Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Parashat Vayigash. Puzzling Midrashic Approach

The parasha this week opens with Yehudah's dramatic speech. Joseph's cup has been discovered in Binyamin's sack. The brothers know that it is unthinkable to return to Canaan without Binyamin. they must plead their case before Joseph, the enigmatic Egyptian. The brothers seem absolutely helpless. Joseph holds all the cards. Yehudah courageously steps forward to seek a way to pull upon Joseph's heartstrings.

This is the peshat.

However there is a certain strain in the Midrash - brought partially by Rashi - that takes a rather different vantage point. As I have presented things, the brothers are desperate and guilty. They must appeal to Joseph's compassion, his humanity, as they present him with an image of their aging and ailing father.

But the perspective from Midrash portrays the brothers as threatening; aggressive. In Rashi's words:

...and let your wrath not be kindled - From here you
learn that he (Yehudah) spoke to him (Joseph) harshly.

For you are like Pharaoh - This is its simple meaning. Its midrashic meaning is, however: You will ultimately be punished with Leprosy because of him, just as Pharaoh was punished because of my great-grandmother Sarah for the one night that he detained her (Gen. 12:17).

Another explanation: Just as Pharaoh issues decrees and does not carry them out, makes promises and does not fulfill them, so do you. Now, is this the “setting of an eye,” concerning which you said [that you wanted] “to set your eye upon him” ? [See verse 21.]

Another explanation: For like you, so is Pharaoh-if you provoke
me, I will kill you and your master. [From Gen. Rabbah 93:6]19.

My lord asked his servants - From the beginning, you came
upon us with a pretext. Why did you have to ask all these [questions]? Were we looking to [marry] your daughter, or were you looking to [marry] our sister? Nonetheless, “we said to my lord” (verse 20). We did not conceal anything. [From Gen. Rabbah 93:8]

If we adopt this reading as seen in these comments of Rashi, the brothers are talking tough with Joseph, threatening him and making all manner of accusation. They talk with a superior tone as if they are in control. Of course, from the vantage point of peshat, the circumstances hardly support the possibility of the brothers - themselves guilty of stealing Joseph's goblet - being in a position to bargain with, let alone threaten, Joseph. (...and see the Ramban who makes this point.)

so where does the Midrash come from?

In Bereshit Rabba there are some more extreme depictions:

"When Judah got angry his hairs stood on end and protruded, and he put iron
balls into his mouth and they emerged as dust... Judah turned to Naftali and asked: 'How many marketplaces are there in Egypt?' 'Twelve,' He replied. 'Fine! I'll take three and you each take one, and we will destroy every man in Egypt.' The brothers
responded: "Egypt is not like Sh'chem...'"
Destroying all the men of Egypt? Grinding iron balls in your mouth. This is certainly entertaining. But what are Chazal trying to tell us?

Again. Why does the Midrash portray the brothers in this confident aggressive stance? Is it tenable with the text? and if not, what is the Midrash doing here? Of course I do know that Midrashim may be metaphorical or express a deeper philosophical idea. But this empowerment, the agression and defiance, is so disonant with the text that I am feeling rather stretched to suggest a reasonable rationale or explanation for this approach.

If you have any ideas or suggestions, please add them in the "comments".


nicole said...

I would think that the Midrash isn't coming so much to describe the brothers as it is to create a frame for Yoseph. We saw in previous shiurim that Yoseph has motives, whether to test the trustworthiness of his brothers, whether to see if the Leah-Rachel feud can finally be buried, or whether to bring about teshuva shelema. However, there was always that other dimension of them hating him for being a dreamer, and particularly, for dreaming of self-aggrandizement. This might be a reality check for Yoseph: You are a Jew (unbeknownst to us brothers, but not to the midrash, who has 20/20 with hindsight).Yet you are acting like a pharaoh, the kind of pharaohs that have repressed our forefathers, tormented our mothers, the pharaoh's that are powerhungry and do not act for a higher purpose, do not answer to a higher boss. But, Yoseph, 20 years in prison has taught you that the pharaoh's have only an illusion of being in control. Well in this moment, don't lose sight of that and don't be one iota harsher than you must, for that was the sin of the later Egyptians, was it not? Their sin was not in oppressing the Hebrews as slaves, but in cracking the whip too hard and deriving pleasure in their victims' pain. Don't become one of them??? (Maybe a better theory can incorporate some elements of this undeveloped and tentative one.)

nicole said...

I would also like to add one thing. This would go well with the midrash that discusses yehuda's burning the Egyptian wagons with the emblems that seem to be avodah zarah. This story serves to contrast Yehuda's intolerance to Yoseph's being accustomed to the foreign Egyptian practices. These midrashim might be expressing another aspect of the dynamic that is now at play, now that Yoseph has acclimated to a Galut-environment, but the rest of the brothers remain grounded in the state of affairs b'aretz.