An Alternative Hero
Joseph, not Moses, torn apart
dreams snakes brothers father
sins and returns loves and is silent
wanders between the gleanings of Ephraim and the delight of Manasseh
Joseph knowledge Joseph pain
From Yonatan Aviv (Jonathan Spring) by Natan Yonatan
(transl. David C. Jacobson)
Do you recognize this Joseph? In the first stanza of Israeli poet Natan Yonatan’s (1923–2004)Yonatan Aviv (Jonathan Spring), the Joseph of Miketz is barely discernible—there is no reference to his rise in political power or his clever dealings with his brothers. His journey is no simple straight line from the bottom of the pit to overlord of all Egypt. Instead, this Joseph “wanders between”; he “sins and returns.” His life is one of confusion and heartbreak. Though not actually “torn apart,” as in his brothers’ fabrication, the poet reminds us how Joseph was indeed torn from his loved ones.
Why “Joseph, not Moses?” Yonatan’s poem demonstrates the way modern Jewish poets mine traditional sources, transforming figures from the Tanakh so that they reflect the values that speak to their own experience. Yonatan, whose elder son was killed in battle during the Yom Kippur War, seeks a hero not among Moses and David, the great military and national leaders of the Jewish people, but among Joseph and Jonathan, who embody vulnerability and love. Yonatan seeks an alternative hero whose path in life isn’t charmed, but rather fraught with the reality that the quest for knowledge can be painful.