Parashat Vayeshev – Speaking about God

וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם

Parashat Vayeshev begins the final section of Sefer Bereishit, a section dedicated to the narratives of Yosef. By the end of the first chapter of his saga, Yosef has been sold down to Egypt, never to return alive to the land of Canaan. In his time in Egypt, Yosef not only saves the entire land from suffering the worst of a famine, but he paves the way for his family to join him in what is to become the exile of the nation of Israel in the land of Egypt. Fascinatingly, the Zohar taught that this exile was Galut HaDibur, the Exile of Speech[1]. While this seems like a rather strange idea, it actually has its roots in the text of the Torah itself. Yosef’s narratives are driven by speech, both good and bad. Not only does the larger story begin and end with speech, but each individual narrative is driven by the things people say. By taking a look at some of these examples, and the way they direct the overall narrative, we can perhaps begin to understand the idea of an exile of speech.

Bereishit 37 opens with geographic and familial background about Yosef, forming the basis upon which the main action of the chapter is built.

And Yaakov dwelt in the land of his father’s travels, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Yaakov. Yosef, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers, being still a boy among the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Yosef brought evil report of them[2] to their father. (37:1-2)

The final line of this background, “and Yosef brought evil report of them to their father,” is striking. That it is part of the background means that it is something that typifies Yosef’s relationship with his brothers. Everything that happens next builds on that. The next verses of Bereishit 37 are not background, though they are also not really the main story of the chapter.

Now Israel loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak to him peacefully. (37:3-4)

These verses, too, end with a striking note about speech. If the bad report Yosef had brought to their father was not enough, their father’s favoritism sent Yosef’s brothers over the edge, and they hated him to such a degree that they could not hold an ordinary conversation with him. Thus with these two points about speech, the stage is set for the brother’s plot against Yosef, with the only necessary catalysts being Yosef’s dreams (37:5-11) and Yaakov sending him to gather a report on his brothers (37:12-14).

These two points about speech, Yosef reporting on his brothers and their inability to speak to him, are paralleled in Bereishit 50, at the very end of Yosef’s story.

And when Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘It may be that Yosef will hate us, and will fully return to us all the evil that we did to him.’ And they sent a message to Yosef, saying: ‘Your father did command before he died, saying: So shall you say to Yosef: Forgive, I pray you now, the transgression of your brothers, and their sin, for they did evil to you. And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Yosef wept from their speaking to him. And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said: ‘Behold, we are your bondmen.’ And Yosef said to them: ‘Fear not; for am I instead of God? And as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to keep a great people alive. Now therefore fear you not; I will sustain you, and your little ones.’ And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them. (50:17-21)

There are two phrases in this passage that would seem to be entirely extra. The first, “from their speaking to him,” highlights the obvious fact that Yosef’s brothers are speaking to him, and is inexplicably redundant unless you consider that this whole story started because of a situation in which the brothers were not on speaking terms with Yosef. The second phrase, “and spoke kindly to them,” is translated from an an obscure hebrew phrase literally meaning, “and he spoke on their heart.” The exact meaning of that phrase in context is unclear, but it is clear that it is positive speaking and it is directed to the brothers. This is direct contrast to the “bad report” from chapter 34, about which nothing is known other than that it was negative, and spoken about the bother to Yaakov. Thus negative speech about the brothers has been replaced with positive speech to them, and the stories of Yosef have be given a framework that neatly ties up the stories while demonstrating how important a part speech plays in them.

Within the stories themselves, there are numerous ways in which speech drives the individual plots. The brothers masterfully deceive their father, though this does not do much to drive the plot. Instead it sets up for Yehuda’s eventual taking of responsibility both for the plot against Yosef and his poor treatment of his daughter-in-law Tamar in chapter 38. Before that though, the plot of chapter 38 is itself driven by speech at several key moments. In 38:13, “it was told to Tamar” that Yehuda is going to shear his sheep in Timna, and she therefore hatches a plan to undo the years of isolated widowhood that Yehuda had forced upon her. Then, in 38:24, when she was found to be pregnant “it was told to Yehuda” and he declared that she should be burnt. When she forces him to confront the truth of his actions, Yehuda finally admits that he has done wrong, not only to her but also to Yosef, being faced with the same phrase, “Recognize!” (הכר נא), that he used to deceive Yaakov. Tamar is saved, and the story closes with her giving birth to twins, one of whom is that ancestor of King David. The entire plot is driven by people being told things, and if nothing else should serve as an object lesson about the danger of gossip. However Yehuda’s rise only begins here, culminating in Bereishit 45 where he stands in contrition before Yosef and says “God has found the sin of your servants” (45:16).

Chapter 39 discusses the story of Yosef in the house of Potiphar, with the main conflict of the plot being Potiphar’s Wife’s attempted seduction of Yosef. The first time she approached Yosef she simply says, “lie with me” (39:7). Then she spoke to him day by day, trying to slowly wear him down (39:10). Finally when she grabs his garment, the text there too mentions that she spoke to him “saying, lie with me” (39:12). Then Yosef rejects her with a statement that initiates a total change in the direction of Yosef’s story.

Behold, my master, having me, does not know what is in the house, and he has put all that he has into my hand; he is not greater in this house than I; nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? (39:8-9)

The singular importance of this declaration is not only that it marks an act made fully out of consideration of another person, as opposed to Yosef’s somewhat self-involved actions in Bereishit 37, but that it also marks the first mention of ‘א in Yosef’s stories (other than the narrator’s comments in 39:3 & 6). Despite the apparently prescient nature of his dreams, Yosef fails to attribute them to ‘א. When thrown in a pit and then sold into slavery, Yosef does not appear to pray to ‘א. It is only now that he finally mentions ‘א, and this is to become a staple of his speech throughout his narratives. It’s worth noting that he does not mention ‘א in connection to his pair of dreams, but when he is called to interpret two more pairs of dreams, he mentions ‘א both times (40:8, 41:16). While it might appear that the end of Yosef’s fall and the beginning of his rise hinge on the second set of dreams, the true pivot-point comes just before that, in the turn of phrase that lands him in just the right place to interpret those dreams.

If Yosef’s exclamation in 39:9, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” initiates the second half of Yosef’s story, it is worth deeper focus. If it does so as part of a larger rubric of speech that drives and defines the story, then it is worth considering what speech means, and how this statement is a part of that. George Orwell makes an important point about speech in an appendix to his dystopian novel 1984 entitled “The Principles of Newspeak.”

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc[English Socialist Party ~LM], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever… Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

Other than perhaps the barest experiences of an infant, thought occurs in words. This means that in order to think something, we have to have a word for it. If there’s no word for something, then it can’t be thought. The flip-side of this is that if we think more with certain words or concepts, they are more likely to show up in our language.

Returning to Yosef’s statement, several things about his character can be implied that are not to be found before this point. The first is a sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of other people. Here he is greatly concerned for his master and the trust that has been placed in him, sharply contrasting the Yosef of Bereishit 37 who seems completely unaware of the pain his dreams and his favored status have caused his brothers. It is also, as stated above, the first mention of ‘א in the story. However, it mentions ‘א specifically in terms of the possibility that Yosef might “sin against” ‘א. He mentions ‘א not as the creator of the world, not as the god of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, but as the God who demands certain ethics and practices from people. It is with full consciousness of his responsibilities not only to his fellow man, but also to the god of all men, that Yosef is able to reject his master’s wife’s advances.

Having said this, it is worth returning for a moment to the framework of Yosef’s narratives. In Yosef’s address to his brothers in Bereishit 50, he opens with a powerful statement about divine providence. “’Fear not; for am I instead of God? And as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (50:19-20). This sentence encapsulates the idea that ‘א holds people responsible to act in a certain manner. Yosef is saying to his brothers that while they may have intended evil to him, and thus he might be well within his rights to kill them[5], because ‘א runs the world, he cannot, or perhaps simply will not. What makes this even more significant is that Yosef uses the phrase, “instead of God” (התחת א-להים), that appears only one other place in all of Tanakh, in Bereishit 30:2. Bereishit 30 opens with Rachel coming to Yaakov begging for children, a request to which he responds quite harshly. “And Yaakov’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said: ‘Am I instead of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (30:2) Yaakov uses the same phrase to attempt to put Rachel in her place. However, Yaakov is taken to task for this by the commentators[4], and not just because he spoke out of anger. Yaakov’s use of this phrase is meant to indicate that ‘א runs the world, and therefore Yaakov must do nothing to aid his barren wife. Where Yosef will one day use this phrase to show that ‘א demands a certain degree of responsibility from him, Yaakov uses it to avoid responsibility. This statement of Yaakov’s also occurs as Rachel is attempting to become pregnant with her first child, destined to be Yosef, and thus this phrase, “instead of God,” bookends not just Yosef’s narratives but his entire life. Yosef’s entire life can then be seen as a movement from a consciousness of ‘א that invites an abdication of responsibility to one that demands a taking up of responsibility.

Yosef’s whole narrative changes based on his consciousness, based on his speech, of the God who holds us responsible. the idea that ‘א is not simply the Creator of the World or the Designer of History but the Commander of Men. We do not exist alone in this world. From the moment we are thrown into this world until the moment we are torn from it, we exist in the light of ‘א’s Face. And in this light our actions are held up to a certain standard which we are expected to mest. Something is asked of us while we live. However, just because we are asked, does not mean we are conscious of the need to answer, of the need to ensure our lives match up to ‘א ’s expectations. The “Exile of Speech” starts because Yosef and Yehuda had exiled ‘א from their speech, and thus the exile ends with the Revelation at Sinai where the Israelite receive the laws detailing exactly what their responsibilities are (Shemot 20-23). Too often we have exiled ‘א from our speech. We do not speak about the God who holds us responsible, nor are we conscious of the responsibility we bear to ‘א. We need to speak about ‘א more, and we need to do so in manner that emphasizes our responsibility. Not, it should be emphasized, in a manner that depicts us as guilty, but in a manner that makes it clear we are held responsible. ‘א created Mankind as His partner, creators in a world of creations[5], and thus we are responsible for our actions, not because we are sinful, but because we are great.

[1] Zohar II, 25b. See also Peri Ets Hayyim, Sha’ar Hag HaMatsot, Chapter 1.

[2] This could refer to just the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, or to all of Yosef’s brothers.

[3] Devarim 24:7 would seem to suggest that the brothers might have deserved the death penalty for their part in his being sold as a slave.

[4] Seem Ramban ad loc. and the sources there.

[5] For more on this, see my essay on Parashat Bereishit and the nature of Man.

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