Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Re-Dreaming Joseph: Parashat Vayeishev
The Joseph cycle is the longest consecutive story of a Torah personality in the book of Genesis. Joseph will go through trials and will transform from a rather braggadocious young man into a powerful and forgiving leader. Hazal- the Rabbinic authorities of our tradition describe him in two ways: Joseph the Dreamer and Joseph the Tzaddik/Righteous.
At first, Joseph the Dreamer is a channel who receives information through dreams. As a young man, he uses these dreams in ways that foment jealousy and enmity between himself and his brothers. As long as Joseph connects to the dream in order to inflate himself and his role in the family, he will experience suffering. Joseph will be taken down in many ways throughout his story. He will descend to Egypt, be sold as a slave and eventually will be imprisoned for twenty years. His experiences as slave, a servant and a prisoner are all profoundly humbling. During his time in prison he will learn to use his gifts for the sake of others. He will discover that his gift for dream interpretation is not his own doing. He will tell Pharaoh’s Baker, Cup-Bearer and eventually Pharaoh himself that it is not he who provides the interpretations, it is G-d who makes it known.
Joseph will constrict the needs of his own ego and become a true servant of the process unfolding before him. It is through this development of his inner character and constriction of his ego, that he will ultimately become the redeemer of his time and place.
Joseph the Tzaddik/Righteous is so named because he is able to control his sexual desires. He is a man in charge of his master’s household, but more importantly, he is in charge of himself. Torah tells the story of the daily attempts by Mrs. Potifar to seduce Joseph. When finally, Master Potifar is away from home, she takes her chance once again and like before, Joseph refuses her. He is able to master his strongest urges and it is for this reason that our Rabbinic tradition conveys upon him the title of tzaddik/righteous, the saint.
In the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, Joseph is associated with the sephirah (the aspect of G-d) known as yesod. This is the quality understood as the creative foundation for life. Josef represents yesod because he provides the foundation for the sustenance of his society by storing grain and then dispenses it during a time of famine, saving countless lives. This sephirah is also represented anatomically by the phallus for it is the organ that provides the seeds, the foundation for life. And yet, we also know that this organ can also be used as a weapon and a force of destructive power. In this sense Joseph represents this sephirah for he was able to master his own urges. His refusal to give in to the seduction of Mrs. Potifar is seen by our tradition as his great moment of mastery and righteousness. He is in charge of himself, his body and his desires. He will not cross the moral line of betraying his Master. He is a loyal servant.
One cannot deny a certain kind of biblical poetry here, as this story follows one of the lowest moments in the story of Jacob’s family; the rape of Joseph’s sister Dinah and the rash violent retribution enacted on the men of Shechem. Let us recall that in last week’s Torah portion, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah went out of her camp and was raped by the Shechem, the Hivvite Prince of the land. We are told that after the rape, Shechem fell in love with Dinah and wanted to marry her. Jacob agreed on the condition that all the men in their land be circumcised. This alone is an interesting response to the rape and abuse of power by Shechem. Jacob demands circumcision for him, his father and all the men of the community in response to an act of violence perpetrated through this bodily organ. At this point the story can read as a karmic tale of justice, until Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi react with a violent rampage. In the middle of the night, three days after this mass circumcision when the men are at their weakest, Shimon and Levi murder all the men of Shechem. What begins as a tale of one man’s abuse of power over one woman becomes a gruesome tale of male rage that leads to a violent pogrom, the slaughter of a community.
In contrast, Torah now presents the story of a young man who controls his libido so as not to betray his master. It is this single act, in contrast to Shechem and the violent rampage by Joseph’s brothers, that our Rabbinic tradition holds up as a symbol of great righteousness.
I have difficulty with this. The glorification of Joseph to saintly status because he behaved like a mentsch and didn’t sleep with his master’s wife, seems a rather low standard for sainthood. The Torah itself never refers to Joseph as a tzaddik. It is the later tradition of rabbinic commentary written by men, for men that provides this singular lens.
As abuses of power continue throughout our world and in our society, we must challenge the assumptions under which we live. As a woman Rabbi who has willingly, but not without great inner challenge, taken a seat within the stream of rabbinic tradition, I must challenge the rabbinic assumptions that have shaped our understanding of Torah. We are in great need of new commentaries. We are in need of women’s voices in places of power and in the shaping of a society wherein controlling one’s sexual desires is not a mark of sainthood but a baseline level of human decency.
I am so thankful for the courage of individuals who have stood up and told their stories, catalyzing the #Me too movement. I am a part of that movement for like so many others, I too have experienced the brutal abusive power of men trying to take what was not theirs. This story is as old as time and what amazes me, is that women are finally being heard, claiming power, being elected into offices and shaping a new narrative. We have come a long way and there is much work to do but let us acknowledge that there is a re-balancing process at work right now.
I am thankful for a Torah that teaches that it is possible for an arrogant youth to transform, humble himself, control his sexual desires and act like a mentsch. Thank you, Joseph, for controlling yourself. Thank you, Joseph, for elevating your low dream of personal greatness to the high dream of saving your people; for recognizing that your descent and your elevation were meant to serve a higher purpose, for becoming the true servant for the welfare of the people.
I am thankful for a tradition that is fluid enough to allow women to take their place as spiritual leaders and contribute to the many voices of interpretation that strengthen our Judaism.
May we all strive to find the courage, humility and inner control to serve the highest dream of our diverse society. May we discover what it means to be a servant of the highest good.
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Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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