Dvar Torah Vayigash: Twist in the Text

Mark Twain, not in possession of the Jewish mesorah, made an interesting comparative assessment of Joseph and Esau in his best-selling work, The Innocents Abroad.

Without Rashi as a companion, Jacob very much appears to take advantage of Esau’s hunger to swindle him out of his birthright — whatever that means — only to have Esau complain later on that his brother got the best of him twice: once in bartering for his birthright and now in copping his blessing.  (Genesis 27:36)  I never really understood what Esau thought the birthright was, other than a ticket he was to redeem at some future time for the firstborn’s blessing, in which case Jacob had only employed artful trickery once, but it’s possible that Esau was wrong — recall that it is only Esau and not the omniscient narrator of the Torah stating that Jacob perpetrated two acts of deceit.

Anyway, Esau was so very pained by Jacob’s apparent double scam that Jacob had to, as Rebecca, their mother, put it, “flee, for your brother intends to kill you.” (Genesis 27:42-43)  Parshas Vayishlach opens with Jacob devising a plan so as to best assuage his brother’s still-as-of-yet-unhealed emotional and psychological wounds, preparing for the worst by splitting his camp to ensure survivors and spacing out a bunch of fantastic gifts so that it appears as though there are more than there really are, only to meet Esau in an apparent embrace of reconciliation.  Esau, who could have seen himself as the rightful heir to all that Jacob possessed, wonders at the great multitudes of family and wealth and is, in the most magnanimous fashion, seemingly very pleased with what Jacob has made of himself after all the years they have been apart.  Yet Esau is vilified, in keeping with the mesorah, by all of the rabbinical commentators without exception for his profound evilness.  But Twain, just reading the text (and seeing neither Rashi nor the dots atop any of the words in Genesis 33:4) can know none of these underlying subtleties that paint an entirely different picture for the Jew.

Then comes Joseph, favorite son of Jacob, upon whom lavish excesses are endowed to seemingly rub it into the faces of his brothers that he is the chosen one of them all, Twain intimates, and he, like Esau, is tricked and dealt a bad hand by his siblings, who tease, trap and sell him to traveling merchants while pretending that he has been attacked by wild animals and suggesting to their father that they have absolutely no idea what happened.  For many years, Joseph is separated from his father and brother Benjamin who, as it stands to reason, adored him, given the family dynamics, and he becomes second in command in Egypt, apparently the brains behind the entire operation — and what happens when he meets up with his brothers once again?  What does the righteous Joseph do when given the opportunity to forgive and forget like Esau did only one generation earlier, when he was alive to witness it?

Joseph does not act magnanimously; rather, he berates his brothers (42:7), calls them out as spies (42:9) and frightens them (43:18) while feigning magical powers (44:5).  He then scares them by surreptitiously replacing their money into their bags (42:25), but not before imprisoning all of them, and then keeping one of them in jail while releasing the others (42:17-19).  He humiliated them in public, makes them bring Benjamin (42:20) against their father’s wishes (42:38) on the pain of starvation lest they leave him behind (43:2-5), only to trick them again by hiding his own goblet in their bags (44:2) and claiming that they stole it (44:4-12).  He proceeds to threaten to enslave Benjamin (44:17), when they know that their father will never accept such a thing (42:4), only to reveal his identity when it becomes too much of a ruse for him to handle (45:1).  What a disparity, remarks Twain — and Joseph is the good guy.

What was fascinating to me was that, before hearing of Twain’s assessment of the biblical narrative, I’d never considered such an approach tenable.  Of course Esau is evil and of course Joseph is righteous!  Anything good done by the former or bad by the latter can and should be written off as part of the divine plan, fair game or explained away in a similar fashion.  But, I suppose, without our mesorah, there’s no really good reason not to look at it like Twain did.  Which makes me wonder about those people who claim to revere the Five Books of Moses, but who possess no true appreciation for the Jewish tradition —  the rabbis will often say that the commandments cannot be understood in even their coarsest detail without an oral tradition — and I agree — but it’s quite apparent that even the biblical narratives of Genesis cannot be understood as we understand them without our oral traditions, yet others understand them this way while denouncing our tradition…and I never really appreciated to what extent this was true until now.