Thursday, December 15, 2011

Boldness, Reticence and Respectability: Joseph, Tamar and Reuben

Photo By Yaniv G, Permission to use for non-commercial
purposes with attribution

I am thinking about boldness. I am feeling tired of timidly asking advice. I am wondering if I should show more courage to back myself in spite of having gotten it wrong sometimes, or is it wiser to prudently seek advice? There is a part of me that wants to assert myself, throw caution to the wind, just decide by myself and then do it. How does that gel with the need for Humility? Jews have thought of bashfulness as one of our three defining positive characteristics[i] yet, we are also called to boldness[ii] with three biblical figures all displaying this in some form in the reading Vayeshev.

Boldness vs. Timidity and Bashfulness
 A compelling argument is made by Sir Walter Murdoch that human misery is not caused “a gang of scoundrels so depraved that they really wish to keep us all poor… There are not enough scoundrels to go round... The persons we have to face are the dull, the stodgy, the unimaginative, the ancestor-worshippers, too timid to think for themselves…[iii] To put it another way, if we use both hands to cover our backsides, we have no hands to do anything with.

A young Indigenous young boy in the Northern Territory taught me something about holding back. I remember him as “Just Gamin”, because he gave me a false name before telling me in Territory slang that he was kidding, or “just gamin”. We played a game, in which he excelled by giving things away. His teacher praised him for this, but he immediately put his hand over his face. “Why are you doing that?” asked the teacher. “It’s shame”, he replied. An elder explained to me and to his teacher the next day that shame is a way her people show respect. Not standing out, instead deferring to the elders and the group. This has some similarity to the Jewish concept of מכיר מקומו recognising one’s place[iv]. We are taught that only a fool speaks before one who is greater than himself[v].

Joseph the Bold Dreamer 
As an ostracised younger sibling whose brothers disliked him so intensely they could not even speak to him[vi], Joseph would have been wise to “pull his head in”. His self appointment as monitor of his brothers’ behaviour, reporting all “sins” to their father[vii] alienated his siblings. Yet, Joseph does not lose confidence. Instead he dreams of ruling his brothers[viii]. Perhaps the fantasy was a response to the humiliation he suffered, a sentiment expressed as “the stone the builders scorned, ended up at the top of the corner[ix]”.

In Jewish tradition ‘our dreams at night reflect our thoughts during the day[x]’. This view of dreams suggests an element of choice and responsibility for our dreams and explains why Joseph’s brothers hated him even more on account of his dreams[xi].Remarkably; the hatred does not cause him to stop dreaming. He dreams again, an even more grandiose dream. In the second dream the sun and the moon and the stars are bowing to him. He insists on telling it to his brothers, even as they seek to ignore him, in his desire to make the dream real[xii]. In spite of his father secretly believing in the dream[xiii], he pretends to dismiss it. “What is this dream?!”  he asks, the implication is “how does your heart rise to dream this dream, this is nothing but arrogance and youthfulness[xiv]”.

Of course Joseph’s dreams come true. His leadership qualities keep surfacing. When his brothers sell him into slavery, he rises to become manager of his master’s house[xv]. When thrown into jail, he ends up running the place[xvi] and concerning himself with the needs of his fellow prisoners with sensitivity and awareness of their feelings[xvii]. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that thanks to the realisation of Joseph’s dreams, he eventually saves the family and the entire Egypt from famine. At the time, Joseph would have been described as confident to the point of recklessness. In spite of his brother’s hatred, he readily agrees to visit them in the field, and in the medium term he suffers the consequences.

Reuben, Boldness Lost?
In contrast with the bold Joseph, Reuben seems timid in his defence of his younger brother. Perhaps he had the stuffing knocked out of him when he acted impulsively on his anger[xviii] to defend his mother’s honour.  When Rachel was alive Jacob’s permanent bed was in her tent. When Rachel's died, instead of Jacob putting his bed in the tent of his first wife Leah, he moves it to his concubine Bilhah's tent[xix]. Reuben angrily declares “if my mother’s sister was a rival to my mother, should the maidservant of my mother’s sister now be a rival to my mother?![xx]” He moves his father’s bed from her tent and puts it in his mother's tent[xxi]. For years he carries guilt about the episode[xxii] with Bilhah, even running off to busy himself with fasting at a critical point in the drama of the sale of Joseph[xxiii].

Joseph’s life was in danger when his brothers consider murdering him. The Torah testifies that Reuben intended to save him[xxiv]. From Reuben’s words it is not so obvious. Reuben tells the brothers they should not kill him with their own hands, instead just throw him into a pit. It is suggested that Reuben initially suggested they should not sin at all with the boy. When they refused to listen, he changes his tune and partners with them[xxv]. He tries to make it seem that it is not out of love Joseph that he objects to the act of murder. He implies that his concern is about the difference in the severity of the punishment for outright murder in comparison to the less severe punishment for indirectly causing his death[xxvi]. A lesson from Reuben’s failure is that we must do things with a joyous or full heart, and that if Reuben had done so he would have lifted Joseph on his shoulder and carried him home to his father[xxvii].  On the other hand Reuben is credited for being a trailblazer, being the first person to repent[xxviii] on his own initiative.

Bold Beyond Respectability
Murdoch identifies “respectability” as “something (that) has worked so consistently against the healthy development of the race has been so consistently a clog on all progress towards the bettering of the world…  (it)has many virtues, but they are the meaner virtues, the timid virtues, caution, prudence, docility, tameness, discretion. All the brave, adventurous virtues are regarded by this dingy goddess as silly or dangerous, or both.

Respectability certainly does not constrain another bold character, the exceptionally beautiful[xxix] Tamar, daughter in law of a Judah[xxx]. She seduces her father in law after she sees herself being strung along[xxxi]. She had been promised Judah’s youngest son as a husband when he was old enough, but Judah was not keen as she had already married Judah’s two others sons who both died young. According to one view she had been so modest she would cover her face when she was in her father in-laws house[xxxii].  Yet, she overcame any reservations she had in order to achieve her goal of having a child from the family of Judah[xxxiii]. She times it for when Judah is doing his sheep sharing, “a time of happiness and great feasts and when a person is happy is desire overpowers him[xxxiv]. She succeeds and gives birth to twins, whose descendants include King David and his descendents.

David himself famously thumbs his nose at respectability when he jumps and dances before God’s holy ark. His aristocratic wife, Michal, disgustedly describes David in his uninhibited dancing as someone “who exposed himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as would expose himself one of the idlers.[xxxv]"  Yet, David himself also asserts that it is the broken and crushed heart that God will not despise[xxxvi]. This links well with the idea that the ambiguous origins of David’s family were meant to prevent the kings of Judah from arrogance “by remembering their origins they would be of lowly spirit and would conduct their kingship with humility[xxxvii]”.

It all depends on the situation. There are merits in both reticence and boldness. Even shame can be a force for good, just as it can be an unhelpful inhibiting factor. I might feel some shame because a standard had been violated or it might be that an unjustifiable line drawn by others has rightfully been crossed. To achieve anything we will often need to bold and take risks. When we mess up we need to own up and address it, and then try again almost as if we had never fallen.

[i] Talmud Yevamot 79a
[ii] Pirkey Avot 5:20, quoted in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 1:3, be as bold as a leopard…
[iii] Sir Walter Murdoch, Collected Essays of Walter Murdoch – “On Dull People”
[iv] Yam shel Shlomo 8:58 (Polish rabbi, Shlomo Luria (c.1510-1573) states: "Because, for our sins, the ordained are many but the learned few, and the ignorant are growing numerous; not one of them knows his place and as soon as he is ordained he begins to act like a lord and collect students at great expense, as do the noble officials who hire servants to run ahead of them." Cited by Adam Teller Also found in Tanya 27
[v] Pirkey Avot 5:7
[vi] Genesis 37:4
[vii] Gensis 37:2
[viii] Genesis  37:5-9
[ix] Psalm 118:22
[x] Talmud Brachot 55b, discussed in Nehama Liebovitz, New Studies In Bereshit, p.431
[xi] Bchor Shor
[xii] Lekach Tov, a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that has not been read
[xiii] Berasheet Rabba 84: “He took a pen and wrote down the date and time and place” of the dream, Rashi: he was waiting for it to come true,  Seforno: “he thought that the dream will come true and he desired and look forward to it being fulfilled, while Sefer Hayashar has Jacob kiss him and bless him when he hears it. Clearly his criticism of Joseph was a show for the brothers to defuse their jealousy
[xiv] Ramban
[xv] Genesis 39:4
[xvi] Genesis 39:22-23
[xvii] The Lubavitcher Rebbe as explained by R. Yosef Y Jacobson
[xviii] Rashi to Genesis 49:4
[xix] Talmud Shabbat 55
[xx] Rashi to Genesis 35:22
[xxii] The literal meaning of the text is “When his father lived in that land, Reuben went and slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine”. 
[xxiii] Beresheet Rabba 84
[xxiv] Genesis 37:22
[xxv] Bchor Shor
[xxvi] Ramban
[xxvii] Vayikra Rabba 34:9, this would have happened if Reuben realised that the Torah would right about his trying to save his brother
[xxviii] Beresheet Rabba 84
[xxix] Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shelaima, p. 1449
[xxx] a brother of both Joseph and Reuben
[xxxi] Genesis 38:6-16
[xxxii] Talmud Sotah 10b
[xxxiii] Rashi to Genesis 38:14
[xxxiv] Bchor Shor, interesting to compare this with the perspective given in Tanya that when a person is depressed he is most vulnerable to his evil inclination as his resistance is down
[xxxv] Samuel II, 6:14-20
[xxxvi] Psalm 51
[xxxvii] Radak

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