Friday, 11 Dec 2009

Written by Rabbi Sybil Sheridan

‘Middah she-adam moded bah modedim lo’ ‘The measure a man metes, comes back to meet him’ (Mishnah Sotah 1,7).

This is no more true than in this parashah, where Jacob plays out the prejudices of his father and suffers their retribution.   His father, Isaac, was blind in old age both literally and metaphorically. Blessing the ‘wrong’ son because of his physical infirmity, after years of favouring his eldest for no more reason than the food he gave him. Now Jacob shows the same favouritism for his youngest, whose only claim to distinction is the love Jacob holds for his mother. The family situation made Jacob wily and distrustful; it made Joseph cocky and cruel.  Just as Isaac’s actions result in a rift between his two sons and Jacob’s many years of exile, so too our portion sees Jacob’s family divided and Joseph’s disappearance for decades.

But there is the possibility that both old men knew exactly what they were doing. When Isaac says ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau’ (Gen. 27:22), he is not deceived, but decides to go along with the ruse and bless Jacob. Look at the blessing: it is not one for a hunter, but for a settled farmer, one who ‘dwells in tents.’

May God give you of the dew of heaven, and the fat of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers and let your mother’s sons bow down to you.’ (Gen 27:28–29).

It is a blessing echoed in Joseph’s dreams and fulfilled in his life.

‘What is this dream that you have dreamed?’ Jacob asks him. ‘Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow down ourselves to you to the earth?’

‘His brothers envied him,’ we are told, ‘But his father kept the matter in mind.’ (Gen 37:10–11).

The latter phrase is interpreted by some of the commentators as Jacob’s recognition of the prophecy. Throughout the years that followed Jacob continued to have faith in his son, in God’s choice of him and his future greatness. It follows then, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir 1080–1160) suggests, that Jacob never believed the story of the wild beast that devoured him. But this sets up a problem later on in the story.  If Jacob kept the matter in mind and believed in his son, why did he grieve so at the news of Joseph’s death? Why the years of mourning if he is convinced that Joseph is alive and fulfilling his destiny?

One possibility is, that Jacob, ‘bearing the matter in mind’, is concocting a plan. The deceiver commits one last act of deception. What follows is based on a novel interpretation  suggested by a student of mine, Abigail Itkin, whose Bat Mitzvah occurs this Shabbat.

Jacob decides to send Joseph to find out how his brothers are. The brothers spend their life away from home shepherding the flocks, they do not need to be checked on.  The proximity in the text of the second dream, Jacob’s thoughts on it and the order to Joseph to find his brothers is no accident. The last dream could have angered Jacob as much as it did his sons, but unlike them he came up with a strategy.  

Enlisting Reuben’s help, he decides to teach Joseph a lesson: that he cannot with impunity go around boasting without suffering for it. Jacob engineers Joseph’s visiting his brothers, and Reuben is instructed to use their resentment to throw him in a pit and leave him. Reuben’s intention is to rescue him later after Joseph has had some time to reflect on his position and on his behaviour. But, as Reuben leaves the camp, his brothers take advantage of the passing caravan of traders and sell Joseph.

Reuben returns, the pit is empty and in great anguish he tears his clothes and utters, ‘And I where shall I go?’ (Gen. 37:30).  How can he return to his father and tell him how the plan has gone so horribly wrong? Jacob, victim one last time of an act of deception, when he sees the bloodied coat believes that he himself was the agent of his beloved son’s demise. Now, he has real reason to mourn, and in the years that follow to take stock of his life. Joseph is the victim, the result of Jacob’s earlier escapades, and Esau at last, is avenged.

‘Middah she-adam moded bah modedim lo’ ‘The measure a man metes, comes back to meet him’.

Rabbi Sybil Sheridan
December 2009

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