Vayeshev: Absence and Presence

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

Greetings- Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is almost upon us, and
thus also Parshat Vayeshev, which switches the focus of our narrative
from Yaakov to Yosef, with a slight detour into the life of Yehudah
and his family. As many of you will remember, Yosef is a proud young
man who is favored by his fathers, and who has dreams in which sheaves
of grain, and then the celestial bodies, bow down to him:

“He [Yosef] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying,
‘Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and
eleven stars were bowing, down to me. And when he told it to his
father and brothers, his father berated him. ‘What,’ he said to him,
‘is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and
your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?’ So his brothers
were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.”
(Bereshit/Genesis 37:9-11, JPS translation)

Well, one can certainly understand the brother’s annoyance- nobody
likes to be told that they’ll bow down to somebody else, much less a
younger sibling. What’s more interesting is Yaakov’s reaction: “are we
to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you?”
Again, one can understand that a father would not like to be told of a
dream in which he bows to his son, but by this point in the story,
Rachel, Yosef’s mother, has been dead many years- so why would Yaakov
mention “your mother” in his objection to Yosef’s dream?

Our friend Rashi has two thoughts on the matter. First, “your mother”
here refers to Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, with whom Yaakov also had
children; Rashi refers to an earlier midrash [rabbinic interpretation]
which posits that Bilhah raised Yosef like a son after Rachel died.
What’s nice about this interpretation is not only that it solves the
problem of Yaakov saying “your mother” in reference to future events,
but it subtly implies that parenthood is not just about biology, but
also a state of emotional, ethical and spiritual commitments.
(Something important to remember in the debates over what constitutes
“family values.”)

Rashi’s second comment builds on the first, but is a bit complex. He
quotes a principle from the Talmud that “there is no dream without
meaningless elements,” meaning that not every symbol in a dream is
worthy of deep consideration. Rashi then goes on to say that Yaakov
intended to dismiss Yosef’s dream as meaningless, so that the other
brothers would not be too jealous or disturbed, and thus bringing up
“your mother” is a way of saying “just as it’s impossible for your
mother to bow down to you, the rest of the dream is nonsense too.”

Again, Rashi’s reading is plausible, given that it would certainly be
in Yaakov’s interest to calm the situation and defuse the mounting
jealousy between Yosef and his brothers- jealousy for which he himself
is largely responsible, after giving Yosef a special coat and favors.
Yet while Rashi’s reading is plausible, and holds out for us the
example of someone trying to make peace between others, what seems
more likely to me is not that Yosef’s dream contained meaningless
elements, but rather that Yaakov’s response revealed more than he
intended.

While the “Freudian slip” is by now a punchline in countless jokes,
it’s also true that one’s emotions reveal themselves at stressful or
unguarded moments- one contemporary psychologist (John Gottman) calls
this “leaking.” Thus, when Yaakov refers to his first love, Rachel, in
the future tense- “are we to come, I and your mother and your
brothers, and bow low to you?”- perhaps what is being revealed is not
only Yosef’s naivete or arrogance, but Yaakov’s unresolved grief, such
that a slip of the tongue shows the extent of his inability to fully
live in a world without Rachel.

To put it another way, perhaps Yaakov refers to Rachel because for
him, she has never truly died. Yaakov shows special attention to
Rachel’s children [Yosef and Binyamin], perhaps as a channel for his
grief, and when that special attention causes stress and dissent in
his family, the deeper emotional currents rise to the surface.

Many people who have lost a loved one experience slips of the tongue,
even years later, referrring to their loved one in the present tense,
or reaching for the phone before snapping back to the present.
Yaakov’s reference to Rachel illustrates how a person, family or
community can be as deeply influenced by who is not there as who is-
absence can drive emotional dynamics as powerfully as presence. Those
we love continue to shape our lives long after loss; such is the power
of love and the impressions made on a human soul, shaped forever by
the most powerful relationships a life may offer. In the case of
Yaakov, and many others who have known both love and loss, the past is
not dead, in fact, it’s not even past.*

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*Paraphrasing Faulkner, of course.

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