Vayeishev: Holy Narcissism
“Comrades! Yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss. But today we have taken a giant step forward!” — A Russian Communist leader.
The Joseph Drama
It is one of the most emotionally-laden episodes in the Bible.
Joseph, on instruction of his father, pays a visit to his brothers, who are shepherding Jacob’s flock in the city of Shechem (Nablus).
The brothers, who despised Joseph, see him approaching from afar. They realize that with no one to see them, they can kill Joseph and concoct a tale that will be impossible to refute. Only Reuben protests. The biblical text states: “Reuben heard and saved him from their hands. He said, ‘Let’s not take his life’. Reuben said to them: ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him’ — intending to rescue Joseph from his brothers and bring him back to his father.”
(It is interesting to note that the Torah rarely described people’s inner drives. In this instance, however, the Torah makes an exception, revealing to us Reuben’s true motivations: He wished to save Joseph.)
As the story continues, the brothers agree to Reuben’s suggestion. They throw Joseph into an empty well and they sit down to eat a meal. In the midst of the meal they see an Arab caravan traveling to Egypt.
“Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let’s sell him to the Arabs and not harm him with our own hands. After all — he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.'” The brothers consent. Joseph is sold and brought to Egypt as a slave, where, 13 years later, he will rise to become the Prime Minister of Egypt (Genesis ch. 37-41).
Reuben was not present during the sale. “When Reuben returned to the cistern,” the Torah relates, “and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, ‘The boy is gone! And I, where can I go?'” The brothers dipped Joseph’s tunic in blood, and presented the tunic to Jacob, who exclaimed: “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph has surely been torn to bits!” (37:29-33).
Where was Reuben during the sale of Joseph? The text is obscure, but it does, as usual, offer a glimpse: The brothers sold Joseph while in the midst of a meal. The Torah, perhaps, shared with us this irrelevant detail in order to hint to us the reason for Reuben’s absence. Reuben left the scene because he could not eat with his brothers. Why?
Rashi, quoting the midrashic tradition, says that Reuben had been dressing himself in sackcloth and fasting ever since he sinned against his father close to a decade earlier.
“So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath, that is, Bethlehem. Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb… Reuben went and lay with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.” (Gen. 35:19-22).
Rashi, following Talmudic tradition, illuminates the backdrop behind this incident. When Rachel died, Jacob, who usually resided in her tent, moved his bed to the tent of Bilhah, her handmaid. For Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, this was an unbearable provocation and a slap in his sensitive mother’s face. It was bad enough that Jacob preferred Rachel to her sister Leah, but intolerable that he should prefer a handmaid to his mother. He therefore removed Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s.
Although the incident with the bed occurred nine years earlier, Reuben was still seeking ways to repent. Therefore, he did not join his brothers in their meal and was not present during Joseph’s sale. Nine years later, Reuben was still fasting and cleansing his heart from his intervening into his father’s intimate life.
The Cause of Exile
There is something very disturbing in this tale. Reuben’s absence during Joseph’s sale to Egypt was a result of his earnest and intense aspiration to purify himself completely; it was a consequence of his unique spiritual and emotional sensitivity, compelling him to mend his inner moral landscape one decade after his moral error. Yet this “saintly behavior” of Reuben is the indirect cause of Joseph’s sale into Egyptian slavery, which would lead ultimately to the tragic Jewish exile in Egypt. What is the symbolism behind this?
The message is unmistakably clear. Exile does not originate necessarily in corrupt, destructive and evil behavior; sometimes it is the path of holiness and saintliness that can drive a people into exile.
You may be dressed in sackcloth; you may be fasting, repenting, praying and meditating, completely removed from materialism and greed. But if you are engaged in these noble acts while a lad lies trapped in a pit, yearning for his freedom, your spiritual experiences may be nothing but the genesis of exile, a form of holy narcissism.
How can you reach out to heavens while your brother is trapped in the cavity of hell? How can you scale mountains while your brother lies in the abyss? How can you liberate your life while your brother’s is about to be enslaved?
The Torah is teaching us the origin of all Jewish exiles. It is when our highest aspirations cause us to stop hearing the cry of a child is lying in a pit…
Extending a Shoulder
Today, too, many a child and youngster finds himself or herself at the edge of the abyss, physically or psychologically. Abuse, depression, anger, alienation, hopelessness and cynicism have overtaken many youngsters and plunged them into a bottomless pit, en rout to an enslaved life. Yet some of us are too occupied “fasting and repenting,” too busy perfecting ourselves spiritually, to reach out to these kids and help them come out of their trenches.
More than three millennia ago the Torah taught us that this attitude is the genesis of exile. When our brothers lie dying in pits of despair and alienation, we must cease all, lift them of their pits and return them to their father who awaits their return.
Forget the Self
Today, Sunday, is the 19th of Kislev, marks the day when Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism, was liberated from Czarist incarceration, in 1898. He and the Chassidic movement and teachings were set free and allowed to exist and flourish.
This, indeed, was one of the profoundest and revolutionary teachings of Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, the Alter Rebbe (the elder Rebbe, as he is known in Chabad). If you climb the heavens of your own soul and of the cosmos, you may reach a broadened state of consciousness, but this may be spiritual selfishness, focusing on your own desires and yearnings, rather than on what G-d wants from you. When you muster the courage to go out of your shell and descend into the pits and trenches where young innocent souls lie lost and confused and you lift them up with love and passion—now you are an ambassador of G-d, not of yourself.
In heaven you can discover the G-d of the heavens. Only in the trenches can you encounter the G-d who is above heaven.
(This article is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbas Parshat Chayei Sarah 5736, 1975).