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Parshat Vayechi: D'var Torah by David McKee, December 22, 2018

02/04/2019 11:49:35 AM


This parasha is the last in the book of Genesis.  It is the end of the stories of the ancestors.  It contains three parts: the blessing of Menasha and Ephraim and their incorporation into the B’nei Israel (though once again, the younger brother prevails).  A long and sometimes bitter farewell from Jacob to his sons, rewarding some and cursing others.  And a final confrontation of Joseph and his brothers (other than Benjamin).

This parasha, then, contains the triumphal end of the Joseph story – a kind of major chord celebration.  Think of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.  It also contains a counter narrative – the story of Joseph’s brothers, a kind of minor chord tragedy.  Think of a Shostakovich quartet.

The brothers’ story is essentially the story of a lie. It ends here, but begins much earlier.  Joseph’s brothers bring home the torn and bloody coat of many colours that was Joseph’s pride and joy. The very brief interchange is as follows:

Then they took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in blood.  They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father and they said, “We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or no?” He recognized it and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast”

I appreciate that the Torah is terse in the extreme, and that it does not explicitly address psychological analysis or speculation in its portrayals.  But if someone came to you with a torn and bloody parka you last saw on your child, or grandchild, what would you say? “Oh no, I guess she was run over by a car.”?  How about “What happened?. . . Where did you find it? . . . What else did you see? . . .Have you seen her . . .  Let me go and see . . .”

On its face, the brothers’ story is a pretty lame one.  Of course it is Joseph’s cloak.  It was made specially for him and immediately caused Joseph’s brothers to hate him.  And in response to their tale Jacob asks none of the obvious questions. Instead he jumps immediately to a conclusion that it must have been a savage beast. Who said anything about a savage beast?

This is the same Jacob who waited after the rape of Dinah, keeping his counsel until he could discuss it with his sons to decide what to do.  The same Jacob who waited one more night by himself on the banks of the Jabok River before crossing to meet Esau. Yet here he immediately supplies the whole story: Joseph has been killed or wounded by a beast.  His brothers did not say that.  It is only one of a number of possible conclusions, and not the most likely one on a busy trade route. 

Jacob is not portrayed in the Torah as a foolish man or one who is easily fooled by others.  True, he got oversold in the wife department, but by and large, he is the trickster of Bereshit, conning his brother, his father and his uncle over and over.  Was he fooled this time? Or was it simply that he wanted to be fooled?

I suggest that his haste to find an innocent answer that completely absolves his other sons of blame is driven by the alternative he faced.  What could he possibly do with the alternatives? If he concludes they, and not a wild beast, killed Joseph what would he do then?  Kill his other sons in revenge for Joseph’s assumed death?  What would that accomplish other than more loss?  If he decided to pursue any feelings of doubt he had, would he sit down to dinner with them forever looking across at them and wondering? I think rather that Jacob quickly made up a story precisely to avoid those conclusions and come up with a story he could live with.

When Jacob is told that Joseph is alive he says only:

"Enough! My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”

Once again, where is the obvious question as to “how this could be”? Where is the surprise? Or is this just someone who no longer needs to carry the heavy burden of all those distortions, dishonest conclusions, willful blindness and outright lies. Someone who wishes to avoid further conversation.

I may be reading too much into these few remarks, but whatever Jacob believed, his sons knew they were lying and that they were responsible for Joseph’s disappearance.  Rabbi Tina once asked at a Torah study meeting: “what did they all talk about at dinner for all those years?”.  The answer is, I think, obvious: “Nothing”.  The most important event in their lives at that point would be Joseph’s disappearance.  We know they never told Jacob what they had done – they chose to remain silent on that subject.  Silence is the best guarantee against a slip that might reveal the true story, rather than the one they made up.  Joseph’s brothers would not likely trust their own tongues to invent speculation about his supposed disappearance or his whereabouts.  The likelihood of an inconsistency among 10 people is enormous and silence is the only safe strategy.

They would all start by not mentioning Joseph, but that is not where it ends.  Pretty soon the conversational embargo expands to “pit”, “slave” and “sold”, “wild beast”, “disappeared”, “brother”, “dead”, “Midianite traders” or just “Midianite” or “Ishmaelite”.  After a while, the acid will have eaten away a large part of the brothers’ vocabulary.  Which in its own way requires Jacob to work harder to invent excuses to permit him to ignore the deafening silence.

I wonder how many of us developed family falsehoods like that.

Certainly, I conspired with the members of my own family for many years to pretend that the alcohol addiction that kept one of us in thrall was normal, or perhaps tolerable, on occasion funny or perhaps not really happening at all. None of which was true, of course.  To do that you need to be able to tell yourself many elaborate and convoluted untruths, and to agree with others on how to be untrue, or at least silent. If you need to badly enough, if that lie is all that keeps your world together, you can convince yourself of anything. It does not matter if your fiction is ridiculous to a stranger; it only needs to work for you and your co-conspirators.

The trouble is that once you have exerted such great effort to learn these skills, they are hard to let go of.  Even after the immediate cause has passed - Joseph is alive, the drinking stops, - old habits die hard.  Joseph’s brothers, as we shall see, cannot let go of their silence.  For years I could not let go of my keenly honed secrecy and willful blindness. Some people can let go of the habits of self-delusion, some cannot. Actually, I think that it is really only possible to do so with the assistance of another person who can help you untie those carefully constructed knots.

Joseph’s brothers, unfortunately, could not.  After all is revealed, the entire family is reunited in Egypt.  They live there in peace for 17 years until Jacob dies.    And what is the brothers’ reaction after his death?

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did him!  So they sent this message to Joseph:  “Before his death your father left this instruction: So you shall say to Joseph ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.

What is Joseph’s reaction?

Hey guys ,come on this is me you’re talking to; we’ve been through this all  before  . . . .  Or more exactly:

Have no fear, am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.  And so fear not, I will sustain you and your children.

Almost exactly the same thing he told them on the day he revealed who he was.

The real tragedy here is NOT that Joseph’s brothers are still telling adolescent-grade lies.  The tragedy is that the story they invent tells us that for 17 years these 10 men have lived with their brother Joseph without once talking about the most significant event in their shared lives.  Despite Joseph’s effusive welcome and forgiveness, they have spent 17 years locked in a cage of silence with only fear and guilt to keep them company. 

And I think Joseph gets this.  Aside from the feasting and celebrating what does he ask?

When God has taken notice of you [i.e. when God commands the Exodus] you shall carry up my bones from here.

As if to say, OK, we aren’t going to get past it in this life, but at least treat my bones with respect.  My bones won’t hurt you.

What I take from the end of this story is this. This counter-narrative is not about all forms of lying – after all there are times when we are commanded to lie – weddings and funerals – the Holy Lies that Rabbi Tina talked about a couple of years ago.  There are times when it seems the kindest thing to do, or you just do it and hope, if caught, to be forgiven afterwards.  What this one story is about, is the kind of lie that requires many subsequent lies to feed and protect the first one.  The kind that creates ingrained, habitual behaviour that may be impossible to shake. 

And if you are unable to let go of those habits, like Joseph’s brothers what you wind up with is a box full of bones and a memory full of regrets. In contrast, Joseph himself, who suffered the most, but whose tricks were purposeful and limited in time, ended his life most at peace.


Sun, 21 April 2024 13 Nisan 5784