Monday, January 16, 2006

Parashat Vayigash - The Man Who Wasn't There


As I was walking on the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

Nursery Rhyme

Describing the aftermath of a violent storm that uprooted trees and laid waste to a village, novelist V.S. Naipaul writes, “The readiest emotion is anger.” This is the response to blind and unemotive forces of nature. As we come to the end of the Yosef narrative, we see Yosef’s life begin to coalesce into a whole, into a continuum where events lead inexorable into further events, into further events… and thus is Destiny fashioned.

Yosef’s life is a sequence of events for which the readiest of responses would naturally be Anger. Yosef, running off to make sure his brothers are safe, is tossed down a pit by those brothers, who then proceed to have a picnic while he screams in terror. He is sold into slavery and is sexually abused, first by master – Pharaoh’s Chief Butcher (or perhaps his Executioner) – then by his master’s wife, then by Pharaoh himself. He is thrust into this by the actions of his own dysfunctional father, who creates havoc within the family unit. Yaakov blatantly favors one wife, at the expense of the others. He blatantly disregards his own daughter, very nearly at the expense of all their lives. And he blatantly favors his youngest son, setting up a situation in which Yosef’s brothers can not but despise him.

If ever a man had cause for anger and resentment, it is Yosef. And, if ever a man achieved greatness (as opposed to being born great – like Abraham – or having greatness thrust upon him – like Yaakov) it is Yosef. Yosef achieves his own greatness, and he achieves it unaided. G-d spoke clearly to Abraham, to Yitzhak and to Yaakov. G-d will speak in face-to-face conversation with Moshe. But G-d says not a word to Yosef, but leaves him to work things out for himself. From a purely human perspective, Yosef is perhaps the greatest figure in TaNaCh, for he achieves his greatness on his own, with nothing but his own vile existence and his own perceptive insight to guide him.

When Reuven returns to the well, at 37:30, to find Yosef gone, he utters the sentence ha-yeled ‘einenu – The child is not. And this word – ‘einenu – He is not, will define Yosef for the rest of his days.

What does it mean to be “Not”? To not be present? Why is the Man Who Wasn’t There so very troubling?

The Gemara says that giving in to one’s own anger is Idol Worship. This sounds like neat homiletics, and it needs teasing-out if we are to read the true depth of it.

The Hebrew word for Anger – ‘af – literally means “nose”. The image is, perhaps, one of a snorting bull preparing to charge, or of a fire-breathing dragon shooting flames of ire and wrath.

But the word ‘af has a meaning at once simpler, and more profound. For it is through the ‘af that we receive life. At Bereshit 2:7 we are told that G-d fashined the first human from dust from the ground, va-yipach be-‘apav nishmat chayim – and G-d blew into the human’s nose the soul of life. As the Ba’al HaTanya expresses, it is through the nose that we receive G-d’s actual breath. This, the Tanya says, is not metaphoric, but G-d has imparted some actual part of G-d’s own self into us, the Divine Spark, through the process of imbuing us with life.

Thus, when we give into our own anger, we are blowing that very G-dly spirit out, spewing it out upon the world. And there is no power greater than the power of G-d. No force more destructive than the power of G-d unleashed with wanton rage. No power more destructive to those around us, nor any act more self destructive than losing the very Divine life-force that makes us human.

Idol Worship is characterized by asking for outcomes. One prays to an idol in order to obtain some thing, or in order to prevent some disaster from befalling. If it works, good. If not, we must pray harder next time, we must sacrifice something more precious. Our own children, perhaps.

Torah, on theother hand, is li-shmah – for its own sake. There is no more fundamental difference between ‘Avodah zara and ‘Avodat HaShem. And when we allow our own anger to guide our actions, we are worshiping the most egregious of all idols. For Anger is the most fundamental of appetites. It is a passion that seeks to fulfill itself for no good outcome. Unlike sexual passion – which leads to procreation – unlike appetites for food and drink – which sustain the body – Anger fills no creative, no life-sustaining function. It is pure and self-consuming appetite. Once vented, there is an irremediable void, and life-force has been expended for no good outcome.

We have discussed the notion of Greatness: of those, like Yaakov, who have Greatness thrust upon them. Of all the Great Men of Torah, perhaps none is so great as Yosef. For Yosef achieves his Greatness fom a human point of departure, and his humanness remains the base throughout his troubled life. It is his humanity, his wisdom and his personality, that make of his life, not a life of trouble and sorrow, but a life of achievement.

In Tibetan Buddhism there is a key practice known as Tong-Len, which essentially means “Giving and Taking”. It is a form of meditation in which the practitioner consciously draws in Evil and, through an inner focus, transforms the Evil into pure Good, which is then released back into the world. The imaginative aspect of this practice is to view the in-breath as a thick and putrid sludge of Evil, to view the holding of the breath as the transformative engine whereby the meditator’s own body filters out all impurities, and to view the releasing, the out-breath, as a sending forth of pure Goodness into the world.

How does one accomplish this? How do we overcome our own Anger. Especially when, like Yosef, we are more than justified in our rage?

Yosef has learned one thing – perhaps it is the gift that came to him when he experienced the boundless anger his own brothers felt towards him. Yosef has learned that there is, in fact, not “justifiable” anger. Anger must never be given its head, for it is a purely destructive force. It is the assertion that “I” am more important than anything else. And if I will give vent to my rage against my own family, why would I not also give vent to my anger, even against G-d? Even, in fact, against myself? And so Yosef recognizes that, to achieve the transformation the world so sorely needs, we must remove that “I” – that irascible, that self-justifying, that angry and wounded Self – from the equation.

We must become The Man Who Wasn’t There.

‘Einenu. He isn’t.

Time and again, Yosef is referred to with this name. Yosef is not master of his own fate. Fortunately for him – and for Klal Israel – he soon recognizes that no one is. ‘Einenu – he is not. Time and again, Yosef is able to remove his Ego, his Self from the situation and to deal from the perspective not of emotion, but of wisdom. Not of anger, but of insight.

At 37:33 Yaakov says tarof toraf Yosef – translated as “Surely, Yosef has been torn [by wild anmals].” In legalistic Hebrew, the word taraf can also mean Taken by force, seized in payment of an outstanding debt. And what debt is Yosef required to repay? Is it, perhaps, that of his own father? Or is it, in some larger sense, that Yosef foreshadows the Suffering Servant of Isaiah?

Yosef, the man who has spent his entire life working on himself. Yosef, who recognizes all too clearly the danger of giving in to appetites, who has experienced like no one else the full fury of the appetites of Mizraim. And when his brothers appear before him for the first time, in Parashat Miqqetz, Yosef chides them. At 42:9 Yosef says, “You have come to see the nakedness of the land.”

He is not accusing his brothers of being spies. That is merely the surface meaning, and it is false. But Yosef is saying: I see your anger, your appetites, your unexamined Selves are still bound up within you. I see that you have not begun to work on yourselves, not as I have. You have lived long years since you cast me down the pit, but you have learned nothing from that experience. All experience is good, if it leads to a good outcome. But only I have profited from all of this.

Yosef says: I saw the fruits of Anger, gagged their bitter juices and choked as the pulp and skin and rotten seeds were crammed down my throat. And I learned from that experience that no person dare fall victim to Anger. That, as justifiable as Anger may be, there is ultimately no Justice in it. But you – Yosef goes on – you are still slaves to your whims and appetites.

It is not for nothing that the story of Yehuda and Tamar is interposed within the Yosef narrative. For it is Yehuda who, through the teachings of the wise Tamar, arrives at the realization that appetites are destructive. That without self-mastery, we are nothing. It is Yehuda who, through learning to master himself, becomes capable of pleding himself to Yaakov for Binyamin’s safety. Who becomes able to stand and argue before Yosef. Who is ultimately worthy to lead Klal Israel.

And what is Yosef saying to his brothers? They have come to a market town. Like so many other traders and sellers and buyers, they are on the road and far from home. What will happen during their brief stay in Mizraim need not be talked about on their return. Mizraim – what happens here, stays here. And Mizraim is a nation of sexuality, of appetite and lust. ‘Erva – sexual impropriety. You have come to see the lewdness of this lewd nation, Yosef tells his brothers. You have not worked on yourselves at all, but even as you are looking for the best bargains on grain, you are thinking how you are going to spend your free afternoon with the local harlots. Have you learned nothing?

And his brothers do not get it. They reply – We are the sons of one man, and there is our youngest at home, and then there is The Man Who Isn’t There. They can not avoid mentioning him. Oh! How they wish he would go away!

At the beginning of chapter 45, Yosef can restrain himself no longer, and he reveals himself to his brothers. Yosef has given in to weeping before, but in secret. Now, as he makes himself known to his brothers, he gives full voice to his weeping. In a powerful and poetic moment, the text says (45:2) “And he gave over his voice to weeping, and Egypt heard, and the House of Pharaoh heard.” The act of weeping is variously described in Chumash as lifting up the voice. Here, and only here, we see a man who gives over his voice entirely to Weeping, and the resulting image is of Yosef’s weeping resonating over the land itself, as though not merely the woman at their kneading-boards, not merely the farmers in their fields or the laborers bearing their tools, but the very sand and rocks, the waters of the Nile, the dust of the air – all, all hung suspended, struck dumb and still by the force of Yosef’s weeping.

Notice that the only other one to weep is Benyamin. Yosef’s brothers are stock still as he weeps upon their necks. Even his father does not respond in kind when, at 46:29, Yosef comes running to embrace him and to weep upon him on his arrival in Goshen. Clearly, their guilt is too great to allow them to give vent to feelings of joy, of relief. Their feelings remain pent within them. Only Binyamin – who had no part in his brother’s tragedy – can weep freely on being reuinted with Yosef. And only Yosef, the man who has purged himself of petty anger, can weep freely at the sight of his long-lost family.

Yosef tries to educate his brothers, but he appears not to hold out too much hope. When he sends them back to bring Yaakov down to Mizraim, his one word of parting is (45:24) Do not fight among yourselves on the way.

But the outcome of all this will be that Yaakov and Yosef are reunited. And this is where the foundation will be laid for Klal Israel. Up until now, Bnei Israel have been exactly that: the sons of one man, Israel. A family, however dysfunctional. The definition of a family is biological. “We are all the sons of one man,” they say over and over again, as though that means anything. But we have seen they have no allegiance to one another. None, until Yehuda steps forward and tells Yaakov, (43:9) I will be an assurance for him. People are a family by accident. To become a nation, people require a common identiy, must have allegiance to one another. To that end, Yaakov is brought down to Mizraim in order to teach Yosef. And it is both a Teaching and a Learning for both of them.

In Parashat VaYeshev, when Yosef is taken down to Mizraim, it is by Ishmaelites who pass by at 37:25 bringing nechot u-tzri va-lot – “spicery and balm and ladanum.” The second of these – Tzri – is an ingredient of the incense used in the Beit HaMikdash. It would appear that all three are also used in the process of embalming corpses, as practiced by the Egyptians.

When Yaakov is preparing his sons to return to Mizraim, orders them to take back the money that was found in their sacks. He also sends with them a gift for the Man – for Yosef – consisting of (43:11) balm and honey, spicery and ladanum, pistachios and almonds. Yaakov sends the three objects that first accompanied Yosef to Mizraim – items that are used for enjoyment, but not nourishment – but he mixes with them fruits of the Land of Israel. Items that are nourishing as well as pleasing to the senses. Devash – date honey, as well as pistachios and almonds. He is reaching out to Yosef. Yosef, you have made your own way in the world, and no man has risen higher than you; yet, you need Torah to perfect yourself. I, on the other hand, have learned so much Torah, yet I have not had the courage or the wisdom to perfect myself as a human being. Yaakov recongizes that now, together, he and Yosef will be able to merge their greatnesses to a new and transcendent greatness.

Yosef, like all who truly achieve greatness, sees his entire life as of a piece, as a continuum leading to a Destiny. We see it on his first being reunited with his brothers in the marketplace. They bow down to him, and rather than feeling a sense of anger, or of revenge, he recalls his dreams of childhood and recognizes that they have begun to come true. For Yosef it is a clear sign that his life is coming to its apex.

At 45:8 he tells his brothers, It was not you who sent me here, but G-d. The Rambam rephrases this: You did not sell me here, rather, G-d sent me here. Yosef reads his ultimate Destiny in every occurrence of his life.

Now, reunited with his father, Yosef will have the opportunity to learn the basic things a father must teach his son, and that Yaakov neglected to teach Yosef. The first seventeen years of Yosef’s life were an emotional disaster – created by Yaakov – which resulted in Yosef being sent to Mizraim. Now, for the last seventeen years of Yaakov’s life, father and son are reunited.

I often hear Jews tell me, “I don’t need Torah to be a good person.” And it’s true. One must agree: it is possible to become a good person without Torah. We have seen Yosef elevate himself by dint of his own insight. No, we do not need Torah to become good people. We need Torah to perfect ourselves. As Jews, there is an avenue open to us that, while not closed to anyone, is accessible only to those who embrace it. As the Gemara teaches, Torah will perfect us, only to the extent we extinguish ourselves for its sake. A Jew who embraces Torah will improve, no matter how far that Jew has progressed along the path of Humanity. A Jew who rejects Torah will never attain full human potential, as hard as they may toil in the fields of Secular Humanism and social awareness.

Yaakov spent his childhood and youth in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber, learning Torah behind its walls. But his Torah was sterile. ChaZaL exhort us over and over again to go out into the world, lest our Torah rot and putrify, and lest our rotten Torah rot out our souls too. Rather, we must take Torah into the world. We must live a life of Torah – openly, freely – seeking to perfect ourselves at all times. As much as Yaakov will teach Yosef the greatness of Torah, so Yosef will reveal to Yaakov the greatness of a man bent on not falling prey to the whims of emotion, of appetite. Of transforming destructive evil into creative good.

Yosef has lived the life of the Beinoni – the “In-Between Man” of the Tanya. While living surrounded by the rages and passions and desires and yearnings and desperate appetites and wrath and ravings of the world, Yosef has kept his actions free of taint. He has purged his actions of anger, of vengefulness, of appetite and guile. In his behavior he makes it clear that he wants only the very best for his brothers, as he did for the whole world when he was Chief Stweard of Mizraim. Now, his father’s Torah will hold up a mirror to that greatness and show Yosef the path to ever-greater transcendence. Together, they will transcend the mere bonds of birth and create a community based on love for one’s fellow. Based on Yehuda’s value of all Israel standing as guarantors for one another. This will be the end of the family of Yaakov, and the beginning of the Nation of Israel.

Yours for a better world.


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