ON Scripture — The Torah
Launched in 2012, ON Scripture — The Torah features the writings of leading Jewish intellectuals, rabbis and community leaders from the United States, Israel and Europe. The goal of this commentary is to feature the work of a diverse group of Jewish writers who can engage the weekly Torah portion with sophistication and can also convey its relevance to contemporary life.
Contributors are encouraged to explore connections between the texts they are studying and current events and trends — political, cultural and spiritual. In addition to the written reflections, we are beginning to produce short videos to accompany the commentaries as a way to enhance the learning experience of our viewers.
Dec. 5, 2013
Carl Jung, John Lennon and Joseph:
The Shadow and the Beautiful Boy
Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
By Stephan Hazan Arnoff
Joseph was a beautiful boy, so beautiful, in fact, that his father was bewitched by his beauty, loving him more than all of his other sons. In the “Testament of Joseph” — part of a collection from late antiquity purporting to tell the first-person account of each of the 12 sons of Jacob — Joseph is quoted as saying, “[God] gave me ... beauty as a flower, beyond the beautiful ones of Israel” (see James Kugel’s “In Potiphar’s House”).
It was because of this beauty, along with Joseph’s attendant arrogance and Jacob’s favoritism, that Joseph’s brothers hated him with a hatred like a thick, dark shadow eclipsing the light of this dazzling boy; they threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery in order to erase him from before their eyes.
When analyzing this story from a psycho-spiritual perspective, we might think of Joseph’s brothers as playing the role of the “shadow” in a mode imagined by the pioneering psychotherapist Carl Jung. As Jung explains, the shadow is an essential piece of the puzzle of the psyche without which light and vision cannot exist. Painful as it may be, recognition and integration of the shadow are absolutely essential for a person, a family or a community to function well.
“To confront a person with his shadow,” Jung wrote in 1959 in "Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology,” “is to show him his own light.” Jung continues:
Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.
This week’s portion of Vayigash tracks Joseph’s development from servitude to his ascension to the position of viceroy of Egypt. It is in this context that he reencounters his brothers after years of separation. A devastating regional famine forces the brothers to venture forth from Canaan to Egypt in search of food (Genesis 42). Eventually, they arrive at the royal palace where they plead their case before the viceroy; the brothers do not recognize that they are actually standing before Joseph. Joseph, however, recognizes his siblings, but chooses not to reveal himself to them immediately. It is in this context that he faces — for perhaps the first and only time — the sheer power of the conflict between shadow and light he has borne all his life.
In one particularly striking scene, after seeing his youngest brother, Benjamin (both the children of Rachel), Joseph excuses himself and weeps privately in his personal chamber (Genesis 43:30). Here, we imagine, he reflects on the dramatic and unlikely arc of his life. Once the discarded beautiful boy, he is now the savior; his destiny as a great leader that he foresaw for himself in his youth — and which fueled his older brothers’ hatred for him — has finally come to pass. In his solitude, Joseph sees the full spectrum of light and shadow, and realizes that there is a unique opportunity before him for integration and resolution, even if fleeting.
When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers in chapter 45, he cries again. This time his wailing is public: “And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:2). This is the cry of the beautiful boy now aware of the great cost and reward of his beauty. In this moment of self-revelation, Joseph asks his brothers but one question: “Does my father yet live?” (Genesis 45:3). He wishes to take back what the shadow took from him so long ago: Jacob.
In thinking about the powerful hold of shadows and light and fathers and sons that reason cannot explain but art is continually drawn towards, we might imagine John Lennon as Jacob responding to Joseph’s plea. Lennon was perhaps the world’s most famous stay-at-home dad during the period between the end of his public music-making in the mid-1970s and his final album “Double Fantasy,” released just three weeks before he was murdered in 1980. He wrote “Beautiful Boy” for his son Sean with shadows on his mind:
Close your eyes
Have no fear
The monster's gone
He's on the run and your daddy's here
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
John Lennon had a very painful childhood that both shaped and embittered him for years to come. Son to an absent father, given up by his mother when he was 5 and raised by an aunt, Lennon still overachieved thanks to and in spite of his shadow, doing nearly as much as any contemporary figure to fight a Joseph-like fight against spiritual and emotional famine as an artist. The beauty of “Beautiful Boy” is not just a love song of a father to a son, but a song of integration of shadow and light Lennon sings to himself. He is the beautiful boy — cast off and then becoming wildly successful like Joseph — who now finds a measure of peace with himself as a father.
Later in the song, Lennon sings, “Life is what happens to you/While you're busy making other plans.” No one wants the terror of a shadow or a monster to disrupt the beauty and light of innocence, but one way or another, the shadow always comes.
“When I tell that I'm doing fine watching shadows on the wall,” Lennon sings in “Watching the Wheels,” another song from Double Fantasy. Looking at shadows on the wall and really understanding them for what they meant must have all but broken Joseph. At the same time, his confrontation with his shadow is not only one of his bravest moments and a moment of great emotional release, it is also the only passageway to eventual healing for him and his family (“Mitzraim,” the Hebrew name for Egypt, literally means “narrow straits”). Joseph must confront his shadows in the confines of his private chamber if — as Jung and Lennon both learned — change is going to come.
Stephen Hazan Arnoff is director of culture, community and society at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel's first four-year liberal arts college.
Dec. 3, 2013
The Power of This Moment: Lighting the Menorah
By Rabbi Daniel Klein
There has been a lot of excitement within the Jewish community about the recent Pew Research Center survey of the American Jewish community. Some people are optimistic about the findings and its implications for the future of the Jewish people in this country, while others are deeply pessimistic. As we contemplate how to move forward as a community, it is worth paying attention to the story of Hanukkah as told by the rabbis of the Talmud.
The Talmudic story is the famous one many of us learned in our childhood about the small cruse of oil miraculously lasting for eight days. “Mai Hanukkah? What is Hanukkah?” the rabbis ask as they begin telling the story. You might have thought that the answer was obvious: On Hanukkah we celebrate the unexpected military victory of the small band of Maccabean fighters over the great forces of the Syrian Greek monarchy. But the rabbis take the story in a different direction, shifting the focus from historic events to mythic truths.
When the royal Hasmoneans [Maccabees] defeated the Syrian Greeks, they searched and found but one pure cruse of oil for lighting the menorah in the Temple. It contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. But a miracle occurred and they lit the menorah from it for eight days. The following year these days were fixed as a sacred occasion, a time for … offering special prayers of thanksgiving (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b).
The rabbis saw that there was something enduring about the story of Hanukkah, but a fleeting military and political victory was unstable ground upon which to construct a meaningful and lasting ritual event. And so, they direct our attention to the moment after the victory, as the Jewish people begin to pick up the pieces of their lives.
What are we to make of this rabbinic story? What mythic truths does it come to teach us?
The answer I want to offer begins by noting the intriguing choice the rabbis make in focusing on the menorah. In their oppression of the Jewish community in the land of Israel, the Syrian Greeks defiled the Temple, including its two most sacred elements: the altar and the Holy of Holies. Yet, in narrating the story of the recapturing and rededication of the Temple, the rabbis home in on the menorah.
Light is a symbol of the Divine. According to the Torah, it is the first element of creation (Genesis 1:3) and the means through which God first speaks to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). Moreover, Proverbs teaches that the “mitzvot are a candle and Torah is the light” (6:23). Light represents God’s manifest presence in the world, and the mitzvot are the vessel we use to behold and bring forth this radiance.
The menorah in the Temple represents God’s presence in the world and our commitment to help God’s light shine. In the mythic landscape of the rabbi’s imagination, a Temple with an unlit menorah is a world in which God’s presence is diminished. Recapturing the Temple from the Syrian Greeks was only a precursor to confronting the main crisis that occurred under Antiochus: the exile of the sacred. The lamp had to be lit.
But here, the rabbis add an interesting twist: when Judah and his comrades enter the Temple, there is a dearth of oil. It might have been enough in this story simply to relight the unlit lamp of God. Why do our ancient sages add this dramatic wrinkle? What might it teach us about lighting the flame and then attending to it day after day, month after month, year after year?
This is a story of spiritual struggle, in which after we relight the sacred flame, we realize the fleeting nature of our efforts. God, the Sacred, can only be experienced for a moment. We might wonder if it is even worth lighting the menorah, which is to say, to engage in sacred acts even if they may be fleeting.
Not so the Hasmoneans. They light. For them the present is irresistible. The moment of re-entering the Temple is a moment guided by inspiration, not calculated analysis. The Hasmoneans have an opportunity, after so long, to light the Light. They can bring out sacredness in the world in a way they could not when oppressed. It may be fleeting, but for a moment, they will experience the glow of the Divine. This opportunity for spiritual renewal is too compelling to pass up.
Make no mistake about it, the Maccabees were expert tacticians — how else could they have garnered this shocking victory over the great Syrian Greek army? Further, when we read historical materials about this struggle, we learn just how much intra-Jewish political maneuvering they engaged in with their co-religionists.
The rabbis, too, are exhibiting great strategic thinking in shifting the emphasis of the story of Hanukkah away from the armed conflict and focusing our attention on the little cruise of oil. In so doing, however, they are teaching us an important lesson about the relationship of the present and the future.
We must analyze, evaluate and plan, but we must also not lose touch with the possibility of the moment. One of the key lessons of the Hanukkah story is that if we are to create an enduring future, we must have the wherewithal to fashion sacred moments here and now that uplift our spirits and have the potential — but never the certainty — of becoming touchstones for us and for future generations.
Rabbi Daniel Klein is director of student life and director of admissions for the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
ON Scripture — The Torah is a collaboration between Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Previous postings may be found at the Odyssey Networks website.