Joseph Yivkele – The Cry Baby?

Joseph, whose story is now coming to an end, is responsible for more weeping in the book of Genesis than anyone else. Just a cursory search reveals more crying by Joseph and in the Joseph novella than the rest of the book:

  • Gen. 37:35
  • Gen. 42:24
  • Gen. 43:30
  • Gen. 45:2
  • Gen. 45:14
  • Gen. 45:15
  • Gen. 46:29
  • Gen. 50:1
  • Gen. 50:17

It reminded me of a poem by Yehuda Amichai – to understand you need to know that Ishmael is a name based on the verb to hear in Hebrew (שמע); Isaac – based on the verb to laugh (צחק); and an imagined figure Yivkeh based on the verb to weep (בכה):

Three sons had Abraham, not just two.

Three son had Abraham: Yishma-El, Yitzhak and Yivkeh.

First came Yishma-El, “God will hear,”

Next came Yitzkah, “he will laugh,”

And the last was Yivkeh, “he will cry.”

No one has ever heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest,

The son that Father loved best,

The son who was offered up on Mount Moriah.

Yishma-El was saved by his mother, Hagar,

Yizhak was saved by the angel,

But Yivkeh no one saved.

When he was just a little boy, his father

Would call him tenderly, Yivkeh,

Yivkeleh, my sweet little Yivkie –

But he sacrificed him all the same.

The Torah says the ram, but it was Yivkeh.

Yishma-El never heard from God again,

Yithak never laughed again,

Sarah laughed only once, then laughed no more.

Three sons had Abraham

Yishma, “will hear,” Yitzhak, “will laugh,” Yivkeh, “will cry.”

Yishma-El, Yitzhak-El, Yivkeh-El

God will hear, God will laugh, God will cry.

The fulfilment of the end of this imaginary son, the son of tears of God, is what causes him to live on through the text of the Torah. The salvation of Isaac and Ishmael is the undoing of the hearing and laughing. But after Amichai’s imagined son of Abraham we also have Jacob and Joseph who weep. Who do you think is next to cry in the Torah? – None other than the infant Moses rescued from the waters of the river in which he has been placed to escape the murderous legislation of the new king who knew not Joseph. And in Psalm 137 we recite, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”

In the Talmud there is a discussion which, to my mind, we must read not as late antique science but as theological protest. It is a discussion of natural phenomenon such as thunder and earthquakes. With regard earthquakes in Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 59a in the words of a necromancer (who is roundly refuted by a sage) we read:

“When the Holy One, who is blessed, calls to mind His children, who are plunged in suffering among the nations of the world, He lets fall two tears into the ocean, and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other, and that is the rumbling.”

Interestingly, even though the necromancer’s words are refuted by Rav Kattina as false, the 16th Century Maharal of Prague, dwells on this theme in his text Be’er Hagolah and suggests that Israel in exile and under the dominion of foreign rule is as if it has ceased to exist and thus God’s tears are like those of a mourner. I read the text more as a reflection of God’s absence, and a search for signs of deus absconditus in the natural order of things – the search for just a tiny morsel of communication from God in the fragile state of exile that the Babylonian sages found themselves in.

Much like the prophet is able to convey the distress and message of God, even in a state of exile.  In the words of the 20th Century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the prophet Jeremiah:

“Again and again the prophet brought God’s word to His beloved people: mourn, grieve, sorrow, lament. A sense of delicacy prevented the prophet from spelling out the meaning of the word: Mourn My people for Me as well…

…God is mourning Himself. ‘Thus says the Lord. Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up…’ (Jeremiah 45:4). God’s sorrow rises again and again to unconcealed heights of expression.” (The Prophets p. 111)

This is the meaning of Divine pathos, at the heart of Heschel’s theology – the God of the prophets is not the removed, indifferent God of the philosophers, but rather the God of concern. God is “both transcendent, beyond human understanding, and full of love, compassion grief or anger.” (Man is not alone p.244).

Heschel in his text ‘Man is not Alone’ continues:

“The Bible is not a history of the Jewish people, but the story of God’s quest of the righteous man. Because of the failure of the human species as a whole to follow in the path of righteousness, it is an individual – Noah, Abraham – a people: Israel – or a remnant of the people, on which the task is bestowed to satisfy that quest by making every man a righteous man. There is an eternal cry in the world: God is beseeching man. Some are startled; others remain deaf. We are all looked for. An air of expectancy hovers over life. Something is asked of man, of all men.” P. 245.

Yivkeh-El – God will cry. To my mind, this is really the state of inbetween-ness that the human condition finds itself in. Imperfect, sometimes noble, sometimes tragic, but caught in the vicissitudes of life – yet striving for that connection to something grander, bigger, to answer the question asked of us all.

The story of Joseph, who might be mocked in the playground as the cry baby, the weeper, is a story of deep emotional engagement and also of existential in-betweenness. Joseph becomes a vessel for the unfolding human story of love and loss, betrayal and reconciliation, of righteousness, of deus asbconditus who can be caught peeking through the light refracted in a droplet of water, a tear. Joseph, the producer of tears, the weeper, the wailer, accompanies us through our national experience of exile, left in Egypt waiting to be out in his coffin.

He is sold into the hands of traders who take him to Egypt, he returns to Egypt after burying his father, he dwells in Egypt and finally is embalmed in Egypt. The last word of our book, the book of family, the book of Genesis, is Egypt. Joseph lies in waiting to be carried back to the land of his ancestors, through the waters of the Sea of Reeds.

Thus Joseph and his tears become a triple symbol:

Firstly, Joseph is a symbol of the Jewish people’s longing not just for redemption, even if we do not still believe in such classical ideas of geographic exile, the redemption is that mysterious time when humankind will live in peace, false things will vanish and nation will not life up sword against nation; an age of righteousness and justice.

Secondly, Joseph is a symbol of our very personal yearning to break free from the fetters of slavery and exile. We all suffer the inhumanity and oppression in a physical way, but we also have an inward loneliness, the human experience of our own fragile existence on this planet. We ward off its pain in companionship and good deeds, like Joseph there is a desire for reconciliation and of wholeness. Though like Joseph we know perfection of the human spirit is only ever aspirational.

Finally, we are reminded that even though God is barely felt, yet when we embrace the prophetic message of pain of the vulnerable and weep it is God’s tears we weep.  In the words of Jeremiah:

“Let my eyes run with tears, day and night let them not cease, for my hapless people has suffered a grievous injury, a very painful wound.” (14:17)

God hears the sound of every plea and God weeps with us.  Yet, God cannot redeem our world.  That is our task and God waits constantly for us.

This was originally delivered as a sermon and can be heard on a podcast format:

Isaac’s Well and Logan’s Run


A sermon for Parashat Toldot

I caught the end of one of the most wonderful public service broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 the other night as I drove home from work. It was entitled Logan’s Run and Intergenerational War.

50 years ago next year, the book Logan’s Run was released. In 1967 the novel and film, as described by the Radio 4 programme, “proposed a dystopian solution to overpopulation and lack of resources- the (voluntary, willing) self-culling of those over twenty one years of age.”

The radio documentary just a couple of week’s ago “looked at how the then futuristic themes of ‘Logan’s Run’ have manifested themselves in the reality of 21st century society. Large swathes of the capitalist world seem to have adopted the novel’s plot as policy, such as in Silicon Valley, for example, where hardly anyone is over the age of 30. At the same time there is a huge discrepancy in wealth and resources held by the young and old, often held up as the source of conflict in ‘generational unfairness’.”

This was a programme about the changing world into which our children are growing. Where as their responsibilities will be to inherit the world that the generations above them have worked so hard to improve. Make no mistake, they have all strived to set the world on a path to progress, even when we seem like we might have slipped somewhat. But now it is the next generation that will find itself thinking about that world – the young who voted in very particular ways on Brexit, the young who cannot get mortgages or resent the impossible work life balance of their parents who grew up as children of the post-war generation. This is their world.

One of the comments of the radio programme has sat with me since hearing it. The critic described how the system that culled the young men and women of Logan’s Run, effectively birthed them too. So not only was the story, one without generations, but it was also one without parental relations.

I guess we see things through different eyes as we grow up. When I was younger, I read the Torah as Jacob and Esau in our Torah portion. Vying for the birthright and blessing of their father Isaac. Now a parent myself, I am the sandwich generation – looking out for my own children, forging my own path, but caring for and thinking of my own parents. I am Isaac now. I suspect the generations above are thinking they are Abraham – two generations down, what do they see in their bright young grandchildren.

Logan’s Run removes all that. You are who you are, just a flash in time and then no more. No relationships, no children, no grandparents. Like a beautiful sunset that vanishes in the moments you look out with pleasure to appreciate it.

I want you to imagine a world, if it were possible, where this was the case. I want you to imagine a world where you are born without a nurturing care of your family. In fact, let’s go further. A  world in which you did not need nursing, weaning, changing, teaching by a teacher or parents. What kind of world would it be?

It would be a world of callousness. A world filled with self-centredness. A world of generations of individuals who despise their past because they have none and only think of their own self gratification. A world without the transmission of culture – a world without any of those sophisticated forms of life that bestow meaning on life’s existence from generation to generation. We would have no need for history. We would have no shalshelet hakabbalah – the chain of tradition passed down between parent and child, passed down between rabbi and disciple.

That’s how Jacob and Esau, whom we meet earlier in our portion, stand in contrast to one another. Jacob in his early life he recognises the importance of the birthright – the family inheritance …and the blessing – the family heritage.  In fact, Jacob is obsessed, almost unhealthily obsessed, with this – and this obsession only resolves many years later.  After a great deal of time, with reconciliation to his brother, Jacob  eventually becomes Israel – a  person  with  his  own achievements and his own identity. Esau on the other hand despises his ‘origins’ and devalues the birthright to the price of a bowl of stew.

Esau, the antithesis of Jacob’s obsession with the past, we are told is born red and hairy, but the Targum Jonathan (an Aramaic translation of the text, which tends to be exegetical) goes further.  On this verse it reads: They called him Esau because – “he was born with a full head and facial hair, and incisors and molars”. Incisors and molars – teeth! For  this  reason  I  would  describe  Esau  as  fully formed,  an  ‘independent’ man   right   from   the   word   go.      Now,   I   don’t   always   go   in   for psychoanalytic readings of texts but there must be an effect on a baby that does not need to be nursed by his mother because he was born with teeth.  He doesn’t need his mother. He despises his origins, his mother;  and with that he devalues the familial inheritance and heritage. On  the  other  hand  Jacob  is  described  as  an Ish Tam  –  a  simple,  whole person  –  not  fully  formed  like  Esau,  but  complete.   An individual who understands what it is to be part of the first ‘Jewish family’. Through the deal struck  with his brother (which Esau did not have to accept) and his willingness to be directed  by  his  mother  in  obtaining  his  father’s  blessing  Jacob  becomes the focus of the next chapter in the story.  Jacob knows where he has come from, or perhaps only cares about where he has come from, but does not yet know who he is and will become.  He only becomes his ‘own man’  when the name he is given by his parents is changed to one  which identifies  him  for  his  own  deeds  and  his  own  future  ‘Israel’.

But then there is Isaac. Remember what I said, Isaac is the character now with whom I identify. In our portion, the section read for us this morning, we hear of Isaac digging wells. But those wells are the wells which his father has dug. Isaac is the most complex character of the entire Torah. He completely screws up his two sons by blatantly favouring one over the other. He is utterly inept in the way that he raises his children. But He also symbolises the true nature of ancestry and future descendants. The entire narrative arc of Isaac’s story is the way that the bond between him and his father cannot be broken and yet,  must be shattered for adult Isaac to go on his way. He must dig the same wells as his father because doing the same but different is exactly the nature of child-parent relationships. He does what his father does and in that act he forges out on his own journey for himself. His character becomes the woven into the fabric of what comes before and what comes after.

If Logan’s Run is unaware of intergenerational relationships until Logan breaks free, a sort of mirror of the obsessive Jacob and unaware Esau. Isaac carries the burden of covenant and blessing from generation to generation. In fact, the midrash tells us that Isaac is the reason Abraham goes grey – arguing until the point that Isaac and Abraham are mistaken for one another, there were no distinguishing features of being old. But in people not being able to tell the difference between father and son, God gives Abraham the blessing of older age through grey hair. Isaac is the middle, the bridge between before and after, the sandwich between hoary headed and youthful exuberance. He is where we shift from dependency to independence. From childhood to adulthood. From looking up to the ancestors to looking down to the descendants.

And  this  for  me  is  a  model  for  all  of  us,  like Isaac, we  must  strive  to  understand where we have come from, who we are, that we are the child of someone.  It is healthy to appreciate the gifts from our parents and the trouble they put us to (Isaac has a particularly troubled time with his father after all). So too we must look to the future to build our own dreams and realise our own  potential,  breaking  free  and  becoming  a  person with  one’s  own identity and own achievements. Isaac, in that way, shifts our glance forwards, accepting the bestowal of life from our parents but decoupling the sense that this ‘childhood’ will govern our ‘adulthood’. Adulthood is about responsibility. In that, Judaism is the absolute antithesis of Logan’s Run. And weighs heavily on a Bar Mitzvah boy like this morning’s young man. But trust me it weighs heavily on us all. We have this gift of life in Judaism, but it is anything but hedonistic. It thrusts us towards adulthood and to responsibility. We know our heritage and we are neither born completely independent, nor are we culled at youthful age to avoid learning about freedom and restraint.

We cannot  forget  that  we  are  authors  in  the next chapter of our story – the story of the Jewish people. And we cannot forgo reading how we came to be in the first place. What a wonderful gift and what a beautiful responsibility. As Bachya says, Days are Scrolls, write on them what you wish to be remembered. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.