“We are stumped,” reported Richard on behalf of the little group, who had just begun the Joseph story. “The narrative was fascinating, but we found it difficult to identify basic Jewish concepts in the midst of this intriguing plot.”
Simon interrupted, something which was unusual for him, and reminded us of his background in the study of literature. “You know that I teach English literature for a living, and I found the storyline in the assigned reading of Parshat Vayeshev, (Genesis 37:1-40:23) to be a model for a great literary work. It had everything: suspense, drama, conflict, and even romance. But it was hard for me to find religious or moral messages in this text.”
Even Leon, who somehow was always able to see what others could not, was at a loss. “The story is great,” he said, “and I can hardly wait for next week’s assigned readings to see how it all turns out. But I must confess that I too could not figure out the basic Jewish concepts that we were supposed to learn this week.”
I empathized with the group and pointed out to them that the narrative sections of the Torah often contain plots so rich and fascinating that the underlying messages are often difficult to ascertain. Traditional commentaries are up against the same challenge yet, somehow, are always able to discern very powerful and very relevant teachings in all of the biblical stories.
I suggested that the class attempt a technique which I have found useful when faced with that challenge. I must confess that this technique is drawn from my background in the field of psychology. “What I do,” I told Richard, Simon, and Leon, “is try to find an event, a passage, or even a phrase or word which speaks to me personally. Somehow, in the interface between the text and my inner self, I find a universal message. Let’s try it.”
The class opened their Chumashim, and a five-minute period of absolute silence ensued. Each member of the class was deeply engaged in both scrutinizing the text and meditating upon their own subjective experiences.
As each pair of eyes was lifted from the text, I realized that the time to ask for their verbal response had been reached. I saw in each pair of eyes an illumination, as if all three students had been enlightened with some great new truth. I knew now that I would not have to coax an answer from any of them, but I would, rather, have to deal with their competing efforts to gain my attention.
Richard did not wait for me to recognize him, but immediately began the discussion. “What struck me,” he said, “were these two verses: ‘And Israel loved Joseph above his other sons… and made for him a ketonet pasim [a coat of many colors]. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they came to hate him and could not speak together peacefully.’ ” (Genesis 37:3-4)
Richard then burst into tears. The text had touched a sore spot in his soul. In a deeply personal way, he continued to relate how his own father had favored his older brother, and how he had been struggling all of his life to impress his father and to gain his father’s approval. The class listened attentively to Richard’s poignant confession and allowed him to conclude: “The basic Jewish teaching is clear: a father must not favor one child over the other. The consequences may be dire. The Jewish people’s descent into exile traces back to the fact that Jacob favored Joseph.”
I made a note to myself to inform the class at a later time that the Talmud itself (Masechet Shabbat 10b) found the same lesson in the text that had been the focus of Richard’s response.
Leon then assumed the floor, with a similar depth of disclosure. “You know by now that I have always looked for approval from others. The way I act in this group is the way I act in the rest of my life. I manipulate the dialogue so that I impress others. As I perused this week’s text again just now, I found myself envious ironically, of Reuben. The Bible tells us about Reuben’s futile attempt to save Joseph from his brothers’ hands and to return him to his father (Genesis 37:22). Reuben’s heroic attempt, although unsuccessful, is recorded for all time and eternity. That’s the kind of recognition that I deeply crave.”
Once again, I made a note to myself. Leon had hit upon a concept not to be found in the Talmud itself, but rather in the responsa of the medieval Rabbi Solomon Ben Aderet, who ruled on the basis of this text that it was proper to publicize the names of those who did good works.
I and the rest of the class waited for Simon’s response in suspense. What deeply personal emotion would he express? After all, he was the shy one in the class, the one who was most withdrawn. We were all taken aback when he began his remarks in a confident voice.
“There was something about the story of Judah and Tamar that transfixed me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until we had those few moments of quiet contemplation. It was then that I realized that Tamar had the opportunity to identify her father-in-law, Judah, as the one who had impregnated her. Instead, she just points to the few objects he left with her and says, ‘Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff.’ (Genesis 38:25)
“I have gained a reputation in this group of being the one who is most shy and most sensitive. But I think we are all beginning to learn that we are all quite sensitive individuals. The basic Jewish concept that I learned from Tamar’s unwillingness to identify Judah by name is that one must be ready to allow oneself to be executed by fire rather than put another person to shame. Embarrassing someone is in a certain sense akin to murder.”
This time, I immediately shared with the class the Talmudic source for the basic Jewish concept which Simon had come up with on his own:
“Class, each of you is on to something. Each of you has discovered a principle which is to be found in our traditional sources. Richard, what you said is to be found in the Talmud. Leon, a rabbi in the Middle Ages already thought along your lines. And Simon, here is what the Talmud says about the verse that you’ve connected with:
‘Why did not Tamar simply name Judah? Said Rav Zutra the son of Tuviah in the name of Rav: to teach us that it is preferable that a person allow himself to be cast into a fiery furnace than to embarrass another person in public.'” (Sotah 10b)
Once again, my little class of three, with no formal Jewish education to speak of, had independently recreated three basic Jewish teachings: that parents not favor one child over another, that good deeds be publicized, and that embarrassing another is a serious crime indeed.
The class left the room that evening with a sense of having accomplished at least two things: they each had listened sympathetically to another person’s sharing of his soul, and they had each been able to transcend the details of a fascinating story and find therein universal moral lessons.