Meeting Life as It Comes

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

When the Lessons We Need to Learn Taste Bad

Before Yosef has his dreams, his brothers already hate him. When Yosef asks them to listen to his first dream, 37;6, I think most of us assume he wasn’t alert to how they felt about him. Meshech Hochmah instead says he was telling it to them as a tochahah, a call for them to realize they had to do better. Gd had decided Yosef would be the ruler, they would bow to him, and the sooner they accommodated reality, the better for them.

Bereshit Rabbah Va-Yeshev 84;10 has a similar idea (Meshech Hochmah says), noting the phrase shim’u na, listen now (or please). Just like prophets use the phrase when laying out ways the Jews could act better and more productively (Moshe Rabbenu uses the phrase twice, Shmuel has it, Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yehezkel, etc.), Yosef was doing the same.

It was why he shared the second dream as well. If Ya’akov, too, would have to bow to Yosef, there was no shame or denigration in how his dreams were portraying them, it was just the way Gd’s plan was going to go. And Yosef was trying to help them see that, so they could accept reality and work within it.

[He may not have been the best one to do it, because they could suspect him of lording it over them, of taking joy in his role as compared to theirs.] The idea invites us to consider the question in our own lives: at what point do we say, this is what Gd wants, and I will do my best to work within it, and how long do we fight against it? For some people, even after they accept the reality Gd has chosen, the role Gd wants them to play in the world, it continues to chafe, to upset them.

Meshech Hochmah thinks the brothers (and anyone in a similar situation) would do well to accept necessary reality and work within it.

Proper Marriage with Improper Motives

After Er and Onan die, Yehudah refuses to allow Shelah to perform yibum, the marriage of a brother to a childless widow. Said widow, Tamar, takes action of her own, and finds a way to become pregnant from Yehudah, also a form of yibum before the giving of the Torah.

Once the matter has been cleared up, 38;26 says Yehudah lo yasaf to have relations with her, a phrase Rashi points out was read in opposite ways by earlier sources. Some took it to mean he never did it again, others to mean he did not refrain from further relations (she became his full-fledged wife).

Meshech Hochmah suggests the question hinges on an idea of Abba Shaul’s, Yevamot 35b. Abba Shaul insisted on pure motives in such marriages, thought if a man marries the widow of his childless brother with any other than solely pure motives, the consummation of the marriage remains close to incestuous, any resulting child close to being a mamzer (a child born of a relationship in fact against Torah law, at a karet or death penalty level).

Of course, Yehudah did not know with whom he was having relations, meaning the yibum happened be-shogegYevamot 56b has a debate about unwitting yibum, some thinking it nonetheless produces a full marriage, others holding it does not. If we operate with Abba Shaul’s concerns, if Tamar was not yet his wife, he should not move forward, because we should worry about intent; if she was already his wife, the issue is over, and he can live an ordinary married life with her.

It introduces us to the concern with motive that fueled Ashkenazim’s stepping back from fulfilling the mitzvah of yibum (Ashkenazim have opted for halitzah, for centuries; Sefardim are a more complex story).

In his assumption Abba Shaul would have been fine with the marriage once consummated, I think Meshech Hochmah also brings up the topic of when wrong or less than perfect acts can transform into acceptable or laudable ones. Theoretically, a couple could claim (sincerely) they were marrying only to perform whatever service for the deceased the Torah intended by their marriage. Abba Shaul thinks they cannot be sure.

After they do, then what? Are they supposed to spend half a century focused on not enjoying the relationship, on seeing it only as fulfillment of a mitzvah? Meshech Hochmah is sure not, is sure the only reason Yehudah might have refrained going forward was if their first encounter had not created a marriage. Had they married in those moments, he was clear they could continue, because even Abba Shaul only worried about their first instance.

Some of what starts in less than wonderful circumstances grows into something more than wonderful.

A Lesson in Palace Manners for Yosef

While Yosef is in jail, Par’oh becomes angered with two of his servants, the sar ha-ofim, baker or cook, and sar ha-mashkim, the butler. Meshech Hochmah sees Divine Providence in the incident, because he views them as having been department heads, overseers of all food and drink providers in Egypt, including the taxes collected from them.

Gd sent them to prison in order for Yosef to spend time with them, to learn how to run a government in the particular areas he would need. [The idea combines the metaphysical, in Gd’s interference in the workings of the world, with a certainty people are required to operate within the ordinary world, Yosef had to have been taught how to run a government in the usual sense. After all, Gd could have just imbued Yosef supernaturally with the skill at running a government, as happened with Donald Trump, who had never run any kind of government before.

I always find such ideas noteworthy, because they remind us of the necessity of both parts of life, the natural and supernatural, ordinary and Gd-directed, and to figure out how we understand the balance between the two].

Because of the value of the relationship for Yosef’s needed education, Gd did not send the two men their dreams until just three days before they would come true. Had Yosef given the baker the bad news early on, he would have stopped sharing ideas with Yosef.

Obviously, I make no claim Meshech Hochmah has captured the truth of those months in the prison, nor is the history of it all that interesting to me. I included it here because of what it says about how Gd directs the world, what Gd expects of people, and the ways Gd sets people up for success, but leaves it to them/us to in fact accomplish that success.

The brothers could have accepted Yosef’s role in the family, Yehudah and Tamar might have had the right to move forward with their family once they had circumvented Abba Shaul’s concerns, and Yosef was expected to take advantage of the men he met to learn the skills he could not yet have known he needed. Because life is about what we want, what we strive for, but perhaps more often is about what Gd sends our way, for us to handle.

About Gidon Rothstein

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