It’s Not What You Say . . .
A number of years ago, I took my grandson to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. During the intermission, he said, “This is the best show I ever saw in my whole life!”
I smiled. He was four. His whole life? When can we look back and say, “All my life I have (believed/felt/acted as though . . . )”?
Certainly Jacob is in this position in the final parashah of the book of Genesis, as he lies on his deathbed. We, too, can look back on his life and see what patterns emerge as we consider what kind of a person he has been. At the same time, we see Joseph, the early favored son, standing with his father in his final scene on earth—and serving as a contrast to him.
We have learned that two trees do not make a pattern—it takes three. So we have to look at a series of events in order to learn about Jacob. What can we discern?
To my mind, there are two salient aspects of Jacob’s life. One is that he has been true to his name throughout his long life: He was named sneak/supplanter at birth, and has rarely veered from that description. He has exercised poor judgment in his family life, and made it difficult for his children to live nobly. He has shown no growth of character, and no wisdom gained from experience. On the contrary—after seeing the devastating familial effects of favoring Joseph, he still persists in blessing the younger of Joseph’s two children more than the older, in spite of Joseph’s attempts to correct him.
Joseph, in contrast, has learned. If Jacob’s social and emotional maturity looks like a flat line, Joseph’s shows growth, change, and learning from life. He magnanimously looks beyond the hurts his brothers inflicted, takes his brothers in and nurtures them, and sees to all their and their families’ needs. He can see the bigger picture—how their deliberate injuries inadvertently resulted in his ability to save a whole civilization. Having this perspective, he can try to relieve their well-deserved guilt.
I’m afraid that my low opinion of Jacob and my high opinion of Joseph are all too evident. For me, the proof of the differences in their characters is captured in an amazing repetition of a key phrase. In two different stories, in two different contexts, Jacob and Joseph say the same thing. In each the tone is totally different. And each reveals the essential character of the protagonist.
The first instance occurs early in the founding of Jacob’s family life. His less-loved wife, Leah, has already borne him four sons, and Rachel, the much-beloved one, has none. She turns to Jacob in despair and says, “Give me sons, for if you don’t, I’m a dead woman.” Jacob responds, “Am I instead of God, Who has denied you fruit of the womb?” We can imagine Jacob’s tone of voice when he says, “Am I instead of God?” He is sarcastic, belittling, and terribly distanced from her pain. He abandons her emotionally. (This is in tremendous contrast to his own father’s attitude when Rebecca was unable to conceive—Isaac took it upon himself to pray on her behalf, without her asking. We don’t even know if Rebecca wanted him to.)
And now we come to the same phrase, this time from Joseph’s mouth. The context this time is after the death of Jacob, when the brothers realize that they are totally at Joseph’s mercy, and that if he wants to exact revenge for their deeds of decades earlier, their father is no longer present as a protective factor. The brothers are so fearful of Joseph’s possible actions that they send a messenger to him, claiming that their father had charged them to beg Joseph’s forgiveness, and had charged Joseph to forgive them.
In this story, Joseph realizes how desperate the brothers are, how vulnerable. He cries when he hears them, realizing that they still have no understanding that he has changed and has no petty wish for vengeance. They fling themselves at his feet, declaring themselves his slaves, and he says, “Fear not, for am I instead of God?” Here we imagine a totally different tone of voice: it is soft, reassuring, and compassionate.
Jacob and Joseph use the exact same words, but one uses them to demean and the other to reassure. One is callous, one is caring. Neither is really talking about God; rather, each is talking about his relationship with a person or people who are at a low point in life, and in need of emotional sustenance. The repeated phrase captures something essential about these two men, whose heirs we are.
Here is the great irony. Earlier, I said that there are two salient aspects of Jacob’s life. This is the second: at every turn, at every transition in his life, God has been a living, encouraging presence for him. From the time he flees his home in mortal fear of Esau’s wrath after tricking him out of their father’s blessing, through the time he runs from Laban, his father-in-law, to the time he decides to move down to Egypt—in every instance, God reassures Jacob that He is with him. This is truly love, freely given.
And in Joseph’s life? God never speaks directly to Joseph, yet Joseph always refers to God, defers to God, and attributes his attainments to God. In that way, we are much more like Joseph, who makes the effort to make God part of his life. And yet, we are also like Jacob, who may not deserve to have God’s reassurance, but receives it anyway. We are called Yisra’el, named for the less noble of these two men. This is enormously heartening: If God can love Jacob, God can surely love us.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.