Parashat Hashavua for Vayeishev
Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Progressive Judaism Victoria
There’s lots to like in Vayeishev, but in this long and meandering portion there is plenty not to like! Bad behaviour is everywhere: favouritism (Gen 37:3), sibling rivalry (4), grandiosity (5-10), treachery (18-19) militated by Reuben (21-22), false imprisonment (23-23), trafficking (25-28, 36), deceit (29-35), proposed sperm donation (38:8), unreliable contraception advice (9), seduction (14-18), manipulation and blackmail (38:19-26), failed temptation and entrapment (39:7-20), questionable delegation of authority (1-6, 21-23), arbitrary imprisonment (40:1-4) and finally a dream interpretation party trick that correctly predicts the verdicts for the two prisoners, resulting in the death of the chief baker but the pardon of the chief cup bearer. These steps engineer Joseph, the gifted dream interpreter, the capable administrator, the trusted outsider, into the right place at the right time for the story to advance.
Some would leave responsibility for all that to God, rationalising the bad behaviour as necessary for the advancement of the action. But these are stories that implicitly question whether the end justifies means. I can’t help but notice that through the all this that Joseph doesn’t complain. He seems to be resigned, rolls with the punches, holds his own counsel, has remarkable patience and endurance, and rises through natural aptitude wherever he finds himself. Joseph responds from an inner acceptance, a private drive, some would say an inspired awareness of things to come. There will come a time, after Joseph’s successful management of the Egyptian economy and the remarkable boom that he has ensured, that he will fade from memory and a new Pharaoh will arise who doesn’t even recall his work. It will fall to others to drive the story on, to ensure the enslaved Hebrews keep their identity and hold their nerve over hundreds of years.
In the cycles of politics, there are protégées and fall guys, elevations and pardons, corporate memory and amnesia, delegation and abdication, loyalty and treachery, truth and lies. Some reputations loom large for good, others for wickedness. History demonstrates it and our primary biblical stories annually replay the vivid reminder. And whilst some heroes can summon their strength to respond instantly and perhaps impulsively (Samson comes to mind) others must take a longer view. Joseph will manage a 15 year economic cycle: seven years of plenty that anticipates and makes provision for 7 years of hardship. Some campaigns are slow going, others rely on lightning strikes of action for their attrition.
The Maccabees (our surname for the clan) were also a large family, with no recorded tensions between biological brothers or those who joined them in their BCE 167-160 long revolt, that responded to the imposition of Hellenistic culture upon the region and in particular its impact in Judea. Although the Progressive Movement doesn’t seek the restoration of Temple worship, we re-enact the inauguration following its appropriation for Greek pagan worship. We teach our children a “miraculous” story, perhaps to cultivate their wonderment, to offer a myth that has no cost at the expense of anyone else, to find a way to explain the much-loved lighting of Chanukah candles.
But there is a paradox: we light the candles in an uncontested sequence. We add the candles from the right-hand end of the chanukiyah and light the newest one first each night (i.e. the left hand one) increasing till the final night is a vibrant blaze fully realised after 8 nights of increase. That was the vision of Hillel (Bavli: Shabbat 21B:5) whose argument was to increase joy, commitment and reinforcement rather than reduce it “ein moridin”, as opposed to Shammai whose last night was a single candle ready to snuff to darkness. But the blaze of the candles is brief. The instruction to gaze upon them and take time for reflection while they burn invites us to recall that in cycles, patterns repeat. We are invited to think through the realities that lie alongside the miracles, the distinctions between educative myths and cynical lies, the realpolitik and the rebellious spirit of the individual. The restored Temple only lasted till 70CE. But that allowed time for the rabbinic leadership to document what would become the behavioural blueprint for our future, The Mishnah. As we pause for eight nights of reflection, we have the chance to plot our spiritual path for the coming year. Flames are the symbol of light, energy and optimism as well as memory. With much darkness in our world this year, our candles are additional sparks in the gloom. Or zaru’a la tzadik, ulyishrei lev simchah Light is sown for the righteous and for upright of heart, joy (Psalms 97:11).