Not buying my boys skirts! The Torah portion of Vayeshev and a taste of Hanukkah

Hanukkah starts this Sunday night with candle lighting, games and oily foods. There a discussion in the Talmud what happens if a hanukiya was lit and happens to get extinguished; does it need to be lit again? That is, is the mitzvah primarily, to have the light or is the lighting itself “it” and once that’s done, then we’re all good, even if the candles don’t last? (Tractate Shabbat, 21).

The discussion has practical implications (to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘to light again, or not light again, that is the question’…) we well as spiritual ones. AS we say in the blessing, the mitzvah is lehadlik, “to light”. The “Zer Zahav” (nickname given to Chasidic rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Landa, 1807-1891 for the name of his book) explains that the teaching of the Talmud here is that we must begin; get off and do something. We don’t know and are not able to guarantee fully what the outcome will be, but just because we can’t complete the task, it does not mean that we are exempt from taking a stab at it (to paraphrase Pirkei Avot 2:21).
Likewise, about the famous “oil miracle”, we should ask, why aren’t we celebrating seven days? After all, there was enough oil for one day, so maybe there is no miracle in that day one, only in the ones after! But rather, the miracle there is the fact that someone even noticed the little oil can, and even bothered to use it. It was obviously not going to be enough! But a step forward, towards light was taken, into the unknown, in hope and prayer that somehow, something will open up, and that small beginning is already a great thing. Some days, the fact that we have hope, is a miracle in itself.

Not buying skirts for my boys. Every year when the Torah portion of Vayeshev comes around, with Joseph and his multi-colored coat, “righteous” parents post endlessly about how bad it is to discriminate between one’s children. “Not buying skirts for my boys” has been one of my repeated “parental sayings” trying to highlight how not discriminating between one’s children is just as bad if not worse. The statement has meanwhile become not p.c.: what do you mean?? You won’t buy skirts for your boys?! So I have to state that, of course, had my boys needed / wanted etc skirts, yes, I would buy those too. But the point is, that I, clearly, blatantly and at times proudly, discriminate between my kids. I don’t even make a fake effort to hide it, and worse yet, I believe it’s not only the norm, but the ideal. Attending to each child as an individual with his / her own uniqueness, and providing each differently, according to who this child is and what this particular child needs, is the most important parenting aspect. The idea that a parent would do otherwise, is absurd.
This is why reading the Joseph story in the “traditional” way, seems overly simplistic and does not quite make sense to me. There is no way that Jacob treated Reuven and Benjamin in the same way, and that verse describing Jacob’s love for Joseph “because” he was the youngest / born in his old age” and that therefore he made him a special coat (Genesis 37:3) must be misread and mistranslated. I am not arguing the special relationship between Jacob and Joseph but would like to qualify them slightly differently and then see where we can take it from there.
The first thing to notice is that Jacob in this verse is called Yisrael. Yisrael is his national, prophetic name. Joseph is described as “ben zkunim”, which is usually seen as a child born in a parent old age, usually the youngest. This presents at least two problems: 1. Joseph had two brothers, Yisaschar and Zvulun who were almost the same age as he was (not to mention Dina – the birth order is in Genesis 30:15-24). 2. He was not the youngest. He was also not the only one from beloved Rachel, to which we can say, that Benjamin reminded Jacob of Rachel’s death and therefore was less loved, but – we know from later parts of the story that this is simply not true. So, maybe there is a different way to understand “ben zkunim”?

Indeed, some of the commentators were bothered by the same issues. Onkelos, who brings us the Aramaic translation of the text, says it mean “ben zkunim” means ‘bar chakim’, a wise son, as in Jacob (the prophetic Jacob, Yisrael) noticed Joseph’s special intellectual and spiritual abilities. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the root for zaken, is ‘experience that brings wisdom’. Alternatively, according to Ramban (Nachmonides 1194-1270) it was the custom of older man – Jacob was 91 when Joseph was born – to have one of their boys stay back with them and help them with their needs. That’s why Joseph did not go with his brothers and the flock.
One more questionable word in this verse is “ki”, often translated as “because” but can also be “when” (as in Ki Tetze, Ki Tavo). If so, maybe – Prophetic Jacob loved Joseph as he (Joseph) was the one to serve him (Jacob). We can imagine the two spending many hours together, and as Rashi and others tell us, Jacob taught Joseph all he knew in spiritual learning.

It’s unclear why Jacob made Joseph a “striped coat” – some say he made it to cover the fact that Joseph was learning and growing spiritually; maybe Joseph too, was “smooth” (and beautiful) like his father, and anyway very different form his brothers. And if we want to stay really curious, it’s even hard to tell who made that coat (when it says “ve’asa lo” it’s unclear who is which pronoun). What’s more, up until now, only one child succeeded the father. This is the first time all the children become the “Children of Israel”. Clearly one has to be the leader and clearly (from past experience, it might be one of the younger ones. How exciting!

One thing is hard to argue: the brothers resented this whole scene, so much so that “they could not speak with him le’shalom – peacefully” (37:4). Communication was severed from both sides. The brothers’ inability to talk with him just made it worse. According to some commentators, had they only been able to talk with each other, even if they expressed their anger and upset-ness, they would have been able to make peace. But they did not develop a common language and listening ear. Joseph on his end, had the kind of social skills that leave a lot to be desired (which is what both gets him in trouble and saves him). It was one thing to tell his first dream, and quite another to tell the second, after the brothers’ displeasure was already obvious (some say, his “dreamer” quality is also a sign of his inability to stay focused in the present which is possibly what lands him in jail, maybe to connect him back to the here and now, and climb, symbolically, from the bottom / ground – up).

Joseph and his brothers represent different aspects of the Jewish people: the farmer and the shepherd; the Land and the world. This week’s Torah portion ends in suspense and there are more “episodes” to go, but suffice it to say that ultimately, it will not be an either or, but a “both”. This is still true today, and the sooner we learn it, the better.

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