OK – so, some of you are probably thinking: she doesn’t look 13! What is this woman doing? Well, as some of you may know, a Jewish person becomes a Bat or Bar Mitzvah when they turn 13, no matter whether or not they have a ritual to mark it. I did not have a ritual when I turned 13. I was raised with a strong sense of being Jewish, but I did not go to religious school or learn to read Hebrew. Throughout my adult life I have sought out classes and books to learn more. As I began to attend services more frequently, I found that I really wanted to participate more fully in Jewish ritual. I’d seen other adults become B’nai Mitzvah and thought I’d like to do that too.
Four years ago I took my first Hebrew class. I found it incredibly hard to learn as an adult – so many letters looked alike to me. I repeated beginner classes twice. And then about 2 years ago, as my son Jeremy was beginning to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah, I set a goal – to learn to read Hebrew and leyn from the Torah by the time I turned 50. To my astonishment, here I am. It’s pretty hard to believe that I just turned 50, and it’s also amazing that I just read from the Torah, and I even understood what I was reading. Who knows? Maybe some of you will be inspired to undertake this too.
The plot in today’s parashat, Vayeishev, moves quickly from one scene to the next. It overflows with strong emotions, trickery, dark anger, violence, betrayal and seduction. I could have chosen to talk about Tamar, or Potiphar’s wife – two women characters who appear in the second two thirds of Vayeishev. I have, after all, created several midrashim about women in the Bible. But I surprised myself by choosing instead to study and focus on this first triennial reading, to dive into the text that we would be leyning today. And that meant trying to make some sense of these male characters- Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers.
I did find that I could empathize with Jacob, in that he is a parent. I could relate to his intensity when he grieves the loss of a child – the moment of his perception that his son has been killed by a wild animal is horrific.
But understand Joseph? That was a challenge. There is a lot of narrative about Joseph –his story starts in Chapter 37 and continues through Chapter 50. But we do not hear about his emotions until Chapter 42. We just hear about what happens to him.
Joseph seems so naïve. He tells his brothers his dream, which suggests that they will one day bow down to him, and despite their angry responses Joseph tells them a second, similar dream.
Jacob shows that Joseph is his favorite son by giving him a fancy coat. Why, we may wonder, does Jacob make this mistake of favoritism, when Jacob’s own past was scarred by sibling rivalry with his twin, Esau? Why does Jacob trust his other sons and send
Joseph far away from home to meet his brothers? Surely Jacob must know that they despise Joseph?
The brothers are out in Shechem, away from their father’s view. When Joseph comes to them, they have an opportunity to act on their hatred. They strip the coat off Joseph. In doing this, they strip away his identity, his place as the favored son of Jacob. They want to get rid of him. They throw him in the pit. Do all of the brothers participate in this abuse, or are some complicit bystanders? Does Joseph cry out for them to stop? Does he plead with them to help him out? Does he struggle to get out and cannot? Does he just accept his fate? We can only imagine.
Meanwhile, although the brothers want to kill Joseph, Reuven, the eldest son, says “shed no blood,” and stops them. They throw him in a pit instead. Judah, the fourth son of Leah, reminds the others that Joseph is “their brother, their flesh” and suggests they make some money by selling him off to the Midianites who are approaching. They leave Joseph in the pit. And then - they go to lunch! While they are gone, some Ishmaelites come along and take Joseph out of the pit and sell him to Midianites for 20 silvers. Reuven comes back and is dismayed: Joseph is not in the pit! And he tears his robe and wonders: where am I to go?
The brothers seem more worried about what they will tell their father Jacob, than what has happened to Joseph. Although they have been somewhat passive in the process, their goal has been accomplished: they have gotten rid of this hated little brother.
So they take the time to slaughter a goat – and this is “lishchot” the verb for ritual slaughter – and they dip Joseph’s coat in the blood. When they present the coat to their father Jacob they ask him to recognize it and he does and they let him deduce that a wild animal has attacked Joseph. “Tarof toraf Yosef.” Joseph is torn, torn. And Jacob tears at his clothing and refuses to be comforted.
I was struck by the repetitive images: Reuven, and then Jacob, tearing their clothes in mourning, the imagined tearing of Joseph’s flesh, the brothers’ deceitful severing of their bond of brotherly flesh and blood, Joseph’s coat dipped in a slaughtered goat’s blood causing his father extreme grief. This family is really intense! And like many other siblings in the Torah they do not know how to work things out and have peace reign among them. Instead we have all of these men, young and old, acting impulsively and unethically.
But I kept wondering about the pit. What is the pit on a symbolic level? In her book Underdogs and Tricksters: A Prelude to Biblical Folklore, Susan Niditch writes,
“Images of crossroads and stays in wells or pits are equally universal markers of transition in traditional narrative. The hero, a passenger in his odyssey, has
adventures at a boundary. He is made a temporary non person, dead or thought dead or naked, below the earth. His old persona, his youth or former status, is
undone and stripped bare so that he can change and emerge as someone else, older, with new status and responsibility.”
Indeed, it seems that something transformative happened to Joseph in the pit. If you look ahead to Chapter 39 when the text picks up the story of Joseph once again it says “Adonai ito” four times in quick succession: God was with him. So why is God now with Joseph? The fact that this was not mentioned in the earlier chapters and now it is repeated, seems to indicate that a big change came over Joseph. This quality of Godliness is perceived by others – by Potiphar, by the jailer and the other inmates imprisoned with Joseph, and finally by Pharoah. “Adonai ito” is the explanation for why Joseph somehow triumphs despite enormous setbacks. Despite having his identity, family and home torn from him, being indentured and then imprisoned, he succeeds in reinventing himself in Egypt.
By the time his brothers travel to Egypt many years later we finally see Joseph get emotional –when he recognizes his brothers and finds out that Jacob is still alive. But even then he tells his brothers not to feel badly, it was God’s will that he should go to Egypt and save his family and so many others from famine – in other words it all worked out for the better so it’s OK. So Joseph changes from a naïve charming young man to a man who is highly esteemed, who takes on important responsibilities, and whose actions are always ethical.
So I thought I’d like to try to create a midrash about Joseph’s emotions – to fill in the blanks about what happened to him in this experience of being thrown in the pit by his brothers. As a storyteller, my process often includes an exploration of point of view within a story. I experiment with telling the story in one character’s voice, and then another’s, trying to understand the story in a multi-dimensional way. So I applied this approach to this text. And I found it difficult and, even sort of scary.
It was hard to fathom the way Joseph was betrayed so utterly by his brothers. He was ganged up on, bullied, abused and abandoned. In trying to understand the young Joseph I gave myself the assignment to try speaking in Joseph’s voice, from the pit. I can tell you - I procrastinated about doing this. I really did not want to go down in that pit –I mean, who would? So I stood there looking down into the pit, but avoiding being in it, so to speak. Eventually I got up the nerve to go down in the pit - in my imagination. I improvised the scenes of this narrative, working with another storyteller as a witness. And I found that I did come to a deeper understanding of Joseph’s experience, and more insight about dynamics of the scene. Here is what I wrote to capture some sense of that.
* * *
Joseph set out on the road early in the morning as his father had told him to do. He was not in any hurry to find his brothers. They always gave him such a hard time, teasing him, taunting him, and picking on him because he was younger and smaller than them.
Joseph thought back to the two dreams he had told his family about. The dreams seemed to predict that one day they would all bow down to him – Joseph! When he told the first dream to his brothers they were furious. When he told the second dream to them and to Jacob, his father had gotten angry with him. But his brothers had not said anything the second time. Maybe they were beginning to see that they should respect him and not give him such a hard time. His step quickened in excitement as he imagined his brothers accepting and respecting him.
Joseph was wearing his new coat, embroidered with bright colors. He loved his new coat. It looked brilliant in the sunlight. Maybe not the thing to wear while herding sheep, but he didn’t care, it made him feel wonderful. He wondered what his brothers would say about this coat that Jacob had given him. None of them had anything like it.
Joseph knew his brothers resented how much their father doted on him. He was Jacob’s favorite son, everyone knew that. He was the best looking. His soft brown curls blowing gently in the breeze were just like his mother Rachel’s. Joseph liked to stay close to home, near the protection of his father and his father’s other wives. If his brothers gave him a hard time he would run and tell on them. His brothers got even madder when he did that, but at least it got them to stop. Joseph was seventeen, but he was still a na’ar, a young man. He had only the lightest of beards shadowing his cheeks, and he had a slight build, not like his muscular, rough older brothers.
He felt apprehensive as soon as he saw them up ahead. As he approached he could hear them starting in again.
“Oh look at that coat. What a pretty boy you are Joseph! Oh don’t get his coat dirty! Look at him trying to brush off the dirt. He’s too good for us shepherds.”
“Abba told me to come here. He gave me this coat. Hey watch it, don’t get it so dirty. Don’t forget the dream I had. You were all bowing down to me.”
“You think someday you will be more important than us? Let’s show him who is more important.”
“Hey stop shoving me. Stop it. I’ll tell Abba you hurt me. Ow!”
“Jacob’s not here. You can’t go running to Abba this time.”
“Such a weakling. Look at him on the ground. Take that. Get that coat off him. Oh look –I got a sleeve! Tear it off of him”
“Don’t rip it. Stop. Give it back.”
“Joseph? Wake up, you baby. He must have hit his head. He’s knocked out cold. Is he still breathing? What did you do –did you kill him?”
“Nah. He’s breathing. But maybe we should kill him.”
“Yeah, get him out of our sight. I can’t stand him.”
“We will not kill him.”
“Oh Reuven, you’re just worried about what Abba will say.”
“Well, Jacob will blame me, the oldest… I know! The irrigation pit over there – there’s no water in it. Let’s toss him in there.”
“Hey look there are some Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. What do we gain by killing Joseph? He is our own flesh after all. But we could sell him to the Ishmaelites – we’d make some money.”
“Now you’re talking Judah. Yeah! Good idea.”
“Leave him in the pit. When he comes to he’ll be crying like a baby. Let’s go have lunch. I’m hungry.”
Some time later, Joseph regained consciousness. He felt cold. His coat was gone. His body ached, especially the side of his head, and his left arm. It hurt to move. He could smell earth. The air around him was still and strangely quiet. Opening his eyes, at first he didn’t know where he was. Then he realized he was down in a deep, deep hole in the ground and the opening at the top showed only the sky.
“Reuven?” He thought he heard his brother’s voice up there. “Reuven! Down here. I must have fallen in this hole. Hey someone! Help me!”
One by one he called the names of each of his brothers. He screamed till he was hoarse. Joseph was furious. He tried to scramble out of the hole. He was determined to get out, to confront his brothers and demand that they explain themselves. He breathed heavily, trying over and over to find footholds and handholds. The sides were steep and slippery, and the pain in his arm made it impossible. He could not reach anywhere near the top without falling back down.
Joseph lay crumpled at the bottom of the pit. A sick realization came over him. He had not fallen into the hole. It was nowhere near where he and his brothers had fought. They must have tossed him down there. And his coat - his beautiful coat was gone - torn from
him. He shivered. What would happen now? Where had his brothers gone? Had they left him there? Joseph began to cry. Why was this happening to him? He hadn’t done
anything to deserve this. He couldn’t help being who he was. Why did they hate him so much?
Time passed. Joseph’s tears dried, his mouth became parched and he grew lightheaded with hunger and despair. But then, the fear gave way to calm, and he felt strangely detached. The pain in his body receded. He took a deep breath and felt the earth under him and surrounding him. Looking up from the bottom of that deep narrow hold in the ground all he saw was a circle of sky above him. It was blue. As he stared at the sky it seemed to go on forever. He began to sing to the infinite sky and felt his spirit soaring up in the clear air.
When strange faces appeared at the top of the hole, looking down at him, it took a moment for Joseph to realize they were real. “Help me!” Joseph called hoarsely to them. They went away. But then they came back, and this time they lowered a long rope down to him. Joseph held the rope with his one good arm and they pulled until they were able to hoist him out of the pit. Joseph sat on the ground and looked around. He could see the horizon once again, and feel the air moving around him.
He now realized that his rescuers were Midianites, passing by on their way to Egypt. His singing must have caught their attention. The Midianites spoke in a language he did not follow, but he could tell they were talking about him. With horror he realized he had no way of explaining to them who he was. Without his clothing and his family he was nothing but a man. His brothers were nowhere to be seen. Joseph felt exposed and vulnerable. He did not have the strength to run away. One of the men gave him a drink of water. And then they led him to their caravan. Joseph tried once more to call to his brothers. But before long he was far away from anyone or anyplace he had ever known.
* * *
The pit, for me, represents the challenges, the times in my life I didn’t think I could sink any lower. It reminds me of times when something bad was happening and I did not want to be there, in the moment, when I disengaged and wanted it to be over. It also reminds me of times when I have felt depressed, or stuck in my creative process, when I did not think I had the energy or will to climb out of “the pit” and move on. It really has felt like “the pits” when difficult things have happened - despite the fact that I have tried earnestly to be a good, healthy human being.
I’m sure that each of you have had your own “pit” experiences. Maybe some of you are going through something like this right now. For others, I can understand if you don’t want to go down there. But maybe just stand around at the top and peek in. I think the text is asking us to reflect on the question: how do we face enormous challenges? Especially the kind that happen tous, things we weren’t expecting or didn’t bring on
ourselves. When we find ourselves at a crossroads, or in a pit, one of those “universal markers of transition” – what do we do? Do we ask for help from others? Are we
furious when others say “it was all for the best” or imply that this will be a “growth experience?” Do we turn to or talk to some concept of God in these moments? Or do we feel at these times that surely God has abandoned us? Do the bad things prove that indeed God does not exist? Or does God help us? And perhaps more importantly, what changes do we go through, how are we transformed into someone with different qualities or insights on the other end of these experiences? Who are we when we emerge from the pit?
At first I imagined that Joseph bargained with God: OK, you get me out of this pit and I promise to honor you always. But striking a bargain implies that one still has some control –I just have to do this and God will do that.
When I thought about the most challenging times in my own life, I did not recall having a sense of God helping me. I was talking about this with Rabbi Toba and I said, “God didn’t help me out of the pit, people did. It was the people who supported me that helped.” But when I was telling this to Kathy later, she said it reminded her of a cartoon. A man is standing on a rooftop and a flood of water is rising all around him. He calls out, “God save me!” Someone comes along in a boat and says, “Hop in!” But the man continues to stand on the roof, waiting for God to help him. He refuses two more offers of help from other people. Finally God’s voice shouts, “What are you waiting for? I sent help for you!” Rather than imagining a God who writes the script and determines what will happen, perhaps there is a quality of Godliness that we can see in one another.
I realized that one of the ways I was changed by difficult experiences was that I had to confront my lack of control over the course of life’s events. I experienced some degree of humility and surrender that in a way felt liberating. The only choice I had was in my attitude and to choose to look forward. Joseph is somehow able to forgive and go on in a new direction and “Adonai ito,” God is with him. He continues to use his charm to win people’s favor. But I also think that he chooses to make the best of each situation, that he has earned his claim to dignity and importance. I imagine that Joseph never forgets the awesome gift of being able to see the horizon, to feel the breeze caress his face, the gift of being alive.
Despite our best efforts and intentions there are twists and turns in the road that we can not anticipate and may wish did not happen, but there we are, going down that road anyway. Maybe some difficult things will happen, but then again maybe on our journey there will be some unforeseen, wonderful things that will happen too.
Shabbat Shalom v’ Hag Sameach.