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VaYechi: Towards a Definition of Jewish Power

There once was a family of twelve brothers.  One of them was favored by his father and became the object of jealousy and hatred by the other brothers.  Initially they had planned to kill him, but later decided to throw him in a pit, leaving him for dead.  They then agreed to spare his life, as they wanted to profit from him, selling him into slavery.  This slave brother became wildly successful, rising to become the viceroy of Egypt.  One day during a famine he noticed his brothers had come down to buy provisions for the family.  Here was his chance.   Instead of revealing himself to his brothers, he used the full power of Egypt, falsely accusing them of being spies.  Without any due process, he threw them into a pit.  Finally, he has had his revenge.  The brothers languished and ultimately died there.  The End.

However, this is not the end of the story, you say!  There is more to the story!  However, in the opening salvo between Joseph and his brothers the revised ending seems to be exactly where the narrative leads.  If we had never heard the story before, we might in fact be surprised that he released them at all.  Indeed, for three days all the brothers were thrown in the pit, and the text provides no reason, no rationale.  The text doesn’t need to because it is obvious why Joseph would act this way; it is the way most people would behave.  It is the rest of the story which is surprising.  What changed?

There are many hints in the text that Jacob very much knew what had happened to Joseph, although he never says so explicitly. Whether it was directly revealed to him by the children, or he was able to perceive the ongoing wound, Jacob saw there was an unspeakable secret in this family that could only be alluded to, but never uttered explicitly.  At the end of Jacob’s life, he blesses the children.   Jacob says of Joseph.  “Archers bitterly assailed him; They shot at him and harried him” (Genesis 49:23).

Who are these archers shooting arrows? Are not the archers his own children?  Here we have a father essentially admitting at the end of his life that yes, he knows what has happened to his son.  These words are not merely addressed to Joseph, but every brother.  They used their power, their militancy, and turned it on their own brother.

No two brothers symbolize this more than Shimon and Levi.  Shimon and Levi you will remember massacred the people of Shechem (Genesis 34). They did this because the king’s son, Chamor, had violated their sister Dina.  Shimon and Levi object to their father’s protestations at the time: “Will our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31).  Despite what might be a just claim, their asymmetrical response of killing every male is absolutely condemned by Jacob at the end of his life.  He curses their anger for ‘in their fury they killed men’.   However, this violent use of power is not limited to only just causes, because power unchecked can have darker implications.  Jacob continues, “And when it pleases them, they maim an ox.”   Who is this ox? According to Rashi, the ox is none other than Joseph, who in other places is referred to as an ox (see Deuteronomy 33:17).   Rashi also indicates that it was Shimon himself who threw Joseph in the pit (Genesis 42:24).  In essence, violent tendencies are very hard to reign over, and their later actions prove that their protestations on behalf of their sister were less than righteous.  If they were so protective of Dina, why did they not only protect Joseph, but were the first to throw him into a pit.   Furthermore, do they not remember that they plundered the city and financially benefited from the rape of Dina in much the same way they benefited from the sale of Joseph?  Their indiscriminate use of violence and power is a central concern of Jacob.

However, whatever power the brothers had in general and Shimon and Levi in particular, it paled in comparison to Joseph’s power.  Who is the embodiment of unlimited power?  Is it not Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, who bends the entire country to his will? And yet, this is not the type of strength that Jacob sees in his son, as he blesses his children at the end of his life

For Jacob, what is Joseph’s response to the arrows of his brothers?  “Yet his bow stayed taut, and his arms were made firm by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob” (Genesis 49:24).   Consider one who draws back an arrow and holds it in place.  The bow wants to be released; the arrows want to fly.  It takes superhuman strength to draw back the arrow and simply hold it in place.  Indeed, for Joseph’s entire life he carried the wounds of betrayal and abandonment  The temptation to strike back, ‘to release the arrows’, is ever present.  Yet he does not.  That Joseph does not release the arrow but pulls back, required great strength of character.

All of Egypt saw an invincible man of wisdom and power.  Jacob, however, sees a wounded child, embittered by inner struggles.  In Jacobs’s blessing, he attests that Joseph’s true power was not external, but internal.  The ability to overcome trauma and restrain his rage was the key that ultimately saved the family, and Jacob realized this.  From where did this rare capacity derive? Jacob can only attribute the source of this power to God, “The Mighty one of Jacob”.

Interestingly, the Talmud recounts the notion that God prays (Berakhot 7a).  To whom and about what does God pray? “God says: May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger towards Israel for their transgressions, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes through which Israel is punished. May I conduct myself toward My children, Israel, with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond the letter of the law.”  This description into the inner life of God is striking.  God, the one violated, restrains his own unlimited power, constrains his rage. He must pray to himself for patience, as it were. Thus, Joseph’s restraint and discipline is Godlike.

In the end, Jacob identifies within Joseph a Divine attribute of restraint.  Restraint is the ability to apply power appropriately.  True power is the capacity to reign over the tempest of emotions raging within the self, and effectively navigate one’s emotions with equanimity, wisdom, patience, and mercy.

Joseph exhibited mastery, upon his brothers, upon Egypt, and upon all the civilized world.  His greatest mastery, however, was the hidden victory in vanquishing the darker impulses of his own heart.  It is Joseph who embodies the teaching of the mishna in pirkei avot, “Who is powerful? He who vanquishes his own inner inclinations”  (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1).

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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