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Riddle of the Sphinx: A Thought on Yaakov and Yosef

At the start of  this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, we read “ Yaakov lived in seventeen years in the land of Egypt…“ (Genesis 47:28). On this the Baal HaTorim quoting the Midrash HaGadol picks up on the number seventeen. This number seventeen clearly sets the time that Yaakov lives in the land of Yosef to the time that Yosef his son spent growing up in the house of his father before he was sold into slavery in Egypt. This points out a powerful symmetry between fathers and sons in general and Yaakov and Yosef specifically . The child who was dependent on the parent physically and emotionally for their first stage of his or her life is often forced to reverse roles with their child for the parents’ final stage of life. There is a certain balance in the living out of the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Great Sphinx of Giza - 20080716a.jpg

As the riddle goes, “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” The answer goes that is a person. As a baby in the morning of a person’s life they crawl on all fours. As an adult in the noon of their life, they walk on two feet. But when they are old, in the evening of their life, they walk with a cane, on three feet. In the first 17 years Yosef was as if on all fours, in the middle Yaakov and Yosef both walk around and make their way in the world on two feet. Upon their reconnection in Egypt we see a wounded Yisrael with his cane living his final 17 years with his Yosef in Egypt.

It is crazy how I can see myself in my children’s different stages. I also see myself evolving into my parents more and more. The experience of the passing of time has proven a rich source of reflection.  I cannot say it is a riddle, but it is surely a mystery.

The Start of the Siege: Yosef and the 10th Tevet

This coming week we commemorate the Tenth of Tevet – Asarah BeTevet. This fast day is observed in mourning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia—an event that began on that date and ultimately culminated in the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the Kingdom of Yehudah. In many ways this is the beginning of the long slog to our diaspora that only ended in 1948.

 

Nebuchadnezzar camp outside Jerusalem. Famine in the city.jpg
Nebuchadnezzar camps outside Jerusalem.  Petrus Comestor‘s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

I was thinking about this narrative and this image in the context on the Torah portions we have been reading these last few week’s about Yosef and his diaspora in Egypt. Yosef’s story starts off with an interesting image. There we read:

And it came to pass, when Yosef was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Yishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spices and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Gen. 37: 23-25)

Their little brother comes to see his brothers. They strip him of his clothes,  stick him in pit, and have lunch. Their eating bread at this moment seems to underscore their cruelty.

The compelling element of this image is that Yosef in the pit is similar to the citizens of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. Nothing has happened yet, but a long history of diaspora is coming. Noteworthy we deal with this moment by fasting and not sitting around and eating bread. We fast to ensure that we are sensitive to Yosef, the citizens of Jerusalem, and all those in captivity who are insecure as to their future far from home. It is noteworthy that with the recent surge of antisemitism many of us are also sitting in fear.

Eli Wiesel wrote:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

We need to stand up against hate and cannot be neutral or silent. We cannot be like those who sit around and just eat bread. This  Sunday there is an important Solidarity March: No Hate. No Fear. I am very proud that my wife has played such a big role in rolling this out. We need to stand up for ourselves. We need to stand up for all those who live in fear.

– JOIN: https://nyjewi.sh/marchnyc

Who’s Dream is it Any Way

Last year when reading Miketz, this week’s Torah portion, I explored the Jewish history in psychology. There we see Yosef who accurately interpreted the dreams of the baker and butler being brought to the Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. As Sigmund Freud wrote in his The Interpretation of Dreams, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” Surely being an interpreter of dreams makes Yosef the father of analysis.

After  Pharaoh recounts his two dreams we read:

And Yosef said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do God has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do God has shown to Pharaoh. ( Genesis 41: 25- 28)

Yosef had a gift to interpret subtle facts and a desire to share that vision even if it did not make sense to others.  Yosef’s theory would  be tested to ensure that the experience matched the conclusions ( or minimally he bought himself 7 years to live). The most interesting part for me is his claim that is all “one dream”. In the process Yosef casts his lot with Egypt. Might this vision of it all being “one dream” have gone too far? 

Recently I reread Mama and the Meaning of Life by Irvin Yalom with my son Yishama. Yalom is also another Jewish psychotherapist and gifted writer who probes into the mysteries of the therapeutic encounter drawn from his own clinical experience.  The first story there is a richly rewarding, almost illicit glimpse into the therapist’s heart and mind, Momma and the Meaning of Life illuminates the unique potential of every human relationship.There he tells an amazing story of his recurring dream of his childhood with his mother. Spoiler alert , at the end of the story we read, “‘Your dream?’ That’s what I want to say to you. That’s the mistake, Oyvin- your thinking I was in your dream. That dream was not your dream, Sonny. It was my dream. Mother get to have dreams too. ” (Momma and the Meaning of Life 13)

We assume that Yalom’s dream is his own, but in fact it is his dream of his mother’s dream. So too might we assume that this “one dream” was actually just Pharaoh’s. This image of Yosef cast him getting too close to his patient and enmeshed with his client.  For analysis to be productive it cannot all be “one dream”. 

Yoselfie

The Yosef we see in our Torah portion resonates with today’s teens. He is pretty into himself and curates his public image. 

It is so nice to see who he proves to be at his moment of temptation. There we read:

One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. (Genesis 39:11- 12)

Simply he walks away from Potiphar’s wife. But why? On this portion the Gemara learns:

At that moment his father’s image [deyokeno] came and appeared to him in the screen. The image said to him: Yosef, the names of your brothers are destined to be written on the stones of the ephod, and you are to be included among them. Do you desire your name to be erased from among them, and to be called an associate [ro’eh] of promiscuous women? As it is written: “But he who keeps company with harlots wastes his riches” (Proverbs 29:3), as he loses his honor, which is more valuable than wealth. (Sotah 36b) 

The simple reading is that at the moment when he was tested he passed by a mirror/ window and saw his reflection. Instead of just seeing his own image he saw how much he looked like his father. His father challenged him to find his place amidst his brethren. 

So too we are asking our teens if they just see themselves in the screens of their smart phones. What would it look like for them to see their parents generation let alone the role they might play in their nation? We need to trust that our teens like Yosef will not get get lost taking “Yoselfies”. 

Keep Wrestling: For Reflections on Footprints in the Sand

After 20 years in  Charan, Yaakov returns home. VaYishlach , this week’s Torah portion, starts with Yaakov sending angel-emissaries to Esav in hope of a reconciliation, but his messengers report that his brother is on the warpath with 400 armed men. Yaakov prepares for war, prays, and sends Esav a large gift to appease him.That night, Yaakov ferries his family and possessions across the Yabbok River; he, however, remains behind and encounters the angel that embodies the spirit of Esav, with whom he wrestles in the dust until daybreak. Yaakov suffers a dislocated hip but vanquishes the supernal creature, who bestows on him the name Yisrael, which means “he who prevails over the divine.” This is a critical episode in that we his descendants get our national name from this moment as well.

A decade ago in thinking about this critical moment in Yaakov’s life and our national narrative I got to thinking about Mary Stevenson, 1936 classic Footprints in the Sand. Clearly written for a Christian audience I adapted it for what I thought it meant to be Jewish today.

blog footprintsOne night I dreamed I was walking along a path on a pristine beach. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes the path was well worn, other times it seemed that I took the path less traveled, and still yet other times I had blazed my own trail. What bothered me was that I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see that the otherwise clear path was muddled and unclear. So I cried aloud, “What about the promise that if I followed the path, it would always guide my way. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has no clear path in the sand. Why, when I needed guidance most, I was left alone with no direction?”And then I was quiet and I heard a still small voice reply, “The years when you could not see a path is when we wrestled, we are always together Yisrael.”

A decade later I feel that we are even more in this Yaakov moment of wrestling. It is clear that we are living in troubled and troubling times. I know that I for one am ” tired from all of this  winning“. We find ourselves amidst a frightful surge of antisemitism. We feel alone and abandoned. We are reliving the Dreyfus affair. Why must we repeat history?

I also know that we are struggling with ourselves as to what the future of Jewish life will look like.  It seems like we are perpetually stuck in the dual narratives of antisemitism and assimilation.  What will be our path be moving forward?

At the same time I  know that now more than ever the world needs us to live up to our name.  We are Yisrael. We need to be there for each other. We are not alone. We need to keep wrestling. Together we will find a path forward.

Big Bird z”l: A Little Torah in Memory of Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney, the legendary actor and puppeteer who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street over five decades, died Sunday at age 85. Originally designed by a drawing from Jim Henson and built by Kermit Love in 1969 Big Bird was the iconic central character from Sesame Street. This huge yellow bird was bigger than life and at the same time a surrogate through which the children watching the show could understand the world being introduced to them through the television. Here is a fitting tribute to Spinney.

 

His passing gives me pause to reflect on the impact of Big Bird and Sesame Street has had on the world.

I also pause to reflect on another legendary bird, this one comes from Jewish mythology. Bar-Yokhani was a colossal bird which was believed to have a wingspan large enough to block out the sun. In the Talmud we learn:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Satriel also testified before Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: Once an egg of the bird called bar yokhani fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees. The Gemara asks: And does the bar yokhani bird throw its eggs to the ground? But isn’t it written: “The kenaf renanim bird rejoices, but are her wings and feathers those of the stork? For she leaves her eggs on the earth, and warms them in dust” (Job 39:13–14)? The Sages understood that kenaf renanim is another name for the bar yokhani bird. If so, how could its egg fall if it lays its eggs on the ground? Rav Ashi said in explanation: That egg was unfertilized, and since it would never hatch the bird threw it to the ground. ( Bekhorot 57b)

Now that is another big bird. It is a powerful image of the impact that a simple but big idea could have on people.

Caroll Spinney’s passing is the end of an era. It is a sad day. It is a bad day. As Big Bird taught us:

Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.

Big Big made us feel good about ourselves without ignoring these bad days. May Caroll Spinney’s memory be for a blessing. 

Fragile Family: Yaakov’s Dream of National Unity

As we see in Vayetzei, this week’s Torah portion, the sun is setting and Yaakov rests his head after a harrowing day. He is fleeing from his brother Esav who is hell bent on killing him after Yaakov stole his blessing. In an open field Yaakov gathers stones and makes a pillow of sorts so he can sleep before continuing to his escape in the morning. There we read:

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:11)

There is a discrepancy between the “stones” here and what we see later. There we read:

Early in the morning, Yaakov took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. ( Genesis 28:18)

After the dream there is only one stone. What happened?

Amazingly, the Midrash describes a “fight” that breaks out between the stones Yaakov has gathered. Drawing from this Midrash to comment on this passage Rashi says:

AND PUT THEM FOR A RESTING PLACE FOR HIS HEAD — He arranged them in the form of a drain-pipe around his head for he was afraid of wild beasts (Genesis Rabbah 68:11). They (the stones) began quarrelling with one another. One said, “Upon me let this righteous man rest his head”, and another said “Upon me let him rest it”. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be God, straightway made them into one stone! This explains what is written (Genesis 28:18), “And he took the stone that he had put under his head” (Chullin 91b). ( Rashi on Genesis 18:11)

What do we make of this fanciful story at this moment in Yaakov’s life?

I was thinking about this image of Yaakov’s pillow recently when I learned a great midrash about the nature of the family unit. There we learn:

A society and a family are like a pile of stones. If you remove one stone, the pile will collapse. If you add a stone to it, it will stand. (Bereishit Rabbah 100:7)

This speaks to the fragility of Yitzhak and Rebecca’s family at this time. This rings true for Yaakov at this moment in his life. Just as Yaakov is removing himself from his family the pile of rocks might topple. But that is not what happens to him. Instead of his family falling apart be departs to start his new family.

In many way this is a fulfillment of the destiny of humanity as we learn in the Garden of Eden. There we read:

Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh. ( Genesis 2:24)

This moment of his leaving his father and mother the rocks are falling apart, instead he finds a wife ( or two) and they have 13 children. These children will become the nation of Israel. In this critical moment of his dream Yaakov transforms a fragile family into a unified nation. This image of us as a nation being one unified rock is at one challenging and challenged. Maybe it is just a dream.


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