THE WAY UP
Only a person who has experienced the depths can reach the heights
©1997 by Susan Afterman
Commentary on The Torah portion of Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23
Reprinted from THE JERUSALEM REPORT, DECEMBER 25, 1997
To climb a mountain, you sometimes have to descend into the depths first — that is one of the central principles of kabbalah and hasidism. The descent of Jacob and his family into Egypt was, according to many commentators, part of the Divine plan, a necessary step toward ultimately receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai and ascending into the Land of Israel.
In the story of Joseph and his brothers, we see the interweaving of the cosmic drama and particular human lives. Jacob, says Midrash Tanhuma, had to be drawn down to Egypt by his sons. Even Joseph, the central actor in this drama, did not descend of his own accord. He had to be thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, put in jail.
Joseph and his brother Judah live out certain parallels, each falling and climbing. After Joseph, the apple of his father's eye, taunts his brothers and fans their hatred, Judah convinces them that, instead of killing him, they should sell him into slavery, and avoid having his blood on their hands. But, comments Rashi, when they see the extent of their father's grief, they lose respect for Judah. If you had told us to return him to his father, we would have done as you said, they tell him. "And it came to pass at that time. that Judah went down from his brothers" (Genesis 38:1). Of Joseph we're told: "And Joseph was taken down to Egypt" (39:1).
Both Joseph and Judah face sexual temptation from women who believed they were doing God's will. Rashi tells us that Potiphar's wife saw through astrology that she would have descendants by Joseph — but could not tell whether she or her daughter Osnat would bear them. Arid Tamar understood that it was her right, as widow of two of Judah's sons, to keep their names alive by bearing children from him. Potiphar's wife tempted Joseph every day, finally catching hold of his garment when her husband was not at home. He overcame this temptation, thus meriting the title tradition gives him: Joseph the tzaddik. Tamar, who saw that Judah did not intend to marry his third son to her, as he had promised, took off her mourning clothes and waited for him along the way. "When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot, because she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road, and said: 'Here, let me sleep with you' — for he did not know she was his daughter-in-law... and she conceived by him" (Genesis 38:15,18). From this union would sprout the House of David and, in the future, the messiah.
Surprisingly, Judah is chosen as leader of the brothers, and his tribe is granted the kingship. Not Reuven, the first-born, who planned in secret to save Joseph from his brothers. And not Joseph himself, renowned for his saintliness, wisdom, and physical beauty. But as Rabbi Aveyu says in Tractate Brakhot of the Talmud: "In the place where a repentant person stands, the righteous cannot stand." And commentators agree Judah underwent profound repentance after selling his brother. One sign of that is his ability to say, when he understands Tamar's seduction of him: "She is more righteous than me."
The Maharal of Prague, the 16th-century thinker, writes in his Sefer Netivot Olam that the righteous person maintains a pure body and the truly repentant person may have sullied his body — but in the end reaches great purification of the soul. According to Rabbi Nahman of Braslav's Likutei Maharan, those who attempt to reach a higher level of service of God must descend as part of the very process of ascent. He cites Tractate Avodah Zarah of the Talmud, which says that God put undeserved obstacles before both King David and the Children of Israel in the desert, so that through their failures and overcoming them they would experience a greater spiritual ascent.
In the descent of the sons of Jacob into Egypt we can see similar unfolding of the Divine purpose. Joseph and Judah — who come to represent all the brothers, all the tribes — each goes down, and each climbs to his own particular greatness. And so it was that "Moses took Joseph's bones with him" (Exodus 13:19) when he led the Children of Israel up out of Egypt.
Susan Afterman is a poet and architect living in the Western Galilee.
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