Friday, December 25, 2015

The thwarted kiss between Joseph and Jacob – practical & conditional love Vayechi

The hearts of so many adults bear the scars of conditional parental love. Their parents were so fixated on what they wanted for or from their children that they failed to embrace their children as they were.  A related theme is the seemingly transactional and predominantly practical nature of relationships between some fathers and sons. I see these same dynamics in some of the commentary about the attitudes of our patriarch Jacob.

Around the time of Jacob’s death, as he prepared to bless Joseph’s children he asked who are they?[i]” The question is interpreted as questioning their suitability for blessing. ‘Was their father’s and mother’s union validated by a religious marriage contract (Ketubah)[ii]?’  Another practical consideration that is suggested is that Jacob knew that they were to have wicked descendants[iii]! In contrast Joseph was more present in the emotional dimension of the moment. He immediately prostrated himself on the ground before God, and begged for mercy that he not be humiliated[iv]”.  Tuning in to his practical oriented dad, Joseph also pleaded: they are my sons, they are righteous like me[v]!” It is only after this reassurance that Jacob asked that they be brought to him. He kissed and hugged them before he proceeded to bless them[vi].  

Similar commentary suggests that Jacob focused on merit at the very moment of his reunion with his son Joseph, after twenty-two years of separation and grief. Joseph was only seventeen when he went missing, reportedly killed by a wild animal. When father and son reunited, Joseph fell on his father’s neck and cried[vii]. According to commentary Joseph sought to kiss his father and be kissed by him but his father would not allow it. The reason given for this is that Joseph had been aroused by the seduction of his master’s wife, despite the fact that in the end he did not commit adultery[viii].  I am troubled by the view that technicalities and judgements would be in play at a time one would expect intense parental love. I also think this interpretation is implausible in light of the next verse, in which Jacob exclaims now I can die (happy) after seeing your face because you are still alive![ix]” 

The Torah does not tell us about another word being spoken between Jacob and Joseph for the next almost seventeen years. The next conversation was practical and short. Jacob requested that his son Joseph bury him in Canaan rather than Egypt and Joseph agreed to do so[xi].  Finally, in one of the last chapters on Jacob’s life did he talk to his son in a reflective way about how he had been blessed and about the death of his first love, Joseph’s mother, Rachel[xii]. According to commentary, Jacob told Joseph that he knew that Joseph felt resentful about his mother being buried on the side of the road, so he explained the decision [xiii]

As a son I feel challenged by all of this. I reflect about my own relationship with my father—how often do we talk about matters of the heart? It is easier to talk shop, getting advice about working in non-profit leadership, or to talk about Torah. Like Joseph, I am tuned in to the emotional side of life. Talking about feelings with my dad might be really useful., I suspect this  might be true for many fathers and sons. On the other hand a commitment to a relationship includes respect between both parties to allow both to determine the nature and content of the relationship.

[i] Genesis 48:8
[ii] Masechet Kalah, chapter 3, 15a, or Were they born out of a holy pregnancy? Manuscript Midrash Habiur, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1751 note 60
[iii] Pesikta Rabbati 3,
[iv] Midrash Tanchuma Vayechi 6, Manuscript Midrash Habiur, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1751 note 61
[v] Pesikta Rabbati 3
[vi] Genesis 46:29
[vii] Genesis 48:8
[viii] Masechet Kallah, 3, cited in Torah Shlaima, p 1697
[ix] Genesis 46:30, on the other hand even this expression of emotion is interpreted as being practical. Rashi suggests that Jacob was thinking that he would die twice, once in this world and a second time in the world to come because God would demand your death from me (that is to hold me liable for your death), but now that you are alive I will only die once”  and I would die twice
[x] Unkelus
[xi] Genesis 47:29-31
[xii] Genesis 48:7
[xiii] Rashi

Friday, December 11, 2015

Judgement, Muslims and responses to terrorism (Miketz 2015)

Photo by Scott under

The other day I discussed with a group of Muslim high school students the Islamic principle that one must make 70 excuses for a friend who appears to have done the wrong thing.[i]  It is an interesting variation of the Jewish principle of judging everyone favourably.[ii]  I wonder to what extent these ideals are applied in either community when it comes to judging people outside our own faith communities. Giving the benefit of the doubt can also inhibit fighting evil, if we offer excuses when it would be more useful to name the problem and address it.  These considerations are relevant to judgements regarding terrorism.

This issue of judging others plays out in the discussion of the description of Joseph by Pharaoh’s chief butler in Genesis. The Pharaoh was distressed about a dream that no one could interpret. The chief butler told him that in prison there was a ‚“youth, a Hebrew slave”, who can interpret dreams.[iii]  This description has been interpreted as malicious – Cursed are the wicked that even the good that they do, is done with evil intentions!” – because Joseph’s Hebrew ethnicity calls attention to his membership of a hated people, his youth to his foolishness and his status as a slave to a restriction on Joseph ever holding high office.[iv] 

An alternative interpretation suggests that the description was motivated by fear rather than malice. Joseph had interpreted the chief butler’s own dream two years earlier, when they were both prisoners, and had requested that the chief butler mention his unjust imprisonment to the king. The chief butler had forgotten about Joseph. He was now worried that if Joseph succeeded in interpreting the king’s dream he would be appointed to high office and would then take revenge against the chief butler for letting him down.[v] 

Considering these two interpretations together, I suggest that:

a. Fear is a big motivating factor in denigrating the other. We need to resist excessive fear.  

b. It is sometimes absolutely right to judge. The tradition calls out the prejudice and mean spiritedness of the chief butler.  Muslim leaders have
publicly called out prejudice and injustice where they believed it was at play in the way the war on terror” is being prosecuted and have suggested that this injustice can contribute to radicalisation. The latter opinion is widely held by counter terrorism experts.[vi]  Equally, it is right for Muslim leaders and others to make crystal clear that there are no excuses for perpetrators of terrorism or for advocates of extremist ideology and generalised anti-Western, “conflict-of-civilisations” or other us & them” narratives.

c. There is a temptation for religious people and members of in-groups to assume the most negative interpretation of the character and motives of the other”. One of the Muslim teenagers made the observation in our session that misjudgement goes both ways. Some non-Muslims judge Muslims in general based on the actions of a minority of extremists, while some Muslims judge non-Muslims in general based on a minority of people who are prejudiced against Muslims, but the truth is that most people are not prejudiced.” I think he is right.

d. One flaw of reasoning is the assumption that if I don’t know about it, then it did not happen. Muslims I know and trust assure me that their religious leaders have been very clear in their condemnation of terrorism as absolutely unjustified. Yet, people who don’t have first-hand knowledge of these efforts assume they are not happening.

I fell into that kind of trap in 2010 when I wrote[vii] about Reuben in the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Reuben castigated his brothers for selling Joseph: Did I not say to you, do not sin with the boy and you did not listen?! And now his blood is being demanded (we are being held accountable for it).”[viii]  At the time I asserted that Reuben might have wanted to say that, it seems clear that he certainly meant to say that[ix], but he did not quite tell them that. Compare his record of what he told them with his actual words at the time, let us not kill his soul, do not spill his blood, (instead just) throw him into this pit in the desert (filled with snakes and scorpions[x]) but do not send your hand against him’.”[xi]

Two prominent commentators disagree with my judgement of Reuben. There is no doubt…that all of these words [that Reuben claimed to have said, he in fact] spoke to them at the time, but the Torah abbreviated the story.”[xii] 

Perhaps, rather than judging Muslim leaders for failing to condemn, when we don’t really know how much they do or don’t condemn, we can ask them about their efforts to ensure their followers are well educated about positive messages from within their own tradition about conflict and generosity.  For example, a prominent Muslim leader who attended the session with the Muslim teenagers where I raised the teaching about the 70 excuses expressed concern that not one of the boys knew of this teaching. Equally it would be worth asking: how well educated are Jewish teenagers, or adults for that matter, about positive messages in their own traditions that can contribute to peaceful relations between people who believe differently?

[i] “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” [Imam Bayhaqi, Shu`ab al-Iman, 7.522] cited on
[ii] Pirkei Avot 1:6
[iii] Genesis 41:12
[iv] Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit Rabba 89 cited in Rashi
[v] Chizkuni, alternatively the butler might also have been afraid of the King, who could be angry about why the chief butler never bothered to tell him until now about such a wise person as Joseph being in the land
[vi] Professor Boaz Ganor in a public lecture in Sydney on 27 July 2015 talked about the art of counter terrorism which involves the need to tackle capability and motivation, but the efforts to address the former through arrests etc. negatively impacts the attempt to win hearts and minds and decrease motivation for terrorism
[viii] Genesis 42:22
[ix] Yefat Toar, cited in Torah Shlaima p 1584, note 79, suggests that the meaning of what Reuben said was not to sin with the boy. However, the tone of the words he later claims to have said with those he said a the time differ significantly, which led me to wonder whether there was a discrepancy between what he felt like saying and the weaker words he actually used, perhaps out of fear of fully confronting the wrongful mindset of his brothers.
[x] Rashi
[xi] Genesis 37:22
[xii] Abarbanel in agreement with Ramban on Genesis 42:22