Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Summing up Breishit: Biology is not destiny – people as partners in Creation

[Note: we promised a drash tonight – so here it is. The conclusion will be turned into complete sentences, and the links and citations will be corrected, as soon as possible. But for now, read and enjoy.]

The Torah ends with seven verses marking the death of Moshe Rabbeinu, often ascribed to the authorship (or at least penmanship) of Yehoshua, leading directly into the haftarah for Zot haBracha, the beginning of the book of Shoftim. Sefer Breishit ends with five pasukim marking the death of Yosef Acheinu. We don't usually ascribe the rest of the book of Breishit to either the authorship or penmanship of Yosef. But the Joseph story dominates the narrative, in a way that is almost comparable to the prominence of Moshe Rabbeinu in the remaining four books of the Chumash.

What is so compelling about Yosef's story that we devote so many of the precious chapters, verses, words, and letters of Torah to such an extensive telling? One lens for this question is that Breishit shows us a unified tale, repeating a motif of sibling strife through many generations, reaching its apotheosis and its nullification in Yosef Acheinu.

We begin at the beginning, with the very first humans to be born – Kayin and Avel. Hava proclaims (Br. 4:1):
 וַתֹּאמֶר, קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה.
Even Everett Fox demurs, “Hebrew difficult” for this passage. But Rashi points us to Nidda 31, to understand “et ha-Shem” as “with God”. And we understand “kaniti” not as “acquired” but as "created" – Ilana Pardes offers a lovely drash supporting this interpretation in her book, “Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach”. So we take Hava's statement as:
I have created a being, as a partner with ha-Shem.
From the beginning, people have viewed their role as a partnership in ma'aseh breishit, in the works of creation. But Hava, and most of Sefer Breishit, sees that partnership as a biological one.

We do not have long to wait before seeing the first, and most virulent, appearance of sibling rivalry (4:10).
קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן-הָאֲדָמָה.
The voice of the bloods of your brother, they cry out to me from the earth.

 And worse, the bloody cycle of non-redemption is part and parcel of Kayin's murder. Kayin objects to his sentence, that his punishment for murder will only lead others to murder. And ha-Shem's response (4:15) seems only to escalate the cycle further:
 לָכֵן כָּל-הֹרֵג קַיִן, שִׁבְעָתַיִם, יֻקָּם
Therefore, anyone who murder Kayin, [the punishment] will be seven-fold upon them.

In a quick tour through all of Breishit, we see Lemech raising the ante on the cycle of non-redemption another order of magnitude (4:24). Avraham attempts to quell the cycle of strife by separating between himself and Lot, for (13:8) “are we not brothers”? Nonetheless, his relationship with Lot leads to war (14:1) and destruction (19:23), and as far as we know from the text of the Chumash, Avraham and Lot never speak again. Lot's daughters appear to have some level of cooperation (19:36), yet the fruit of that labor (19:37-38) is emblematic of conflict and strife to this day.

Within the nuclear families of our foremothers and forefathers, the same cycle of non-redemption constitutes the pattern of each generation. Sarah and Hagar, Yitzchak and Yishmael cast each other out, physically and in the family relationships. We see a small glimpse of redemptive behavior when Avraham's two sons come together to bury him (25:9) – but it remains but a glimpse. For the next generation continues the strife even before it is born (25:21):

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיהוָה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא; וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְהוָה, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ.  
And Yitzchak entreated ha-Shem on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and ha-Shem was so entreated, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 
  וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-יְהוָה. 
And the children struggled together within her; and she said: 'If it be so, why do I live?' And she went to demand [an explanation] of ha-Shem. 
  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר.
And ha-Shem said to her: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

Thus Yosef's father and uncle, in utero re-enact and pre-enact the conflicts of his own generation. They too, Esav and Yaakov, offer a glimmer of how to break the cycle of non-redemption, but the text (33:4) is ambiguous:

וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ; וַיִּבְכּוּ

Esav ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.

Masoretically, the word “al tzavarav” famously has six dots above the letters, which midrashically is taken to represent Esav attempting to bite his brother's neck in the midst of a pretended embrace.  The brothers do emulate their father, by coming together to bury him. But again, no further contact – much less healing -- between them is observed

Nor are the women exempt from replicating these cycles of non-redemption. Similar to Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah have their own virulent form of sibling rivalry, reaching the point (30:1) where Rachel contemplates death:
 וַתְּקַנֵּא רָחֵל, בַּאֲחֹתָהּ; וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל-יַעֲקֹב הָבָה-לִּי בָנִים, וְאִם-אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי
Rachel was jealous of her sister, saying to Yaakov, “Give me children, for if I have none, I will die.”
A key passage, to which we shall return shortly.

It is worthwhile to pause amidst this tour of Breishit to note the absence of certain kinds of conflict. Unlike much of the rest of Chumash, we see essentially no strife between people and ha-Shem (with the exception of the Tower of Bavel). We humans do not act like angels, certainly. But the focus of text is markedly different from the repeated rebellions of the other books (e.g, the Golden Calf in Shmot, every alternating chapter in Bamidbar, and in the re-telling, most of Devarim). Nor do we see much conflict between parents and children. Indeed, even the supposedly evil Esav is complimented rabbinically for his scrupulous observance of kibud av v'eim.

So the strife, the jealousies and rivalries between Yosef and his brothers is nothing new under the sun. It is the apotheosis of everything observed in the world up until that point – how could we expect it to be otherwise? And for many years, it is not....until Yehuda steps forward.

You might think, “until Yehuda steps forward”, meaning (44:18), before the Regent of Egypt who happens to be his hidden brother. But rather, until Yehuda steps forward, and acknowledges (38:26) to Tamar, “You are more righteous than I”. It is this lesson in teshuva that he applies in the climactic moment in Egypt, and it arises, interestingly, from some unspecified tzuris (38:7) among the brothers who were supposed to be husbands to Tamara (Er, Onan, and Shelah).

So far, this tour of Breishit matches many commentaries and analyses. Yet perhaps the moment “va-Yigash Yehudah” is not the climax it appears. True enough, Yehuda exhibits all the marks of a baal teshuvah (being truly repentant). He is placed, through Yosef's machinations, into a situation similar to the one where he previously sinned. Instead of enslaving another brother, this time Binyamin, he takes it upon himself to prevent the tragedy from recurring.

But how? Essentially, by perpetuating the cycle of non-redemption! Instead of having Yosef enslave Binyamin, Yehudah demands that he be enslaved instead. This may be progress, and it is sufficient for Yosef to end the masquerade quite ecstatically. But it seems meager progress indeed.

Fortunately, at the very end of Sefer Breishit, we find the real Big Finish, though it may not receive the attention it deserves. The cycle of non-redemption is broken once and for all; family reconciliation is truly completed.

In the final passage of the entire book (save those five pesukim we mentioned at the outset), the brothers fear that the death of their father Yaakov exposes them to Yosef's pent-up wrath from their old patterns (50:15-21). Despite all those years living peacefully in Mitzrayim, when Yosef clearly had the power to do to them as he wished, they fear that the sole restraint was Yaakov's presence, not any true change to their family patterns. So they make up some story (and the meforshim are quite clear that it's made up) about Yaakov's death-bed instructions, and they ask for forgiveness – which they receive! End of story.

Except...let's look a little more closely at the interaction. The brothers actually don't ask for forgiveness, at least not directly. They send an intermediary (50:16):
וַיְצַוּוּ, אֶל-יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר
They send [a messenger] to Yosef, [instructing the messenger] to say...

It is only when Yosef weeps in response to their message that they enter his presence themselves. And ironically, they tell him (50:18):
 הִנֶּנּוּ לְךָ לַעֲבָדִים
Behold, we are slaves to you.

Precisely the outcome that Yehudah tried to avoid / volunteered for! And Yosef's response may be the lynchpin, if we can propertly understand it. He says:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף, אַל-תִּירָאוּ: כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים, אָנִי

The first half of his response is, “Fear not” -- as opposed to, “I forgive you.” He acknowledges that there were wrong committed by his brothers against him, that he would have every right, as they would have every expectation, for retribution and the perpetuation of family violence into yet another generation. But he clearly intends to forgo that option, to break the cycle, hence, “Fear not.”

The second half of his response is much harder to parse – and therefore, even more of an invitation to interpretation. Ha-tachat Elohim ani? Often translated as, “am I in God's place?”. Now, where have we seen that precise phrase before?

Yosef often ascribes outcomes as originating with ha-Shem's intentions, as opposed to those of human actors. But this precise phrase, ha-tachat Elohim ani, directs us right back to his own birth story. Rachel is lamenting her barrenness, pleads with Yaakov to give her children – and Yaakov responds (30:2):
וַיִּחַר-אַף יַעֲקֹב, בְּרָחֵל; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי, אֲשֶׁר-מָנַע מִמֵּךְ, פְּרִי-בָטֶן
Yaakov grew angry with Rachel and said, “ha-tachat Elohim anochi”, am I in God's place, who has withheld from you the fruitfulness of the womb?

Same phrase, but such different affect (and effect). Yaakov is angry, Rachel is unappeased, and the strife continues (though with a partial solution that we'll discuss in a moment). Yosef speaks the same words, but with chesed (loving kindness and mercy), and cycle is definitely broken.

Ah, but it's not exactly the same phrase. Yaakov says “anochi”, Yosef says “ani”. Perhaps it is over-interpreting (as if there could be such a thing for Torah), but “anochi” is a formal, distancing version of the pronoun “I”. It is the very first utterance of the Ten Commandment, by the terrifying God of Sinai, the word before which all the people of Israel quail and retreat 12 miles (or drop dead and need to be revived by ha-Shem, depending on which version of the midrash you follow [Shabbat 87b?]). “Ani”, on the other hand, is almost colloquial, leveling, simply “I”.

So let's try translating these almost-equivalent yet utterly different phrases again. The different pronouns may speak of a different meaning for “tachat” -- in place of, or under. Ya'akov, in anger, says, “Would I try to usurp ha-Shem's role in human affairs? Barrenness, strife, jealousy – these are decreed from above, and it's not my place to change them.” Yosef, with chesed, says, “Am I in a position subservient to (“under”) ha-Shem? No, we are partners in the works of creation, and it is my responsibility – all people's responsibility – to dispense mercy just as ha-Shem does.”

Yosef's theological shift here (if indeed he is making such a statement) is a radical one – people are partners with ha-Shem, not merely in the biological sense that Hava intended when “creating” Kayin. But if there's one consistent characteristic of Yosef's personality, it is surely that he suffer no lack of self-worth. If anyone could make that leap, it would be Yosef. And to such an end! To conclude Sefer Breishit with an emphatic re-definition of humanity's place in the universe, coinciding with the end of so many generations of the cycle of non-redemption!

There's is one other key piece that may cement this interpretation, as well as giving us a new appreciation for one of our ancestors. The two passages we just discussed, where we find “ha-tachat Elohim anochi / ani”, share one other commonality.  

In the first, when Rachel fails to gain satisfaction with Yaakov, she chooses a messenger in her place. She frees her maidservant Bilhah, so that she may marry Yaakov and bear children “upon my knees” (30:3). In the second, when the brothers fear that cycle of strife will re-commence, they a choose in messenger in their place: Bilhah! The midrash universally agrees that she is the one to appear before Yosef (except that Rashi tries to morph Bilhah into Bilhah's sons). But none of the classical texts offers any explanation for Bilhah's role in this key passage.

For Rachel, biology was destiny. Without children, she sees only death. But for Bilha, she becomes the mother of Rachel's children. When Rachel died in childbirth, Bilha becomes the adoptive mother for both Yosef and Binyamin. When Yosef tells of his dream in which the sun and the moon and the eleven stars bow down before him – the prophecy can only be accurate if the moon is Bilhah, not Rachel (as the midrash makes clear, Rachel has died before anyone is bowing down to Yosef).

So for Bilhah, instead of biology, it is chesed that establishes her place in ma'aseh breishit.
(A lesson she learned from Rachel, in fact – Proem 24, Eicha Raba). Look at the relationship between Binyamin and Yosef. If ever a sibling relationship could heal the strife of generations of rivalries, it is Binyamin's adoration of his older (and the painfully absent) brother. Just one midrashic example -- he names every one of his ten sons after some marvelous remembered characteristic of Yosef. Where does he learn such capacity for love, in the context of a sibling relationship? Logically, it must be the only mother he has ever known, Bilhah.

Bilha plays a subtle yet absolutely central role in this story.  We have Bilha, substituting for Rachel in Perek Lamed, giving birth in her stead, and ultimately becoming the mother of Rachel's biological children.  And again we have Bilha, substituting for the brothers, absenting herself from the competition among the biological children of Yaakov, and finally transcending that competition, in Perek Nun. She displays chesed as the language of healing in both, refusing to see biology as destiny.

Our passage at the end of Breishit contains an explicit echo of the language of healing – the brothers' message is (50:17):

 וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא

And now, please, forgive!

We hear in their plaintive syllables some of Moshe Rabbeinu's famous plea to heal the pains of sibling rivalry, when he asks ha-Shem to heal his sister Miriam – El na, r'fah na lah.

In Va-yigash, why is Yehuda the primary brother to demonstrate the principle of Teshuva, when he has three older brothers?  And subsequently, why are we "Yehudim", Jews in his name?  Because biology is not destiny – throughout Breishit, primogeniture is rejected.  Each of his three older brothers each ran afoul of the same principle:

  • Reuven attempts to sleep with Bilha after Rachel dies (vYisrael shma, 35:21, with a much longer narrative in Jubilees Ch.33).  But Bilha does not pass to the oldest son as property.
  • Shimon and Levi attempt to avenge the honor of Dina (under the interpretation that her relationship with Shchem was consenual).  But daughters are not property.
  • Yehuda attempts avoid responsibility for impregnating his daughter-in-law.  But mothers are not the only parents, and Yehuda unlike his older siblings, learned his lessons thanks to Tamar.  He demonstrated his ability to make teshuva, repeated so crucially in Va-Yigash.

So our teachers in breaking the cycle of redemption are first Tamar, daughter of a Canaanite woman.  And then Bilhah, daughter of the Aramean who tried to destroy our Father, Yaakov (and whose own father, Milcha, tried to poison Eliezer and block the destiny of his daughter Rivka, averted only by a literal turning of the tables by the angel Gavriel that led to him consuming his own potion – but that's another story).  Thanks to them, Yosef has the opportunity to break the cycle of non-redemption with finality, in this final story of our first book of stories.

Yosef confirms that chesed is what creates not just biological families, but whole families, and indeed, a whole people. The transition from biological family to the Jewish people that concludes at Sinai is begun at the closing of sefer breishit, when the brothers choose Bilha is the most appropriate messenger, and when Yosef understands and confirms their choice.

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