By Rabbi Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute
"After Yosef was in Egypt for a long time... Why didn't he send a note to his father to let him know where he was and to console him? ... Even if it would take a whole year wouldn't it have been worthwhile to let him know, to show respect for his father? ... He did everything at the appropriate time, so that his dreams would be fulfilled." [Ramban, Bereishit 42:9].
The Torah portion of Vayechi contains the end of the most dramatic event in the Tanach, and perhaps in world literature as a whole (we must be careful in making such a comparison!). This is the affair of Yosef and his brothers, of Yaacov and his sons. Every child and adult is excited and finds tears in his or her eyes whenever we take a renewed look at the Torah or study it in depth.
The whole book of Bereishit takes place in a dramatic atmosphere with common elements that are contrary to proper educational goals or that lack in modesty – the murder of Hevel, the expulsion of Yishmael, the stealing of the blessings, the intrigue of Lavan and Yaacov, and the events of Yosef and his brothers. And there are also events that are related to sexual encounters – Avimelech and Sarah, Reuven and Bilhah, Yehuda and Tamar... and among the others we should not forget Yosef and Potifar's wife. Some of these events end with repentance or with a victory of good over evil using tactics of intrigue.
Tanach – How should we Study it?
I am not raising the simplest question: What does the heavenly Torah want to teach us? And that is because I do not really have a logical answer for this question. If this were "world literature" it would present an opportunity for panel discussions on such topics as, "What were the intentions of the author? ... What insights were we meant to have as a result of reading this story?" As far as I am concerned, the answer to these questions is not a matter for straightforward interpretation or for amateur psychological attempts but rather belongs in a much more highly exalted realms – Midrashic meaning, hints, and mystic secrets. The key of the Divine message lies in the insight of the sages ("That which happened to the forefathers is a sign for the descendants" [Tanchuma 9]) as quoted by the Ramban with respect to the first move of the first Patriarch in Eretz Yisrael. ("'And Avram passed through the land' [Bereishit 12:6] – I will tell you a general principle which you should understand in all the passages that follow with respect to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov. And this is an important matter.") This includes a message that we cannot interpret all the signs of the events of Bereishit on our own. They are intertwined with events of the nation of Yisrael in exile, in redemption, and in the days of the Mashiach.
In what follows I will pursue my arguments against the approach of teaching "Tanach at Eye Level," which does not "speak" to me. In the halls of those who espouse this approach, they have been bothered by a question (which was also raised by the Ramban, as quoted in the heading of this article): Why didn't Yosef the viceroy send a message to his father that he was in Egypt? How about a carrier pigeon? Or a telegram? Or WhatsApp? Something, anything?
Years ago, my colleague, Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, suggested a novel reply to this question (Megadim 1). Yosef was not aware that his father did not know what had happened, and he made no contact because he decided that his father had cut him off as "the black sheep of the family," just as his ancestors had done in the expulsion of Yishmael and the rejection of Eisav. Yosef embedded this "desertion" in the name of his son Menasheh, "For G-d has made me forget the entire house of my father" [Bereishit 42:51]. This is indeed a charming theory, but it does not sit well! Another colleague, Rabbi Yaacov Medan, disputed this idea (Megadim 2), rejecting and disproving many of Rabbi Bin Nun's proof texts. Rabbi Medan prefers the suggestion given by Abarbanel and others, that Yosef's purpose was to cause the brothers to repent for their actions ("But we are guilty..." [Bereishit 42:21]) and to check their attitude towards Binyamin. But I am still not convinced! Is this enough to justify the suffering of Yosef's father, who mourned nonstop for his beloved son, who was missing?
Another colleague, the late Rabbi Chanan Porat, suggested an educational idea: Yosef, the righteous one, allowed himself to be put in a terrible position in order to protect his brothers. He did not send a message in order to avoid their being cursed by their elderly father if and when he would find out who had harmed Yosef. A fantastic idea, but it leaves me unconvinced! Do you really think that the great strategist Yosef was not able to invent some clever cover story that would allow him to let his mourning father know that "Yosef is still alive?" A respected professor also joined the psychological consortium by adding a diagnosis to the mix: Yosef was struck dumb by his traumatic experience! And I will not trouble you with other ideas which do not offer any reasonable moral explanations of the events.
Realms of the Mashiach
These commentaries on the Tanach, who measure the figures in the Torah "with the Amma of a man" [Devarim 3:11], defend their approach by disparaging the Ramban, who discussed this matter (as quoted above). His reply ("so that his dreams would be fulfilled") is not moral, educational, or psychologically valid unless we postulate that Yosef had a tremendous ego. However, the Ramban's idea is rooted in the realms of Midrashic interpretation, hints, and mystic secrets, as I noted above, which, appropriately, interpret Tanach "at its own level." In the words of the Ramban about "the fulfillment of the dreams" I hear an echo of the Mashiach, running parallel to the realm of the Mashiach of Yosef, whose actions are concealed and misty according to the wishes of He who establishes the course of history. The visionary response of the Ramban is rooted in the idea of "a sign for the children," although do not know for certain just what the sign means. Perhaps this is a sign from heaven: "Mashiach will come, he will not announce his arrival in advance!"
And for all of you who still feel that an explanation for these dramatic developments is in order based on logic, educational considerations, and human traits, I point you to a passage in Rashi: "'And he mourned for his son for many days... and his father wept for him' [Bereishit 37:34-35] –Yitzchak wept for the suffering of Yaacov, but he did not mourn himself because he knew that Yosef was alive," but he did not tell Yaacov. I will be happy to have anybody give me a human and logical explanation for this behavior!
Thursday, January 01, 2015
Mashiach Didn't Call Us
Posted by Jason Gold-Editor at 1/01/2015 02:08:00 PM