Monday’s readings drop us in the middle of the Joseph story, telling snippets of the story of Joseph and his brothers’ interactions as adults in Egypt. In reading these aggadot, I was struck by the continuing theme of physical violence. This is not a new theme in our story: Joseph’s abduction and sale into slavery is marked with all sorts of violent acts, the blood on his striped coat being the most emblematic. What I noticed in this day’s readings are the ways in which even amidst the gentility of royal Egypt, the abusive habits learned in the ancestral home persist. Three examples:
Shimon in Prison: midrash 104 gives an extended account of Shimon’s time in prison while his brothers are in Cana’an retrieving Benjamin. After binding Shimon publicly and throwing him into prison, Joseph sends strongmen to shackle him. Shimon shouts at the strongmen with superhuman force, hurling them backwards and shattering their teeth. Menashe then takes up the challenge of subduing Shimon and dispatches him with one punch. While it’s fascinating to speculate why the rabbis chose to interpolate this account of violence into the text, what intrigued me was Shimon’s comment to his brothers:
“You may think,” Simeon said to his brothers, “that this was an Egyptian kind of blow. It wasn’t! It had the kind of knockout punch we are familiar with in Father’s house.” When Joseph’s brothers learned this, a great fear came over them.
One might expect that violence would be rampant in Egyptian prisons, that a punch by the regent’s son would be no more distinctive than the general sort of prison abuse. But to Shimon and his brothers, this punch was specifically reminiscent of their family style of fighting. Moreover, the fact that Menashe—who’d not grown up in Jacob’s house—knew this style strongly implies that he learned it from his father. I shudder to think what might be so distinctive about the “family punch” that Shimon would recognize it—and that Joseph would pass it along to his son. Even if we imagine the style to be more of a family martial art than a pattern of abusive behavior, the implications are deeply, deeply troubling. Joseph grew up in a family of violence, and he passed this knowledge along to his children.
The Accusation against Benjamin: in midrash 106, the brothers again invoke their violent tendencies, this time against Benjamin. Rather than defending their younger brother against the accusation of theft, they accuse him of following in his pickpocket mother’s footsteps, embarrassing them as Rachel embarrassed Jacob in front of Laban when she stole the terapim. Along with their taunts, they hit Benjamin on the shoulders, an action later used metaphorically in the Deuteronomic blessing for the tribe of Benjamin.
The rabbinic project here is to discredit the brothers, emphasizing their tendencies towards disloyalty and betrayal. While the most intriguing part of the midrash (to me) is the connection between Benjamin’s theft and Rachel’s, for the purposes of this post I’ll hone in here on the act of physical violence that the brothers commit. This note of violence seems to run counter to the text’s portrayal of the brothers as docile, with Judah’s oral pleas their main form of objection. We imagine the brothers assaulting Benjamin for being the thief they knew him to be, even as they plead for his life to save their father’s.
Jacob’s Fatigue: tangentially related to this theme of violence, the poignancy of midrash 105 perfectly encapsulates the cumulative effects of abuse in Jacob’s house. Why does Jacob invoke God by the name “El Shaddai”? Because year after year, he is so overwhelmed by the bad luck, sorrow, pain in his midst. The midrash lists tragedy after tragedy that befalls Jacob, until he has no choice but to cry out: “May He who said to Heaven and Earth, ‘Enough (dai)!’ say also to my affliction, ‘Enough (dai)!’” We don’t know what role Jacob played in creating this cycle of violence, but it seems clear from this midrash that the cycle of rape, abduction, loss weighed on him so heavily, even to the extent of influencing what name he used for God.
This post is a bit of a downer, I realize. But smack in the middle as we are of this story of the most dysfunctional of all families, it’s fascinating to see the ways in which the rabbis both emphasized and mourned the cycle of violence. May our finishing the book of Genesis bring a bit of dai to this cycle, and may we move forward into the new year with this same awareness of violence to which we ourselves can say, dai!