Monday, December 16, 2019

An Historical Dip

Parashat Vayeshev can certainly be a strong candidate for saddest Torah portion of the year, as we encounter the tragedy of the hatred borne by Jacob’s sons for their brother Joseph, the eldest son of Jacob and Rachel. The Torah does not pull any punches describing how the brothers felt about Joseph. “And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37:4.) While sibling rivalry and even sibling odium are understandable and, unfortunately, occur, fratricide is another story. That is shocking and thankfully, uncommon.

Despite the family dysfunction, Jacob dispatches Joseph to check on the status of his brothers who had departed to Shchem. Joseph ventures forth, unaware of the fate awaiting him. While wandering in the field, a man asks Joseph, “What do you seek?” Joseph responds, “I seek my brothers; tell me, I beg you, where do they feed their flocks.” (Genesis 37:16) 

The resentment of Joseph felt by the brothers had to be extremely acute for them to even consider murdering him, which they almost did (Genesis 37:20), were it not for the intervention of their oldest brother Reuven who suggested (Genesis 37:22) throwing him into a pit (to die), hoping to return and rescue him, and their brother Judah who suggested selling Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:27).

The Torah relates that Jacob sent Joseph from the “Valley of Hebron” (Genesis 37:14), which is odd, because Hebron is in mountainous topography. The commentaries suggest that the “valley” refers to the depths of Jewish history, since Joseph’s exile to Egypt would be the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, that prior to inheriting the land, Abraham’s progeny would need to endure difficult challenges outside their homeland.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1835 - 1909), known by his book Ben Ish Chai, observes that there are two episodes of dipping in the Torah. The first dip can be found in this week’s parasha, when, in an act of division, the ten brothers dip Joseph’s special coat into the blood of a goat, in order to falsely convince their father that Joseph had been mangled by an animal. Centuries later, on the very antipodal spot of the mandated exile--on the eve of liberation from Egypt--the Jewish slaves were commanded to slaughter a paschal lamb or goat, and dip a bundle of hyssop into its blood, in order to paint the lintels and doorposts of their home, to bravely mark them as safe from the Angel of Death’s mission that night. The Hebrew word for the “bundle” is “agudah,” which also means a close joining of units into one. The Children of Israel at that moment were at the acme of national unity.

Depths and dips are usually negative. Yet, the Torah shows us that, with a long historical vision, one can envision the heights even from the depths.

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