Thursday, December 16, 2010

This is the Story of Jacob: Joseph . . . .

What Not To Wear:  This Shabbat, we will finish reading the Book of Genesis and conclude the Joseph story, by far (IMHO) the most fascinating story in the Torah. 

Although I knew the basics of the story (I was Bar Mitzvahed, after all), it was not until I studied with Bible scholar Professor Y T Radai at the Technion in 1970-1971 that I began to understand what it means to truly study a Jewish text.  Forty years ago. 

Except for his manner of explication, I remember little about Dr Radai's attempts to teach us (mostly "secular") students - except for his emphasis on the title of this post.  "This is the story of Jacob" (says the Torah), but the very next word is "Joseph".  And I did not fully comprehend the depth of Dr Radai's point until I had a child, a son.

As we've been reading the Joseph story over the past few weeks, I've been taking mental notes.  Here is a sampling of what I wonder about:
  • Joseph Gets a Makeover.  Did you notice, as I did, that at every important point in the story, we know exactly what Joseph was wearing?  Did you think, as I did, think this was very odd, for a tradition that supposedly rejects outward appearance in favor of innermost character? 
  • Joseph Remembers to Forget.  Did you notice, as several commentators do, that Joseph names his firstborn Menashe, for God 'has made me forget all of my toil, and all of my father's house"?  Yes, and every time he calls out from his living room "Menashe, stop that!" - he'll remember.
  • Judah Gets a Do-over.  Did you see, as most commentators do, that, when put in the same position with Benjamin as he had been with Joseph, Judah rises to the challenge and offers himself up in Benjamin's place?  Did you wonder, as I did, what Judah's repentance really means?
On this last point, Rabbi Arthur Flicker of Congregation Bnai Israel offered an insight this past Shabbos.  Rabbi Flicker asked:  Whose character really grew during the Joseph story, and how? 

His answer: Judah's, but not for the reasons people usually think.  Judah, at last, came to realize that Jacob would always love Benjamin, and Joseph, more than Judah and the nine other brothers, because they were the children of his beloved wife Rachel.

And - here is the insight - Judah was, at last, OK with that.  Judah accepted and loved Jacob the way his father was - a true sign of character growth and maturity.

There is way more here than meets the eye.  Thank you, Professor Radai, for introducing me to the process of learning Torah.

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