Torah Reading for Week of December 1-7, 2013
“Yesurim shel Ahava: On the Afflictions of Love”
By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, Ph.D., AJRCA Professor of Hebrew Literature
It is difficult to like Joseph. Abraham awes us, Jacob moves us, but Joseph? From the very introduction of him in Vayeishev (Gen. 37:1), how can we not be ambivalent? The ancient rabbis of the midrash saw him as a narcissist: a pretty boy, with a mincing walk and a head full of curls. When we first meet him, he is a lad who tattles to his father about his brothers’ behavior; it is only to Joseph that Jacob gives a katonet passim, a coat of many colors, and who proclaims his dreams of superiority to his family (if not arrogantly, then guilelessly — in which case he lacks emotional sensitivity). Yes, his brothers are brutal to him, but even as we cringe at their cruelty, our own yetzer ha’rah, our evil impulse, may admit that we understand.
Later in Egypt, falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, he’s thrown into prison. But is our sympathy for him not undermined when he fails to evince even a shred of compassion in telling the baker of his future beheading? His administrative skills and foresight rescue the Egyptians from starvation, but only by transforming a population of independent farmers into desperate sharecroppers — “the land became Pharaoh’s” (47:20). Indeed, it is Joseph who sets the stage for the rise of the later Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph”: when that monarch assumes the throne, the very “storage cities” that Joseph constructed become the site of suffering for the Hebrew slaves (Shemot 1:8, 11).
And yet our tradition considers Joseph a holy one, a tzaddik. Some say he became so by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife, or that even while imprisoned, the boy who was once a tale-bearer did not shame his brothers by revealing that it was they who sold him to Egypt, or that he came to acknowledge that it was the Holy One, and not he, who was the source of his gift of dream interpretation. But I would like to suggest that there is a moment in our parashah in which Joseph transcends himself, a simple moment, the speaking of a word, that can make all the difference in our feeling for this strange and disturbing man.
Vayigash opens with a riveting speech by Judah whose climax is an exclamation of profound moral and emotional conscience: how can I go up to my father, Judah cries out, if the lad is not with me? (44:34). Judah’s outcry pierces the heart of Joseph: the text tells us that Joseph could no longer “restrain himself.” Though he sends all but his brothers out, he cries out in so loud a voice that all Egypt hears. Then in what sounds like a desperate yet almost peremptory rush of words, he declares to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
The reaction to his confession is silence, an absolute, palpable silence.
In trying to unravel the meanings of yesurim shel ahava, the afflictions of love, and the nature of Divine forgiveness, the Talmud cites two passages whose words are similar (gezeirah shavah): “It is written here, ‘Through kindness and truth, iniquity (ah’von) will be forgiven.’ and it is written elsewhere, ‘and who visits the guilt (ah’von) of the fathers upon their children after them.’”(BT, Berachot, 5b) Both those biblical passages help us understand the “afflictions of love” that Joseph and his brothers are faced with now.
For the first time Joseph unmasks himself to his brothers, he says only the words “I am Joseph,” and immediately asks – as he has earlier — about their father. By doing so, it is as if Joseph is casting them all back to their childhoods, for even in the disconcerting milieu of Pharaoh’s palace, Joseph remains the same isolated, aloof, and off-putting a figure as he was as a boy. After all the suffering he has endured, and after all these many years, Joseph still sees and presents himself only as their father’s son. His words “visit the guilt of the fathers upon the children,” for they inevitably evoke the bitter memory of Jacob’s divisive favoritism, the very favoritism that had helped to sow the seeds of envy and cruelty among his sons from the start.
But here in Egypt the brothers react with absolute silence. And, I suggest, in the interstices of that silence, the character of Joseph is transformed. It is as if he is truly visited that moment by the Divine Presence, for he undergoes an act of – in many senses of the word – teshuva. His speech returns, but now he is not the same man. Using the verb that echoes the very “approach” of Judah (va’yigash) to him at the outset of the parasha, he now bids his brothers come close to him, approach him, see him for who he truly is and is finally ready to become. “Through kindness and truth iniquity will be forgiven”: for the first time in his life, Joseph speaks words that are not only true, but also warm, intimate, and kind: “Come to me…I am Joseph your brother.”
All of their lives, until this moment, Jacob’s sons saw Joseph only from “afar” (Gen 37:18), if they saw him at all, and he, in turn, aloof as a child, went “afar” indeed. In that distance between them they all suffered the afflictions of love. It is only now, as Joseph finally allows his brothers to come close to him, that he both recognizes himself, and allows himself to be seen, not only as his father’s son but also a brother among brothers. And only when he does so does his heart truly make room for the G-d who guides, loves, and forgives. May we all have the courage to do so.