Sunday, November 11, 2007

Parshat Vayetze 2

Rachel is barren for years before she is finally able to have a son. During this time she complains to her husband that she feels worthless - “Give me a son, otherwise I am dead!” (Genesis XXX; 1). Yet when she finally gives birth to a son, instead of being happy that her childless days are over, she immediately looks to the future, and complains that she doesn’t have a second son, “So she called his name Yosef (Joseph), saying, ‘May G-d add on for me another son’.” (ibid. 24). She seems as if she will never be satisfied.
As soon as Yosef is born, Ya’akov asks Lavan’s permission to leave, to return to face his brother Esav (Esau), from whom he has been fleeing for all these years. The juxtaposition in the Torah seems to link the birth of Yosef with the ability to face Esav, how is that so?
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 68; 1) explains the imagery in Ya’akov’s vision of the ladder reaching heaven, as he slept in Beis-El. Each of the angels ascending represents one of the nations who in the future will exile the Jewish nation. Ya’akov sees the angel of Babylon climb 70 rungs, then fall back to earth. This represents the 70 years that the Jews are in exile in Babylon. Next he sees the angel of Medea, who reaches 52 rungs, then plunges downwards. The angel of Greece climbs 120 steps, then falls. Finally Ya’akov sees the angel of Edom, the nation of his brother Esav. This angel climbs higher and higher, in an apparently endless ascent to the heavens. Ya’akov does not see him fall, and becomes afraid. “Will this exile be never-ending?” he asks G-d. “No”, replies G-d, “Even if this angel climbs to the heavens, I Myself will take him down when the time comes.”
Ya’akov remains in fear of Esav because of that dream. He is unable to see the downfall of Edom, and foresees all the suffering that his descendants will experience at the hands of Esav’s children. However, Ovadiah prophesied that Yosef would be the one to conquer Esav: “The House of Ya’akov will be a spark, and the House of Yosef a flame - and the House of Esav like straw, they will kindle among them and consume them; and there will be no survivor of the house of Esav, for G-d has spoken.” (I; 18). Though Ya’akov is unable to see the end of Esav, he knows that Yosef will be able to carry his spark outwards, to challenge and consume Esav.
The Talmud (Brachot 7b) explains that a person’s name has an influence on their personality. When parents name a child they are given a minor form of prophecy, the ability to see the potential contained within the new-born baby. This is clearly seen in the naming of the twelve tribes in our Torah reading; though Leah and Rachel name their children based on their relationship with Ya’akov and G-d, the Talmud also derives prophetic meaning in each of the names. For example, Leah names her eldest son Reuven because G-d has seen her plight. However the Talmud also explains it as a statement “See the difference between Leah’s son, and the son of her father-in-law. Reuven tries to save his brother Yosef from being killed, even though Yosef took his birthright, whereas uncle Esav hated Ya’akov, and tried to kill him despite having willingly sold his birthright for a bowl of pottage.
Though Rachel named Yosef in anticipation of another child, she also brought his potential out in his name. He is thoroughly committed to the future. Yosef, meaning G-d will increase, shows his nature to see the long term vision, and be able to endure the short term in the hope of that ultimate future. We see this from Yosef’s earliest days, telling his father and brothers of his dreams that they will eventually bow down to him. Though he was an outcast, orphaned at a young age, and disliked by his brothers, he could already see the future happening. Every insult and hardship that he had to endure in the present was only a means to the eventual happiness. Similarly, while in Egypt, he never questioned the right of his brothers to sell him, he never complained about being a slave, or being thrown in jail without cause. He knew that it was all part of G-d’s plan. Therefore when Pharaoh eventually calls him to interpret the dreams, he is able to look beyond the present, and understand the vision in the context of the future of the country.
Ya’akov is unable to see the long term. He made the mistake of wanting contentment in the present. “Ya’akov settled in the land...” (Genesis XXXVII; 1). Because the Torah uses the word “settle” which implies permanence, rather than the word “sojourn”, Rashi explains that Ya’akov wished to finally settle down in tranquillity. Immediately he falls from centre stage, and the anguish of Yosef’s kidnapping devastates him. He thought that he had reached the end of his mission, and therefore was unable to see the whole picture. Yosef is left to be the main protagonist in the story, and pave the way for the Egyptian exile.
Because only Yosef can see through the limitations of the present, Ya’akov realises that he is the one who will be able to help him to confront Esav. Though Ya’akov is unable to perceive Esav’s downfall in his dream, he understands that Yosef, who lives in wait of the ultimate conclusion, will be the one to enable Ya’akov to return home.

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