Shedding Light On Inconvenient Truths: Vayeishev
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
November 26, 2021
Our history books are filled with lies.
The way the stories are told is through an artificial design, based on a preconceived notion that “we” (fill in the pronoun with more specific titles and names) are headed toward a manifest destiny—be that what it might. What we perceive is a portrait only of the high points along the way—peaks of excellence and distinction. Failures, if at all noted, are seen as no more than momentary setbacks.
The story of our American holiday of Thanksgiving is founded on just such a premise. In our imagination we see the early Americans as “pilgrims” (a religious image in itself), while the Indigenous Peoples of New England rise from their primitive status to something more noble as they help the struggling immigrants cope with the difficulties of survival in the New World.
What we know today is that the real story was not quite so pretty.
Hanukkah is likewise based on a myth—the miracle of the tiny amount of “pure” oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights of candle-lighting at the Jerusalem Temple. What is missing in the story is the dark reality of the bloody civil war that preceded this event, and the tragic aftermath that followed it.
At first reading of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) we encounter a similar pattern. Even the title of the portion—"And Jacob dwelled—” is misleading. It might refer the reader to the earliest part of Jacob’s story, where Jacob is described as an innocent “dweller of tents,” a mild and civilized man. In this misleading view, Jacob has at last come home to rest. We want to believe that he can finally dwell in comfort and peace after all the toils he had lived through. And yet what lies ahead is yet more tragedy, more trials and tribulations, more sadness and loss.
Vayeishev is, after all, where the story of Joseph and his brothers begins—a story of pride (and the inevitable fall), a story of betrayal, abandonment and injustice. Vayeishev is not a happy conclusion to a sorrowful life.
And yet, as Judaism teaches us, the spark of Redemption is embedded within the deepest darkness. In this portion, immediately after Judah’s despicable proposal to sell Joseph into slavery, he seems to descend even further into shameful behavior. His treatment of his daughter-in-law, Tamar, is inexcusable and immoral. Yet Judah will take to heart the lesson that he is about to learn. Overcome by remorse, he will assume responsibility for his deeds. And that will lead him toward reconciliation and, ultimately, the Redemption of the whole People of Israel.
Of course, it’s hard to see the light in the midst of all this darkness. Only in retrospect can we see the sparks. What we learn the is that path forward begins with the smallest steps.
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, has become symbolic of the rededication of the Jewish People to our mission and cause. But when the Maccabees first lit the fires of victory on the Temple Mount, that’s not how they saw it. The war was still raging. The road ahead was still long and dangerous. Judah the Maccabee, the great liberator of Jerusalem, would be killed, possibly betrayed by rival Jewish factions. His successors would fight among themselves for the power and glory of royalty and the High Priesthood, a bloody quarrel that in the end will lead to the fall of the Kingdom of Judea. Within a short period of time, the Romans will march victorious into Jerusalem.
But even as the thousand-year-legacy of the kings and prophets of Israel comes to an end, a new era begins: the Rabbinic Period. It’s a new chapter, a mighty new volume, in the history of the Jewish People, filled with visions and glory no less glowing than what had come earlier.
Likewise the holiday of Thanksgiving in America. The cruelty and arrogance of the colonialists eventually do lead towards a miracle: A new nation and mighty nation is set to rise out of the darkness.
But what our history books fail to tell us is how this happens. The story we tell and retell glosses over the greed, cruelty and treachery. We prefer to focus instead on the qualities of generosity, love, and charity.
What we should learn from our history books is that reality is much more complicated than our myths would have us believe.
Judaism teaches that reality is infused with a Divine Purpose, that we are indeed moving forward toward some magnificent goal. But at the same time, Judaism does not ask us to ignore the darkness. It recognizes human behavior as complex, a mixture of bad and good, evil and holy. As difficult as they are to accept, the unadorned lessons of Vayeishev and Hanukkah are embedded in our texts, taught and repeated, lest we ignore and forget.
Vayeishev begins with an unrealized dream. Jacob does not get to live the comfortable life he wishes for, and the road that lies ahead is anything but simple. His family life is about to become fractured, riven with jealousy and hate. He is about to lose his beloved son Joseph. Yet Jacob does not give up hope. Despite the darkness, he is confident that Redemption will yet arrive.
Truth—as inconvenient and unpleasant as it may be—is a difficult burden to bear. We can’t escape our past; it’s a part of who and what we are today. But what this week’s Torah portion teaches is that we can fix our mistakes. Responsibility for past deeds isn’t easy to accept. Yet in order to move forward, that’s exactly what we need to do. Owning our faults is the first step toward Redemption. Taking responsibility for repairing the damage is next. That is the lesson that will become clear as the story of Joseph and his brothers begins to unfold.
© 2021 by Boaz D. Heilman