In the August Wilson play, “Fences,” recently brought to screen with stand-out performances by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the male protagonist Troy torments his son Cory to the point of driving him from home at 17. We learn that Troy had been driven off by his own father at 14, and so the cycle of anger and estrangement continues for another generation.
That is one way to parent. In similar circumstances some parents react the opposite way, seeking to spare their children any of the anguish of their own youth. If the parents suffered poverty, then the children should enjoy every luxury. In this way the parent will have beat the odds, delivered the goods, and brought not only comfort to the child but pride to the parent.
It’s plain to see that neither approach is healthy, but breaking the cycle of fear and insecurity that underlies them is far from simple. Several years ago I was in Jerusalem for Parashat VaYehi, and I found a terse but thought-provoking Torah insight printed in the newspaper (I believe it was Yediot Aharonot). The point was that Jacob was the type of father who always had it rough—raised on lentils, running for his life, never able to rest. What did he aspire for his beloved Joseph, and then for Judah? Luxury taken to an absurd degree. So it was with many parents who survived the Depression in America, the Shoah in Europe, the War of Independence in Israel—the suffering of those dark experiences would be blotted out through extravagant parenting, revenge by means of luxury. Continue reading
Is it only two brothers who face off in the dramatic opening of our portion, or do they carry upon their shoulders the weight of future history—the division of their two respective kingdoms, Judah and Israel, which will vie for primacy and even engage in civil war? Why add the historical overlay? Is not the drama of this scene sufficient? When Judah tells Joseph, “you are just like Pharaoh,” does he expect his dagger of a compliment to cut so deep? When Joseph devises an elaborate test of his brothers, does he divine that he will be the one reduced to tears? Why dig down when the topsoil is so rich?
While the Torah presents the story as that of two brothers, it is evident from the outset that more is at stake than the fortunes of one generation of one family. Next week Jacob will call his sons forward to reveal, “what will befall you in the end of days.” He will speak prophetically, conferring royal blessings specifically on Judah and Joseph. The Torah here is setting up the drama of a millennium—the establishment of two Israelite kingdoms, north and south, each with spiritual and physical power.
In case you are skeptical—thinking that it is only modern scholars who read biblical texts as projections of national dramas—then consider the haftarah from Ezekiel 37, and the fact that these two texts were paired by ancient Jewish sages, presumably the rabbis. Ezekiel’s image is of a shattered staff, broken in two. God instructs the prophet to inscribe each piece with the name of one kingdom—Judah and Ephraim (Joseph’s dominant son), and to bind them back into one stick. National division is a sickness and source of weakness; reunion is the source of hope. Continue reading