Sunday, December 26, 2004

Lest you think that I’m a *complete* cynic, here’s my balanced look at B’nai Yaakov/the Sons of Jacob

. . . and yes, I do mean sons—the only thing we know about any of his daughters is that one of them was raped. (It’s interesting that Parshat Vayigash, Genesis chapter 46, verse 7 mentions that Yaakov’s/Jacob's “sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters and all his seed he brought with him into Egypt, ” despite the fact that there’s been no previous mention of any daughter except Dina. Hertz, naturally, explained this away as referring to his daughters-in-law. Who knows?)

So Yaakov did such a good job of favoring Yosef/Joseph (whom my husband described as “a brat”) over his brothers that they wanted to kill him. On the positive side, both Reuven/Reuben and Yehudah/Judah each tried, in his own way, to save Yosef’s life, and, between the two of them, they succeeded.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch house (as the old saying goes), Yehudah was sufficiently comforted after the death of his wife to visit an alleged prostitute, namely, his disguised daughter-in-law Tamar, who’d decided to take matters into her own hands when Yehudah refused to let his third son perform the rite of levirate marriage. (Long story.) He got her pregnant, then accused her of sleeping around and threatened to burn her alive. But when she proved that he was the father of her child, he ‘fessed up and called her “more righteous that I” (Parshat Vayigash, chapter 38, verse 26.)

In Egypt, Yosef resisted the advances of his boss’s wife. On the other hand, even after he became vizier of Egypt, when there was no possible way that his brothers could ever harm him again, he never once tried to contact his father to let poor Yaakov know that he was still alive. He played a revenge game with his brothers when they finally showed up looking for food, rather than revealing himself right away. It could be argued that he showed less kibud av/honor to his father than Esav/Esau had shown to Yitzchak/Isaac. But then again, he did fulfill his promise to bury his father in the Kever haMachpelah/the Cave of Machepelah in K’na-an/Canaan.

Yehudah offered to serve as Yosef’s slave rather than break his father’s heart by coming home without Yaakov’s beloved youngest son Binyamin/Benjamin. This is, in my opinion, one of the finest moments of the entire Torah (and, given the way the parshiot/weekly readings are divided, the Torah’s finest cliff-hanger, too). Yosef, finally having had his revenge, rose above it and revealed himself and took his family in, providing for them throughout the famine and for the balance of their lives.

The end of Yaakov’s life is instructive. First of all, carrying on ye olde family tradition, he blessed Yosef’s younger son, Efrayim/Ephraim, over the older, Menasheh/Manasseh, making all sorts of interesting predictions about their respective futures that traditionalists will ascribe to HaShem’s guidance and non-traditionalists such as me will point to as proof positive that these words were written down long after the events that Yaakov predicted had already taken place. Ditto for Yaakov’s blessings of just about all of his sons. How could he have known that the tribe of Judah/Yehudah would end up being the family of the kings of “Judea”/Yehudah? How could he have known that the tribe of Z’vulun/Zebulun would be seaside dwellers? As for Yaakov’s cursing of Shim'on/Simeon/Simon and Levi for their slaughter of all the men of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dina by one of them, a lot of good that did—the tribes of Shim'on and Levi ended up divided and scattered, all right, but the tribe of Levi became the tribe of the future Mishkan/ Sanctuary’s and Mikdash/ Temple’s priests and “assistants.” Some punishment.

After Yaakov’s death and burial, the brothers sent Yosef a message that their father had asked him to forgive them. Naturally, this statement is nowhere recorded previously in the text. What a surprise . . . not. But Yosef, possibly figuring that he’d already had his revenge, assured them of his forgiveness and continued support. The “brat” didn’t turn out so badly, after all.


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