says, Anxious.
Alter explains, “there has been some dispute about the meaning of the verb here. It is occasionally used in context that associate it with anger and so many interpreters have imagined that Joseph is warning his brothers not to yield to mutual recrimination and perhaps fall to blows on the way home. But, says Alter, the primary meaning of the verb is ‘to quake’ or ‘shake’, either physically or emotionally, and it is the antonym”, the opposite, “ of being tranquil or at peace. Alter thinks it more likely that this is Joseph reassuring his brothers that he won’t take vengence on him.
I…don’t think so. Like I said, Joseph, he knows his brothers. He knows how they react to stress. Those guys, when things are weird or go bad, they panic.

When Joseph threatened the brothers’ sense of superiority, they panicked and threw him in a hole. When Jacob went into continuous mourning, they panicked and continued the lie. They panicked when famine struck their land, when the Pharaoh’s viceroy took a bizarre interest in them and when that viceroy accused them of theft.
I know all about panic. My mother’s father was well to do. In the 1920’s he owned what was then called a department store in Western Pennsylvania. They had cars, they took vacations, his oldest child was in college and the youngest, my mother, was pampered in every way. Then, in 1932 during the Depression, my grandfather lost his business and he and his family went from having everything to having absolutely nothing. My grandfather panicked and he killed himself. He shot himself. And the person who found the body first was his eleven-year old daughter, my mother. My mother never really recovered from this and, through her, neither have I. She lived in a continual state of panic or panic-induced depression most of the time I knew her.

This current economic crisis has me in a panic. I am unemployed and I see no sign of getting a job any time soon. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying. And I’m not just panicking for myself. I’m worried about the the well being of my friends, my family, my community, my country, Israel, the world, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, everywhere. Global Warming, paying off my credit cards, bailing out the auto industry, rockets in Southern Israel,. I mean, c’mon! I want to lash out, I want to punish someone, I don’t know who and I don’t care! I’m freaked out! Aren’t you?
But then I think about my grandmother. She was one tough cookie. After her husband’s death, she picked up her kids and moved back to Queens where she was from, and she started a business installing and servicing laundry machines in apartment building basements. She started with one machine and by the time she died I 1966 she was well off and had started a business that her son and son-in-law kept going for many years. I went to college on those washing machines. My grandmother survived and flourished.

So I know, I assume, I will get another job, eventually. Barack Obama is going to be president soon and he will get done what needs to be done.

Joseph, when he matures, is calm and a thinker always guided by his principles and his brain. When faced by catastrophe he survives and flourishes. Even at his most emotional moments, when he sees his brothers after so many years, he plans and he tests and he doesn’t act until he is sure that they, in the person of Judah, are truly sorry for what they did and that they are ready for his help.

Intellect and heart don’t work when they are separated. Joseph as an intellect alone is not enough. Later in the parsha, when the free peasants of Egypt beg him to feed them during the famine he logically and horrifically turns them all into serfs. Judah as a feeling man is not enough. His anger at Joseph’s youthful arrogances and his love oforhis brothers stop him from helping Joseph when he needs it the most.

So Joseph cries when he sees his brothers again and when he makes himself known to them. And he cries when he sees his father after so many years. He feels deeply, and acts on those feelings, but not impulsively and not with anger and hate. And it is Judah’s intellectual realization that he most take responsibility for his own actions that finally sets off the catharsis that allows this family to come to resolution. It is when Judah approaches Joseph, when the calm of one brother combines with the emotional action of the other that they are returned to their true future and our covenant with connection. It is their duality that allows us to become one.

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