Thursday, 14 Dec 2023

Written by Eleanor Davis

Three ships came sailing in, though it wasn’t yet Christmas, and what was in those ships would soon be unloaded in nothing like the intended way.  The Dartmouth, Beaver and Eleanor carried over 90,000 lbs of tea between them, enough to fill 18.5 million teabags, so it took the Boston Tea Party (around one hundred people) nearly three hours to tip it all into Boston Harbor, on 16 December 1773.  It was a protest against tax on tea paid by the then colonies to the British government without representation in that government; the British response was part of events that led to the American Revolution.  While they were busy throwing off the shackles of external control, however, the Boston Tea Party were very much in control of themselves: aside from the tea and a padlock for access, there was no damage to property; a rumour even persists that they cleaned up the ships afterwards and swept their decks clear of tea leaves.

This tension between external and internal control seems also to play out in the story of Joseph, though for him it seems that exercising self-control does not come easily.  This is drawn out in midrashic commentary, such as that of Moses Alsheikh of Safed (16th Century), whose commentary on the episode of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife draws on the ta’am (cantillation note) over Joseph’s refusal of her advances (Genesis 39:8).  The name of this ta’am, the shalshelet or ‘chain,’ inspires Alsheikh to suggest that Joseph needed to ‘chain’ himself at this point: either to his determination to refuse her, or in order to restrain himself from giving in to temptation.  This is loaded imagery to use of someone who was recently a slave and will soon find himself in prison; two states that he resists and seeks to escape.

In a later chapter, when reuniting with his brothers, the revelation of his identity will finally take place when “Joseph could not  control himself (v’lo yachol Yoseif l’hitapeik)” (Genesis 45:1) after hearing his brother Judah’s impassioned plea.  In Parashat Mikkeitz, however, Joseph’s ability to control himself successfully is vital to the developments towards that revelation.  After decades of separation, Joseph finally sets eyes on his one full brother, Benjamin, which proves highly emotional.  Yet as Joseph still isn’t sure that his brothers have truly changed from the men who wanted to kill him and did sell him into slavery, he doesn’t react in front of them: he steps out to a side room to weep.  Then we hear “Vayirchatz panav vayeitzei vayitapak – he washed his face and came out again in control of himself” (Genesis 43:31): only once he was again in control of himself does Joseph emerge and sit down to share a meal with them.  Had Joseph acted without restraint, he might have limited the brothers’ freedom to act honestly, without the intention of appeasing a wronged brother; still this self-control is not easy to exercise, as shown by Rashi’s explanation of vayitapak that Joseph had to ‘force himself’ to hold back.

Daringly, the rabbi and theologian Eliezer Berkovits (20th Century) applies something like this to God, seeing the capacity for ‘Divine self-control’ as both proof of Divine power and connected with human free will.  The idea of hester panim (hiding God’s face) is important to Berkovits’s theology: God’s exercise of self-restraint, which may frequently manifest as the hiding of the Divine face, is necessary to allow humans to exercise free will in the world.  Hard as it is for humans to restrain ourselves, how much greater power must it take for God to exercise self-restraint?  Therefore for Berkovits this Divine self-control, or even God’s hidden face, is also a proof of God’s mighty power.

Though Berkovits avoids the Kabbalistic term tzimtzum (preferring terms such as ‘Divine self-control,’ ‘Divine self-limitation,’ or even ‘reduces Himself’), his thinking seems compatible with that paradoxical idea of Divine presence-through-absence and the gift of withholding oneself to make space for others.  For a healthy application of this for ourselves, however, perhaps it may help to combine these with one more midrashic idea: the tradition (seen in the Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 60b) that the moon was originally equal in size and brightness to the sun, but was told to diminish herself as there was not space for “two to reign with a single crown.”  The celebration of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, is ordained in compensation, which brings a reminder that the moon waxes and wanes in the night sky: each month, the moon grows to fullness, then reins herself in and shrinks.

Perhaps we celebrate when the moon is reduced to a thin sliver, as it is this week with Rosh Chodesh Tevet, to teach us that this time of lunar self-restraint is as valuable as the time of a full moon shining forth brightly – yet we do not expect that self-restraint to be permanent.  Our challenge may be to understand where controlling ourselves is valuable and where we need to resist restraint: to recognise the times to tip the tea out by the boatload and the times to keep ourselves on a short rein, without getting stuck in either mode of action.  Had Joseph always restrained himself, or never restrained himself, he might never have resolved the situation with his brothers; may we too have the discernment to know which is needed where we find ourselves in this moment and the strength to break or make the chains.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.