On the Precipice of Beauty: Parshat Miketz and Chanukah

I have long marveled at a phrase tucked away in Parshat Miketz, the official sponsor of Shabbat Chanukah.  The phrase appears at a critical juncture, with Viceroy Yosef finally meeting his one and only brother Binyamin, the second son of their mother Rachel. In fact, in case you forgot, their brief conversation begins with the Torah reminding us of their relationship:

בראשית פרק מג
(כט) וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת בִּנְיָמִין, אָחִיו, בֶּן אִמּוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, “הֲזֶה אֲחִיכֶם הַקָּטֹן אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם אֵלָי?” וַיֹּאמַר, “אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי:”

 One wonders what the mention here of the two brothers’ mother adds to the story; we will return to that question at length later on. Meanwhile, we will assign to this question – why the mention of Rachel – the sleuth code-number of “#1.”

Second, why does Yosef need to “lift his eyes” before seeing Binyamin? Binyamin has been right in front of Yosef for some time, alongside his older brothers.

But of course the pivotal moment in this conversation takes place in the three-word monologue from Yosef to Binyamin: אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי. One might imagine that with the opportunity to meet his brother after so many years away, Yosef would pour out a lifetime of knowledge and experience to his younger brother. In fact, as we will see, Yosef does not disappoint. But what exactly Yosef means, and how he is sharing anything meaningful here, we will shelve for now as Question “#3.”

In order to understand Yosef, let’s back up one generation and explore Yosef’s mother, Rachel. If there is anything that we know about her, of course, it is that she is beautiful:

 בראשית פרק כט
(טז) וּלְלָבָן שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת, שֵׁם הַגְּדֹלָה לֵאָה, וְשֵׁם הַקְּטַנָּה רָחֵל: (יז) וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת, וְרָחֵל הָיְתָה יְפַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה: (יח) וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר, “אֶעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּרָחֵל, בִּתְּךָ, הַקְּטַנָּה:”

Yosef understands correctly that his mother’s beauty is a source of pride, a cherished family trait that he can and should try to emulate. The problem is that whenever Yosef tries it on, this trait only gets him into trouble. First, with his brothers, as understood by Rashi:

 בראשית פרק לז
(ב) אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב – יוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה, הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר* אֶת בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו, וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם: (ג) וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו, כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ, וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים:

 *רש”י בראשית פרק לז
והוא נער
שהיה עושה מעשה נערות – מתקן בשערו, ממשמש בעיניו – כדי שיהיה נראה יפה:

… and then again, just before the incident with the wife of Potiphar:

 בראשית פרק לט
(א) וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה, וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה, שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה: (ב) ויְהִי ה’ אֶת יוֹסֵף, וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ, וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי: (ג) וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי ה’ אִתּוֹ, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה ה’ מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ: (ד) וַיִּמְצָא יוֹסֵף חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַיְשָׁרֶת אֹתוֹ, וַיַּפְקִדֵהוּ עַל בֵּיתוֹ, וְכָל יֶשׁ לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדוֹ: (ה) וַיְהִי, מֵאָז הִפְקִיד אֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ וְעַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ, וַיְבָרֶךְ ה’ אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף, וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת ה’ בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ, בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה: (ו) וַיַּעֲזֹב כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ בְּיַד יוֹסֵף, וְלֹא יָדַע אִתּוֹ מְאוּמָה, כִּי אִם הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר הוּא אוֹכֵל, וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר* וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה: (ז) וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו אֶת עֵינֶיהָ אֶל יוֹסֵף, וַתֹּאמֶר, “שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי:”

Wait, only now Yosef is beautiful? Presumably he was always beautiful! Rashi explains:

*רש”י בראשית פרק לט
ויהי יוסף יפה תואר
כיון שראה עצמו מושל, התחיל אוכל ושותה ומסלסל בשערו. אמר הקב”ה, “אביך מתאבל ואתה מסלסל בשערך?! אני מגרה בך את הדוב.” מיד, ותשא אשת אדוניו וגו’.

Yosef is on a constant quest to re-create for  himself the beauty of his mother Rachel. To that end, although his initial attempt leads directly to the hatred of his brothers and his being sold, he tries again when he is newly comfortable in the house of Pharaoh. This, too, leads to a terrible end, as Rashi points out, with the wife of Potiphar newly tempted by Yosef’s resurfaced and apparently highly seductive beauty to seduce Yosef, leading to his being led off into the seclusion of jail, once again the victim of just trying to be like his mother. Note the similarity between the way that Rachel was described by the Chumash – יְפַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה – and the way Yosef is described in this second incident, just before the wife of Potiphar attacks: יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה. At just the moment that Yosef has finally achieved parity with his beloved mother, her coveted beauty once again gets him into trouble.

Enter Binyamin, Yosef’s only brother, the person watching this whole scene and wondering what to learn from Yosef’s twice-thwarted attempts to emulate their mother. Yosef has three words for his brother: אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי. This phrase is often translated as May God give you grace, my son, but I would like to translate it differently: It is but God who bestows grace, my son. Here is a lifetime of wisdom and experience encapsulated into three small words. My attempt to be like our mother wasn’t wrong on its face, but I failed to realize that the beauty I so coveted, the true beauty of our mother Rachel, is Divinely bestowed, not humanly created. Each of Yosef’s attempts to create beauty fell flat because אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי, it is only Hashem who gives true beauty, the kind I was trying to emulate all along. This, of course, would explain Question #1, why Binyamin is described as בֶּן אִמּוֹ immediately preceding Yosef’s presentation of his advice: it is in recognition of their shared status as Rachel’s בֶּן אִמּוֹ that the elder brother presents his life’s thesis. The lesson also needs to be shared in full view of the rest of the brothers, because only by admitting to this point in their presence can Yosef fully do Teshuva for his original sin of causing them jealousy, now that he understands why it was wrong. As long as the feelings he engendered in his brothers were merely an attempt to follow his mother’s ways, he did not understand why he had any reason to apologize for them. Now that he sees an alternate path to achieving that same goal, he can attempt to correct what he newly sees as a mistake of so long ago.

As to Question #2, a more careful study of the phrase וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו is warranted at some point, because this phrase appears seemingly at random in Tanach, especially in Sefer Bereishit, and it always appears superfluous. My high school students this year developed a working hypothesis that the phrase refers to the sudden realization of something which provides new insight into what came before. Avraham’s וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו-moment at the beginning of Parshat Vayeira, for example, provides that figure with the realization that helping these people despite his personal suffering could be the very reason that Hashem made him go through that suffering to begin with. In our case, Yosef might only come to the realization at this late stage that beauty must be internal to be eternal, or it may be only now that he realizes that the need to come to that realization was what drove the entire story until now. Standing now with Binyamin and his brothers before him, the reality of the entire ordeal becomes as clear as day to Yosef.

Either way, אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי is a highly important if oft-neglected point in the Yosef narrative. And it is no less important for us than it was for Yosef, because this same realization plays a central role in understanding the holiday into which Parshat Miketz inexorably finds itself enmeshed. The classic Greek-Jewish struggle is often painted as a war between culture per se and the Torah. Yet we know deep inside of us that this is not a fair appraisal, because the value we place on beauty in music, art, and literature is well known. Artwork adorns our houses while harmonious music fills them with class and resonance. Particularly in the recent decades, to use Abie Rotenberg’s description, “we have witnessed a virtual explosion of creative Jewish song.” An ad for ArtScroll’s latest volume of The Illuminated Torah boasts that “the illuminations are breathtakingly beautiful, the calligraphy and micrography are exacting … – a magnificent new art edition by renowned Judaica artist …” Hardly the stuff of a petulant People disinterested in art or culture.

To use the terms we have developed already, we are not an anti-Rachel Nation. We are, however, an anti-Yosef nation, at least in the conception that Yosef originally envisioned: a superficial, fundamentally self-interested notion of beauty. In fact, the more altruistic approach to beauty realized through Rachel is embedded in the very name of Chanukah – chein, grace or inward beauty. Far from shunning beauty on Chanukah, we celebrate it as חן, a prototypically Jewish form of beauty.

The two mistakes of Yosef are not entirely redundant. The first time that Yosef gets into trouble for his beauty, it is entirely self-generated. Perhaps not quite as much can be said of Yosef’s second encounter with the perils of beauty:

בראשית פרק לט
וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי ה’ אִתּוֹ, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה ה’ מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ: (ד) וַיִּמְצָא יוֹסֵף חֵן בְּעֵינָיו, וַיְשָׁרֶת אֹתוֹ, וַיַּפְקִדֵהוּ עַל בֵּיתוֹ … (ה)  … וַיְבָרֶךְ ה’ אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף, וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת ה’ בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה: (ו) וַיַּעֲזֹב כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ בְּיַד יוֹסֵף … וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה:

Here, Yosef did in fact express חן to those around him, which, we are told, is what allowed him and everyone around him to succeed. That much is very positive, and the story could have ended happily there, right in the middle of Scene 2. Unfortunately, however, Yosef at this point recasts his old mistake, assuming that that acceptance somehow permitted him to resume his old pattern of self-generated beauty. Once again Hashem gives him a love-kick, this time letting him know that beauty of the outward, self-generated variety is not permitted even after חן has already been achieved. This leads Yosef to offer his sage advice to his younger brother, a fitting capstone to his personal saga: אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי.

Mistake #2 may be one we need to think about, as we become more enmeshed and comfortable in the wonderful מלכות של חסד which surrounds us here in America. Even if we are beloved in this country for the right reasons, because of our חן, that is not a license to take our foot off the pedal and begin to adapt aspects of that culture which are יופי and not חן, Greek and not Jewish, Yosef #1 and not Rachel. Sometimes when we achieve a measure of success, it becomes easier for us to forget that that success was achieved through חן and can only be maintained through חן. Our grandparents fresh off the boat, like Yosef in Pharaoh’s house, exuded חן and won the respect of those around them. Now we are more comfortable, and as the חן turns to a more self-involved יופי those around us start to be less sure of whom we are and to what extent we are worthy of that much respect.

Our Chanukah challenge is not to shun culture or beauty, but to determine a proper means for its integration, one in which the beauty of the object is a product of the aspect of truth which that object represents, what we might call inward beauty, or חן; not an outward beauty which hoists a preconceived notion of beauty indiscriminately onto a religious object. We should aim to represent Rachel’s beauty, Yosef’s final conception of beauty, allowing beauty not to permeate into our religious life but to be expressed through that religious life. If Torah is the source of beauty, not its final destination, then we will once again express חן to all those around us, and our own Yosef story can end in the middle of Scene 2, without the need for the reconciliation of a Scene 3.

This entry was posted in Chanukah, Holidays, Parshat Hashavua. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s