Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What do Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Arlo Guthrie have in common?

D’var Torah—Vayeshev 2006

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading 20th century theologian, commented that last week’s torah portion, this portion, and next week’s portion all prominently feature a mysterious “ish” or man. Last week in vayishlach we read about Jacob’s nighttime battle with a nameless ish. Next week, Joseph’s brothers, unaware of his true identity as they beg him for food, will refer to him as “the man.” This week, we read about another nameless “ish.” Jacob sends Joseph on his fatal errand to check on his brothers in Shchem, where Jacob thinks they are pasturing their flocks. When Joseph arrives in Shchem, they are nowhere to be found. While Joseph is wandering the fields searching, a man finds him. This conversation ensues:

The Man: What are you looking for?
Joseph: I’m looking for my brothers. Please tell me where they took their flocks.
The Man: They left. I heard them say that they were going to Dotan.

I would add to Rabbi Soloveichik’s drash that in this week’s parsha we also have a mysterious isha or woman, in addition to the ish. In order to obtain justice for herself and to continue her dead husband’s line, Tamar disguises herself as a cult prostitute and sits by the roadside. The Torah makes a point of telling us that when Judah sleeps with her, he has no idea who she is. When Judah’s friend returns with payment for the “isha,” she has disappeared. They are dumbfounded until Tamar appears in court and reveals her true identity.

So what are the connections between these figures?

First, they all represent encounters with an Other, a being or person assumed to be distant from the self, family, and community. In two of the cases, those of Joseph and of Tamar, the mysterious Other turns out to be a member of the family, an intimate part of the self. In the case of the ish who Jacob wrestles, we never really know his true identity—was he an angel? A manifestation of Jacob’s own psyche? Here we have the theme of the person who is seemingly an Other but is revealed to be intimately connected with the self.

Second, in the case of the ish and isha in this portion, both of the interactions are perfunctory encounters in which the person is objectified. The man in the field at Shchem is just that—some guy who gave Joseph directions. To Judah, Tamar is just some kedesha, a cult prostitute, he meets along the roadside. The ish or isha is just an object, someone of use to the main character, but, at first glance, not significant as an individual.

However, these two incidents are intimately connected to some of the grandest and most crucial events in Jewish history—the Exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the Davidic Kingdom. Peretz, one of the twins born from the union of Judah and Tamar, becomes one of the ancestors of King David, and therefore of the messiah as well; according to traditional accounts, the messiah will be “ben Partzi.” So Tamar’s actions result in the birth of King David and the establishment of the Israelite kingdom.

How does some guy in the field giving directions relate to the Exodus from Egypt? Well, to explain that I’ll have to retell a dvar torah that I heard from one of the great rabbis of our generation, Arlo Guthrie, at a concert. Guthrie pointed out that the Exodus really all leads back to that man standing in the field. Had Joseph given up on finding his brothers and just headed back to Jacob, the story of the Jewish people would have been very different. Joseph never would have been sold into slavery by his brothers, never would have gone down to Egypt, never would have brought his family there, and thus the Jews would never have been enslaved in order to be redeemed. And, as Guthrie said at the concert, it was all due to one man standing in a field saying, “They went that way.” Joseph himself emphasizes that every step was part of God’s plan; when his brothers apologize to him for selling him into slavery, he tells them, “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve his present end, the survival of many people.”

Traditional commentaries pick up on the importance of this figure. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, states that the man is actually the angel Gabriel, while Midrash Rabbah on Genesis says that Joseph actually encountered three angels, based on the fact that the word ish is repeated three times in that passage, thus drawing a connection between the men who announce Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah and Joseph’s encounter in the field.

What is an angel anyway, and why is it important to the rabbis to designate that this man standing in the field is actually an angel? First, the rabbis are responding to some curious details in the text. Note that Joseph does not ask the man “can you tell me where my brothers are?” but rather “tell me where my brothers are” and that the man does not have to ask who Joseph’s brothers are or what they look like—he knows. That seems to indicate some supernatural funky stuff going on.

However, I also think that if we consider the connection between all of the mysterious Others in these parshiot—all of the “ish”es and the isha, that in their insistence on identifying this man in the field as an angel, the rabbis are actually saying something about the possibility for humans to be messengers of God and instruments for bringing about God’s will.

The most common Biblical term for angel is malach, which comes from the root for messenger—a messenger of God. So by definition, an angel is someone acting as God’s messenger. Here’s where Rabbi Guthrie comes in. That random guy in the field, nameless and mildly helpful, actually ends up having a dramatic effect on the destiny of the Jewish people. His small gesture of kindness, giving directions to a lost stranger, becomes a key part of a chain of events that results in the fulfillment of God’s plan.

It often seems Pollyanna-ish and overly idealistic to believe that we have the power to be a force for positive change in the world. This story does not deny the fact that we are all tiny cogs within our society, and that our ability to make direct, sweeping change is limited. It does not overestimate our power. Instead, it reminds us that the long-term, distant consequences of our actions may be more powerful and more significant than we could ever dream.

This story also pushes us to recognize the innate possibility for power in those people we encounter in our daily lives—the checkout clerk, the person next to us on the subway. It cautions us not to see them merely in relation to ourselves, but rather as potential world-changers and great deed-dooers.

Here we have two seemingly random encounters with a nameless other, and both turn out to be crucial events in determining the history of the Jewish people. In both cases, the Other is actually a malach, a messenger of God, an instrument of God’s will in the world. So here’s a double blessing for this week: First, may we be able to recognize that the person, the ish or isha, who we encounter in a seemingly meaningless, day-to-day way, may actually be a malach. Secondly, may we be able to understand the ways in which we ourselves, despite our seeming insignificance, can be malachim.