Thursday, December 7, 2017
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Rabbi David Walk
There was a 1964 movie called The Outrage (whence I pilfered this week's title), which presents a revealing approach to human nature. This western, based on Rashomon a classic Japanese movie from 1950, presents four differing accounts of the same event, a rape and murder. The amazing thing, of course, is that from these witnesses it seems that four different happenings are being portrayed. I sort of experienced that when I was younger. I would go to an event or a rally and then read the newspaper account, and scratch my head. Were these reporters at the same event? I firmly believe that this isn't about lying, disinformation or 'fake news'. It's about how our brains process things. We do it with a bias. There is an underlying reality, but few of us can uncover it. We see what we want to see. This week's Torah reading presents such possibilities. We are continually seeing events from constantly changing vantage points, and this process eventually brings us to a remarkable realization.
The parsha begins by telling us that, 'These are the generations of Ya'akov, Yosef was seventeen years old… And Israel loved Yosef more than all his sons, because he was son of his old age; and he made him a fine coat of colored stripes (Genesis 37:2-3). That is the situation at the outset of our parsha from the point of view of Ya'akov. Embedded in that description is this note, 'Yosef shepherded his brothers together with the flocks, and he believed himself an innocent lad, and sided with the sons of Bilhah and of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Yoef brought tales about the brother's evil to their father (also in verse 2). This little script is from the viewpoint of Yosef, who felt that he must protect the sons of the former maids against the behavior of Leah's sons. He, perhaps, also suffered from their 'attitude'. This style continues for most of the parsha. Next, we hear the brothers' feelings towards Yosef, 'His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully (verse 4).' Then we go back to Yosef, who 'dreamed a dream and told his brothers'. Now the brothers again, 'and they continued to hate him.' After the dreams are presented, we hear from Ya'akov, 'his father rebuked him and said to him, 'What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will we come I, your mother, and your brothers to prostrate ourselves to you to the ground'… and his father pondered the matter.' Even that short piece is interrupted with how the brothers were feeling (Hint: Not good!).
The next incident, again, follows the story through the eyes of different participants, Ya'akov sends Yosef to check on his brother up north near Shechem (according to Google maps that's 24 hours of walking from Chevron, and five more to Dotan), we get Yosef's mind set from his response, 'Hineni.' We know that response from Avraham Avinu. It means that he's willing to go even though he recognizes the danger. For the continuation of the story we get viewpoints of the brothers. When Yosef approaches, his brothers display their disdain, 'Here comes the dreamer (according to Targum Yonatan, the initial plotters were Shimon and Levi, verse 19).' Now we get the thoughts of Reuvain, who intends to save Yosef, and then the 'practical' view of Yehuda, 'What's the profit in letting him die in a pit?' That segment of the Yosef saga ends the way it began with the mind set of Ya'akov, 'he refused to be consoled, for he said, 'I will descend as a mourner for my son to the grave'; and he wept for him as only a father could (verse 35).'
It's a truly remarkable narrative style, jumping from mind to mind. We are expected to really care what each of our ancestors was thinking, but do they see or care what their kinsmen are thinking? We see this pattern again later in the parsha, as we peek into the thoughts of Potifar, his wife, the jailor, the baker, the butler, and next week, Pharaoh, King of Egypt. But my thoughts are on none of the above. I'm interested in what went through the minds of Tamar and Yehuda.
Chapter 38 is about Yehuda's struggle to ensure his line's continuity. Tamar, which means date palm and hints at righteousness (Psalms 92:13), is designated to marry first Er, then Onan, both of whom die. Yehuda knows that traditionally the surviving brother should marry her, but we are given a glimpse into his thoughts, he resists giving her to Shelah the surviving son, because he thought, 'lest he die too (38:11).' The now widowed Yehuda becomes fair game in the eyes of Tamar. She tricks the mourning Yehuda by clothing herself as a harlot. He succumbs. She's impregnated. Three months later, everyone assumes the baby bump means she's had relations outside the family. Punishment for adultery is swift and harsh. As she is being ushered out to her place of execution, the silent Tamar presents Yehuda with simanin, evidence of his paternity, his seal and staff left with the supposed harlot.
Now we have the most important revelation of a character's thinking in our parsha, and, just maybe, in human history. Yehuda declares, 'Tzadka mimeni.' She is more righteous than I. Her behavior is more pure than mine; this child will be my heir.
Chapters 37-49 present the story of the competition for supremacy in the family of Ya'akov/Yisrael between Yosef and Yehuda. We tell their parallel stories, and assume that Yosef, father's favorite, prophet and advisor to kings will win. But on his death bed, Ya'akov reveals that, against all expectations Yehuda will rule forever. Why? Usually, we say it's because he did teshuva. But this week, a careful reading of the narrative teaches us that he's the only personality to truly care what someone else is thinking. Melech Ha'Mashiach must have empathy.
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