The Yosef Story as a Paradigm of Jewish History

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Eight, Second Part

R. Arama thinks many of the details of the Yosef story are placed there to tell us about the future, unneeded for the story itself. Our understanding of the story would not have suffered had the Torah told us only one of Par’oh’s dreams, for example, omitted the news of where Ya’akov was when he sent Yosef to find his brothers, Reuven and Yehuda’s separate attempts to save Yosef, or what merchandise was being carried by the camels of the merchants who took Yosef to Egypt.

As pure details, they only flesh out a bedtime story (that’s his image, not mine: he says they sweeten the sleep of the reader), an idea prohibited regarding the Torah (he says the Torah is al Names of Hashem, an idea I have to leave for now).

He believes Bereshit is a rubric for history. The exile and troubles in the story have already come true for the Jewish people, who are also called after Yosef (as he cites verses to demonstrate), leaving him hopeful the Jewish people will see an end as positive as the one we see in the Torah. Tanhuma to Va-Yigash says much the same, everything that happened to Yosef happened to Zion, meaning the city and the nation.

Sinai and Anti-Semitism

He doesn’t go into the Midrash at length, he brought it up only to show he was not peddling an innovative idea, and then shows how the story prefigured history. Some parallels he gives are obvious, others surprising. The brothers’ hatred matches the nations’ hatred of later Jewish history; Yosef’s talebearing stands in for the “tale-bearing” of the Jews’ accepting the Torah where the other nations rejected it (he is alluding to Avoda Zara 2b, which says Hashem offered the Torah to each of the other nations and they turned it down, where the Jews agreed to accept it).

Ya’akov’s love for Yosef symbolizes Hashem’s love for the young Jewish people, as Yirmiyahu says about the nation’s following Hashem to the desert, an unplanted land. The ketonet pasim, the extra garment Ya’akov made for Yosef, will become the Mishkan, where kohanim will have special clothes and a special service.

Coming back to Sinai. [I wanted to anyway, because the idea our willingness to accept the Torah could count as talebearing intrigued me. I can see how conspicuous “goody two-shoes” behavior counts as “talebearing,” in a sense. R. Arama is extending that to where the Jews made the only good choice available to them. Just living their lives, doing what comes their way, can also be a sort of talebearing if it’s too much better than those around them. At least from the other nations’ perspective].

In his view, they also hate us for the Torah and mitzvot Hashem gave us, like the brothers hated Yosef for the special clothing Ya’akov gave him. [He doesn’t comment on what seems to me the radical choice to cast the brothers—forerunners of the Shivtei Kah, the Tribes of Hashem—as the non-Jews of history.]

The Continuing Advantage of the Jewish People

Yosef’s first dream is about the early years of the Jewish people, when they will have many prophets, as they will be in Hashem’s good graces (Berakhot 57b says dreams are a sixtieth of prophecy, justifying the idea a dream could reflect prophecy), when they would have many prophets, being in Gd’s good graces. In that world, other nations simply bowed to Yosef’s sheaves.

The second dream shows a Jewish people with less luster, opening the door to other actors (the sun, moon, and stars) to share spotlight, as other nations will come to share some of the Jewish people’s legacy of faith and service of Hashem (Zefania 3;9 says, Hashem will call out more clearly to all the nations, reducing Jewish exceptionalism).

The Jews will still have three ways of setting themselves apart, faith, acceptance of Torah and mitzvot, and rule [R. Arama is perhaps addressing a worry of his audience, whose Xian neighbors were certainly closer to Gd than pagans of old; he is telling them no matter how much non-Jews come around, Tanakh reassures us Jews will always have these three advantages).

Avraham is the first model of faith, leading to the covenant of berit milah, circumcision (a covenant special to Jews for all time). Their acceptance of Torah and mitzvot also created a permanent covenant, as Moshe says in Devarim 26;17, we connected ourselves to Hashem by our commitment and, as Tehillim 147;20 says, Hashem gave us something no other nation has (we say the verse daily, lo asah khen le-khol goy, u-mishpatim bal yeda’um,  He did not do thus to any nation, did not inform them of laws).

Third, Hashem gave the Jews rulership (a daring comment from a Jew living under non-Jewish kings). Many verses speak of Hashem instilling fear in other nations, promises that came true in the times of Yehoshu’a, David, and Shelomo. Hashem vested the promise in Yehuda, then narrowed it to David, Shelomo, and his descendants [R. Arama does not say it explicitly, but he seems to be echoing Rambam, who included the belief in Shelomo and his descendants as the sole legitimate heirs to Davidic kingship as part of the belief in Mashiah.]

Yehuda, Kingship, and Its Prerequisites

I skipped some of his symbolic reading of the Yehuda/Tamar story (he thinks, for example, Yehuda sent Tamar a goat to indicate they would bear a leader who would shepherd Hashem’s flock); sticking with kingship, he notes the command to a king to write a Torah scroll and have it read before him continually. Such reading will guard his heart from straying from Hashem, preserve his kingship, for him and his sons.

The Torah’s connecting study and keeping the king’s heart close to Hashem show the throne depends on fear of Gd. Perhaps of some surprise in our times, R. Arama defines fear of Gd as faith and observance of mitzvot [where today, I think many see yir’at het, fear of sin, or yir’at Shamayim, fear of Heaven, as some kind of extra piety of certain special Jews. R. Arama is telling us faith and observance are fear of Hashem.]

As he had said earlier, circumcision inserted a level of faith in Jews as a whole, which did differentiate them from other nations, but not enough. He attributes this to Jews’ generally being circumcised by others (because we’re babies at the time), weakening the attachment to faith. He adds mi-tehilatam ad sofam, from their start to finish, I think meaning throughout history and/or throughout the people, the cause of all the Jewish people’s troubles and exiles. [Another of those casual points we might fail to notice: he pins it all on faith—were Jews to have more faith, their history would have been more positive, I think because they also would have observed the Torah and mitzvot better. But it starts with faith, not action.]

The Ease of Connection and Faith in Messianic Times

Based on a reference in Yirmiyahu 31;30 to a new covenant, R. Arama thinks faith will be easier in the future. Devarim 30;6 says Hashem will circumcise our hearts, to R. Arama a way of saying Hashem will make it more natural for us to internalize the faith our current physical circumcisions facilitate.

Right now, to learn about Hashem through the Written and Oral Law, people have to find bearers of tradition, who reveal it according to students’ readiness (esoteric aspects of the Torah, for example, are restricted to outstanding people).

For long periods, it was not easy to find such a teacher, and some seekers never found what they sought. Even when they did, the number of hands through which the information passed—teacher to student in the many generations since Sinai—weakened its cachet as absolute truth, fostered doubts about it, in whole or in part. The Oral Law in particular has a weak hold on people’s confidence, because anyting passed by mouth has obvious risks of miscommunication, mistransmission.

In the time of Mashiah (R. Arama calls it “zeman ha-mutzlah,” the successful time), all the intermediaries will be removed. Knowledge of Hashem will be embedded in people’s intellects without any barriers; the circumcision of our hearts will mean we are fully open to the truths of Torah.

A Midrash Hazit claims the Jews already had this experience once, at the Giving of the Torah, before they asked Moshe to serve as intermediary. When they heard directly from Hashem, they would not forget—the message would be internalized and imprinted on their being. Their preference for Moshe to serve as intermediary had the unrecognized consequence that they again began to forget some of what they learned. Realizing their error, Midrash Hazit claims they asked for a second chance (typified by the female voice in Shir Ha-Shirim, which longs for her lover’s return).

The Problems in the Way

They were told it would come only in the future, when their hearts were focused on Hashem [I think this is an implicit call to his listeners to realize they have it in their power to reach that time, if they only turn their hearts fully to Hashem]. It hasn’t happened yet for various reasons, he says, including the pressure from disputants, such as those who say Jewish sources agree the Messiah has already arrived (a stock claim of Xian disputation, that Jewish sources identify Jesus as Messiah).

Besides the Xians, the Jewish people themselves are at fault for the wait. They failed worse than not achieving the obligatory good to merit Mashiah, they failed badly enough to be sent to exile, to mingle with other nations, from whom they absorbed ways of behavior (ways they should not have), moving them daily further from the goal rather than closer.

Mashiah will need to solve these physical problems first. A bit earlier in the sha’ar, he had said Mashiah’s purpose was not political dominion; he would be well-formed, intellectually and spiritually, cleave fully to Hashem, enabling him to teach the people all the secrets of the Torah, the reasons for its order and its commandments, and the meanings of the Names of Hashem in the Torah, all in a way even those deaf and blind of heart will hear and absorb permanently, without forgetting.

Because Mashiah wasn’t about political victory. He uses the phrase shi’abud malkhuyot, dominion over other nations. He may be reflecting his audience, who might have been too focused on independence and political power in their longings for Mashiah.

[I wonder whether he is also implicitly calling on them to read Rambam less literally. Rambam said the only difference between contemporary life and the Messianic era would be shi’abud malkhuyot, an idea I used as the baseline for my first novel, Murderer in the Mikdash, the sequel to which is currently in press. R. Arama is saying regardless of his performing miracles—Rambam’s real focus, to say Mashiah will not change nature in significant ways– he will do more than the political, he will bring a new era of faith. An idea Rambam does have as well].

The victories Mashiah will bring are all prerequisites for his real goals, reinstilling the highest kind of faith.

Yehuda’s Staff, Prophecy, and Controlling Nature

I have mostly left out how R. Arama connected his ideas to the items Yehuda gave Tamar as surety before he sent her the agreed “fee” for their time together. One of those was his staff, to R. Arama a symbol of the prophet’s power over angels (or nature; Rambam interprets angels as forces of nature, and R. Arama is willing to accept either version).

Prophets before the time of Mashiah were an unusual occurrence, and left little lasting impact. (They would appear on the scene, perform their remarkable acts, and then life would return to what it was.) Mashiah will by and large operate supernaturally, the reason Yeshayahu 65 speaks of Hashem creating a new heavens and earth, eclipsing past versions. The way life works, under Mashiah, will have a different regularity to it, one beyond our current views of nature. It’s why Yosef’s dream referred to the sun, moon, and stars bowing to him; when a fully whole person is running the world, the natural order becomes subservient to him, as will happen in Mashiah’s times.

Next time, we will see him finish the parsha, with more thoughts on how Hashem works history, and the roles of the various actors in it.

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