Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vayeshev

A theme throughout the Hebrew Bible is the seductiveness of the outside, foreign world. There are many laws forbidding what are deemed "their" idolatrous practices. The sexual depravity of foreigners is a pervasive thread throughout Jewish literature. Last week’s tragic story of the rape of Dinah is an illustration of this theme. This week we read another variant. It is found within the Joseph saga, a story that occupies the majority of the next four Torah portions.

Here is the first part of that story and especially the salacious details touching on this theme. Joseph is the favored son of Jacob. He is born to Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel and is treated like royalty by his father. He is given an ornamented tunic. Meanwhile his brothers are burdened with keeping up the family business and tending to their vast holdings of livestock. In addition Joseph is a dreamer. Despite his youth, he often dreams of how one day he will become the leader of the family. Moreover he tells his brothers of these visions. His brothers grow increasingly agitated and angered by his bravado.

One day while the brothers are pasturing the flock Joseph wanders into the fields to visit with them. They say to each other, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall then see what comes of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:18-20) In the end they decide to sell him into slavery rather than kill him. They report to their father Jacob that wild beasts killed him.

Joseph now finds himself in Egypt where he impresses Potiphar who eventually places him in charge of running his large household. Potiphar’s wife (who the Torah does not name) is attracted to Joseph and tries to seduce him. Joseph refuses her entreaties. Joseph proclaims, “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Genesis 39:9). On one such occasion she grabs him by his clothes but he manages to run away, leaving her holding his garment. The Torah also does not specify how much of his garment remains in her hands. At the very least it is an identifying piece, for she now runs to her husband, holding Joseph’s clothes in her hands, and accuses him of trying to sleep with her. Potiphar becomes enraged and throws Joseph into jail.

In jail he eventually has the opportunity to prove himself, this time by interpreting dreams. He accurately interprets the chief cupbearer and baker’s dreams. When the cupbearer is released from jail he will have the opportunity to remember Joseph’s skills. This week’s portion however concludes on a note of forgetfulness. The cupbearer, now a free man, forgets Joseph and he remains in jail. The reader is left in suspense. What will happen to Joseph? Will he be vindicated for favoring God’s laws over those of his Egyptian masters? Will he be rewarded for living by his Jewish ideals and refusing the seductions of a foreigner?

Joseph is the first diaspora Jew. He must live a Jewish life outside of his ancestral home. He must live among the temptations of Egyptian culture. Potiphar’s unnamed wife is symbolic of the foreign culture in which Joseph now lives. Will Joseph be seduced by Egypt, by the other? Can he indeed live a Jewish life in a foreign land? Joseph’s struggle is our own. The tension between living a Jewish life while being open to American culture is the same for us as it was for Joseph.

This time of year we are reminded even more keenly that we live in a predominately Christian culture. Only this morning I was again awakened by the radio station playing Christmas songs. Throughout the town of Huntington stores are decorated with red and green holiday ornaments. There are a few Hanukkah decorations, but they are trivial by comparison. It is not that I mind these cheerful Christmas songs and festive decorations. I especially like the many homes on our block decorated with Christmas lights. These help to banish the darkness of December’s early sunsets. Yet these lights and decorations come at a cost. They remind me that this country is not entirely my own. No presidential Hanukkah dinner or the kashering of the White House kitchen can change this fact. And so like Joseph I have learned to speak the language of Egypt.

Recently the State of Israel ran ads encouraging Israeli expats to return home. The ads were heavy handed in their critique of diaspora life. In one ad a young Jewish girl is video chatting with her Israeli grandparents. “Shalom, Sabba v’Savta,” she sings. A Hanukkah menorah is displayed behind them. They exchange pleasantries in simple Hebrew and then ask her, “What holiday is it?” She exclaims excitedly, “Christmas.” The implication of the ads is clear. There is only one place to lead a full Jewish life and that is in Israel. By the way, the ads have since been removed from YouTube given the outcry from American Jewish leaders.

I admit there are times when I miss the Jewish rhythms of Israeli life. I miss the Friday evening greetings of “Shabbat Shalom” and Saturday evening’s “Shavuah Tov.” One hears these on the radio and TV. One hears them from strangers on the streets. I miss the Hanukkah treats of sufganiyot, jelly donuts, found in nearly every store. I miss the millions of Hanukkah menorahs displayed in windows. And I miss the State’s official Hanukkah celebrations. In Israel I am one with the predominant culture.

But no choice is perfect. No Jewish life is ever complete. Every place is a compromise. In Israel too there are seductions. In Israel it is instead the seductions of power. There is the argument that Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood and must therefore react with brute force against every one of its enemies. This too is a foreign seduction. Despite the fact that it pains me to admit it, Tom Friedman is correct. There are strong anti-democratic forces presently at work in the State of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has only belatedly recognized this after yesterday’s riot of radical settlers at an army base and the recent attacks by Jewish extremists of mosques.

Let us be honest. Democracy is not part of the Jewish tradition. King David was no believer in this Greek ideal. Democracy is a foreign idea. Still it is one that I love nonetheless. It is an ideal that is good for the Jewish nation. It is one of Israel’s founding pillars. The vision of the modern State of Israel is that it would be both Jewish and democratic. That is its struggle.

In the end one can live in a ghetto of one’s own making, cut off from all foreign ideas and cultural influences, or one can live surrounded by beliefs not entirely one’s own and ideals new to Jewish history. The latter is my choice. It is also Israel’s choice. And it is finally the choice our hero Joseph models after his many years of struggle.

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