Thursday, December 24, 2009

On the Trail of Blessings: Eisav 2.0

[This is the seventh instalment in the series. Begin the Trail here.]

Yosef has dreams. Strange dreams. Dreams no one ever had before. Yosef sees people bowing to him.

When he shares his dreams with his family, his father reacts strongly: "What is this dream that you dreamt? Will I, your mother and your brothers come and prostrate ourselves on the ground to you?!" (37:10). Yaakov is concerned, ואביו שמר את הדבר.

Yaakov had good reason to be concerned. Years back, Yitzchok had a beracha for Eisav, a beracha that Yaakov stole. And in that beracha Yitzchok said, "וישתחו לך לאמים... וישתחוו לך בני אמך", "Nations will bow to you... your mother's children will bow to you!"

Yitzchok had a vision for Eisav. Eisav was to be the man of the field, going out into the world in support the divine work of his spiritual brother in Israel. And his brother Yaakov would bow before him, appreciating and honoring Eisav's crucial role. In light of the reality of Eisav HaRasha, Rivka rejected her husband's plan and forced Yaakov to take all - but Yaakov didn't want it. He wished to remain an איש תם יושב אהלים. Yaakov agreed with Yitzchok: leave the material to Eisav. In direct contradistinction of the beracha, Yaakov insists on bowing repeatedly to Eisav instead of the other way around. True to his beliefs, Yaakov ultimately transfers all of the wealth he made in Charan to Eisav (cf. Rashi to 46:6).

The tragedy here is that Eisav's personal failure ruins Yaakov's life. As hard as he tries to flee from the material blessings that are now his burden, Yaakov never gets to live his dream, the life of an איש תם יושב אהלים. Just as Yaakov is settling into a peaceful retirement in his tent (Rashi to 37:2), Eisav's beracha, that beracha/curse that Yaakov never wanted, returns to haunt him. We can well imagine the terror that gripped Yaakov when he heard that Yosef dreamt that his brothers would bow to him. Yosef is dreaming dreams of power, the dreams of Eisav! His beloved son Yosef is heir to his evil brother's destiny!

It is not only the bowing that evokes Yitzchok's Beracha for Eisav. In Yosef's dream he sees his brother's sheaves bowing to his sheaf. Grain? This is a family of shepherds, not farmers! But Yaakov surely recognized this as another materialization of the beracha which he stole. Yitzchok promised: "God shall grant you from the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, much grain and wine..." (27:28). The fact that Yitzchok referred to grain and not sheep was an important point for Yaakov. When Yaakov returns to Israel from Charan, he sends a messages to Eisav in which he says, "I have oxen and donkeys" (32:6). Rashi quotes a Midrash which explains Yaakov's intent: "Father said to me 'from the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,' these [animals] are neither from heaven nor from the earth!" In other words, in repudiation of the beracha he was forced to steal, Yaakov deliberately avoided farming, reserving that for Eisav the איש שדה. (Parallels with the Cain and Hevel story are beyond the scope of this essay.)

And now Yaakov's son Yosef dreams of grain! The beracha of Yitzchok is inescapable. If Yaakov won't accept it, then he shall be a carrier and it will express itself in the next generation. Yosef ascends to greatness outside the Land of Israel. As the master of grain, the world bows to him. And his brothers bow too, for he supports them. Yosef has become the Eisav that Yitzchok always dreamed of.

II

As we know from the life of Eisav, physical blessings come with a unique set of challenges - the powerful drive of desire. This is why, from a young age, Yosef must struggle against interest in his own appearance (e.g., combing his hair, Rashi to 37:2) and the seductions of Potifar's wife (cf. Sotah 36b). Like Eisav, Yosef must also deal with the lure of paganism (cf. Rashi to 39:11), for paganism gives license to hedonism, and hedonism is the antagonist of Yosef's spiritual mission of selflessness. When your spiritual mission is to elevate the physical, the Yeitzer Hara will use the physical to drag you down. It comes therefore as no surprise that some of the greatest idolaters of Jewish history - Yeravam, Achav and Yeihu - are descended from Yosef (cf. Rashi to 48:8). Of course, some of the greatest warriors against idolatry - Yehoshua, Gideon and Pinchas - are also descendants of Yosef (cf. Rashi to 48:19; Sotah 43a). Yosef is Eisav 2.0.

Yosef succeeds, for Yosef heroically overcomes and subdues his natural self-interest, outgrows his נערות and focuses instead on the needs of others. It is fascinating that it is דוקא in חוץ לארץ that Yosef develops this מדה, first rejecting the advances of Potifar's wife, knowing that this will land him in prison, and then in prison, where he is sensitive to the fluctuating moods of his fellow inmates, asking the butler and the baker why they look upset (40:6-7). It comes as no surprise that it is this very sensitivity to the other that ultimately leads to Yosef's own redemption.

In Egypt, Yosef also lives up to the national mission that he inherited from his uncle. He won't sell the starving Egyptian people food unless they circumcise themselves - and Pharaoh backs up this strange demand! (Rashi to 41:55). The purpose is not convert them to Judaism; in no way does this circumcision constitute a Brit Milah. What Yosef is trying to do here is subdue the Egyptian affinity for promiscuity. For this is the Jewish responsibility that comes with the blessing of materialism in the Diaspora - to elevate the morality of the gentile. 

The emergence of Yosef revives Yitzchok's vision for the nation and, at the same time, spells the end of the original Eisav. Usurped by Yosef, Eisav is obsolete. Indeed, it is as the prophet said: "The house of Yaakov shall be a fire, the House of Yosef shall be a flame, and the House of Eisav for straw" (Ovadiah 1:18). (Cf. Rashi to 30:25.)

[Continue the Trail with part 7.25 by clicking here.]

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