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Jacob, Jethro, and Jewish Continuity (Vayehi)

Heroes often come of age away from home. This was one of many observations made by Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist who spent his career noticing similarities between the foundational narratives of different cultures, and codifying them in a model which he called “the monomyth.” Whether Campbell’s generalizations are accurate or not is subject to debate. Many scholars find them too simplistic, particularly because of all the exceptions to which they admit. Others argue that Campbell’s parallels hold little literary value – the characters in the stories which he studied developed in more or less the same way because all humans develop in more or less the same way, these experts claim. Both critiques are valid.

Nevertheless, it’s still fun to keep an eye out for the phenomenon which Campbell called crossing the first threshold: the tendency of heroes to grow up in a foreign environment. The Romans said it of Remus and Romulus, the English said it of King Arthur, the Chinese said it of Laozi and, להבדיל, our Tanakh said it too. 

In the Bible, Abraham moves from Haran to Canaan. So does Rebecca. Jacob, for his part, moves in the opposite direction. And, of course, Ruth moves from Moab to Judea. These men and women find greatness only after leaving home. Not all of our heroes — not even most of our heroes — “cross the first threshold.” Yet several do. Campbell’s reductionism may have missed the mark, but it’s also provided some valuable findings for us to consider.

Take Joseph, for example. Here’s another hero who grows up away from home – in Egypt, not in Canaan. Indeed, as R. Yair Kahn points out, Egyptian society leaves quite the imprint on Joseph. Before they let Joseph run their country, the Egyptians give him an Egyptian hairstyle, an Egyptian wardrobe, an Egyptian name, and, most significantly, an Egyptian wife.

When we turn to this week’s Torah portion, we start to see the effects of these changes. Internally, we’ll argue, Joseph remains the same: he’s a proud Hebrew committed to the covenant of his ancestors.  But externals matter too, to some degree – and, externally, Joseph has unquestionably changed. Nobody seems more aware of this, or pained by it, than Jacob, Joseph’s father. Consider:

  • Jacob speaks deferentially to Joseph: “if I have but found grace in your eyes” are the words with which he prefaces his request to be buried in Canaan – words generally reserved for men who are speaking to their superiors. Abraham and Lot speak these words to the angels; Jacob himself had spoken these words once before, to Esav, his brother, when trying to appease him; and, only a few verses earlier, the Egyptians speak these words to Joseph, their, viceroy when begging for food.
  • On the other hand, “swear to me” are the words with which Jacob insists that Joseph formalize his promise – words which communicate estrangement, and which Jacob only used once before in his life: when haggling with his brother Esav.
  • Jacob has to send messengers to tell Joseph that he is about to die. Apparently – and the Midrash corroborates this view, albeit for different reasons – Joseph did not regularly visit his father in his old age.
  • Nor have Jacob’s grandchildren been visiting him that often, it seems. On his deathbed, Jacob has to ask “who are these?” in reference to Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s children.
  • Over and over again, Jacob emphasizes the importance of the land of Canaan, and of the covenant which he and his fathers entered into with God – as if to remind Joseph that though life may be good in Egypt, his destiny ultimately lies elsewhere.

On some level, Jacob seems worried that Joseph will forget who he is: a Hebrew, not an Egyptian. Most interesting of all, in this regard, is the following exchange between the father and his son:

And Jacob said to Joseph, “Almighty God appeared to me in Luz, in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me. And He said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and cause you to multiply, and I will make you into a congregation of peoples, and I will give this land to your seed after you for an everlasting inheritance.’ And now, [as for] your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt, until I came to you, to the land of Egypt they are mine. Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon. But your children, if you beget [any] after them, shall be yours; by their brothers’ names they shall be called in their inheritance. (Genesis 48:3–6)

Jacob tells Joseph that Ephraim and Manasseh – Joseph’s sons – are “mine,” and that any subsequent children which Joseph begets are “yours.” What’s going on here? In its plain sense, this passage seems to be describing a legal transaction, connected to the laws of property inheritance. Indeed, Joseph’s is the only tribe which receives two separate allotments in the land of Israel during the days of Joshua: one for Ephraim, and one for Manasseh.

However, it is tempting to suggest that something else may be taking place here, particularly in light of the following Midrash – a Midrash whose main character, like Joseph, comes of age in a foreign land:

At the time when Moses asked Jethro to marry his daughter, Ziporra, Jethro said to him: “Accept my deal, and I will give her to you.” Said Moses: “What is it?” Said Jethro: “Your first son will be an idol worshipper [like me]. All others will worship God.” Moses agreed. Jethro said to him: “Swear to me.” And he swore to him. (Mekhilta d’Rebbi Ishmael, Yitro)

Like many Midrashim, this Midrash strikes us, at first glance, as outrageous. But its authors knew that it would, and so our job when studying these texts is to try to figure out what they might have been hinting at.

To do so, we’re going to use a technique employed by R. Nathaniel Helfgot in a completely different context. In a piece available both online and in his book, R.  Helfgot suggests that the Midrashic legend about Abraham smashing his father’s idols didn’t begin as a story about Abraham. Instead, he argues, it began as a story about Gideon smashing his father’s idol — a story which appears, in black-and-white, at the end of the sixth chapter of Biblical book of Judges. R. Helfgot notes over a dozen significant similarities between Gideon and Abraham in his article, all of which support the idea that the rabbis would have had a reason to bridge these two characters in their writings.

So stories which our sages tell about one Biblical character sometimes appear in the Bible itself, in reference to a different Biblical character. Are there are any noteworthy parallels between Jacob and Jethro, or between Joseph and Moses, which lend themselves to that sort of thinking in our case? In fact, there are. Consider:

  • Joseph, like Moses, is separated from his mother in early life.
  • Joseph, like Moses, is unpopular with his own people, who think he is trying to rule over them.
  • Joseph, like Moses, is almost killed in his native country.
  • Joseph, like Moses, goes into exile in a foreign land.
  • In this foreign land, Joseph, like Moses, helps people in distress.
  • Joseph, like Moses, finds acceptance among the foreigners.
  • Joseph, like Moses, is mistakenly taken for an Egyptian.
  • Joseph, like Moses, marries a woman of a different culture — specifically, both are daughters of priests.
  • Joseph, like Moses, has two sons.
  • The names of Joseph’s and Moses’ first son both recall the bitterness of exile.
  • The name of Joseph’s and Moses’ second son both signify that their fathers’ fortunes have turned.
  • Joseph, like Moses, mentions his father when naming one (but only one) of his sons.
  • Joseph, like Moses, wants to know whether his relatives are “still alive.”
  • Joseph, as mentioned, is separated from Jacob for a period of many years while he goes to Egypt. Moses is also separated from Jethro for a period of many years while he goes to Egypt.
  • But both Jacob and Jethro hear of the greatness which their son / son-in-law has achieved.
  • As a result, both Jacob and Jethro travel to visit Joseph / Moses, bringing the whole family with them.
  • Both Joseph and Moses “go out to greet” Jacob / Jethro, meeting them in momentous fashion.
  • Both Jacob and Jethro both arrive a time when their son / son-in-law is busy carrying out the administrative roles of the nation which he is leading.
  • Jacob, a Hebrew, blesses Pharaoh when he visits Joseph. Jethro, a heathen, blesses God when he visits Moses.
  • Both Jacob and Jethro are happy to be reunited with their son / son-in-law, but both Jacob and Jethro long for their homelands.
  • Jacob makes Joseph take an oath, just like Jethro (according to the Midrash cited above) makes Moses take an oath.
  • Joseph and Moses sit at opposite ends of Jewish history:  Joseph leads the Hebrews into Egypt, and Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt.

Given all of this evidence, it seems quite likely that the Midrash about Jethro and Moses was adapted from the Biblical story about Jacob and Joseph. Both Jacob, in the Bible, and Jethro, in the Midrash, want their grandchildren to carry on their traditions, and negotiate with their sons to ensure that this happens. As Jews, we sympathize with Jacob’s concerns sooner than we do with Jethro’s: Jacob worshiped God, and Jethro worshiped idols. Why, then, did the sages invite Jethro into this narrative? Of the many interpretations which might be advanced here, we’ll offer one:

To be Jewish is to believe that God exists, that He created the world, and that He cares for that world. It is to believe that man, who was created in the image of God, is responsible for guarding that world, and that, when necessary, he is responsible for healing that world. It is to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” to “honor thy mother and thy father,” to “clothe the naked and feed the hungry.” It is to “observe the Sabbath day,” to refrain from “cooking a kid in its mother’s milk,” to “affix a mezuzah to your doorpost” and “place phylacteries upon thy head.” In short, it is to live, as the English poet John Milton put it, as ever in My great taskmaster’s eye” – at work and at play, in the boardroom and in the bedroom, always in the presence of God, and always searching for His presence in others.

To be Jewish is more than that, though. To be Jewish is also to be part of a four-thousand year old people: a people who have lived in Babylonia and Persia, Greece and Rome, Spain and France, Morocco and Yemen, Poland – and Israel. It is to be the grandson of Maimonides and Nahmanides, of Herzl and of Jabotinsky, of Einstein and of Bohr, of Isaac Perlman and Isaac Balshevis Singer; to be the granddaughter of Miriam and of Deborah, of Judith and of Beruriah, of Barbra Streisand and of Paula Abdul, of Golda Meir, Hanna Szenes, and Henrietta Szold. It is everything YouTube sensation Andrew Lustig has said, and more: gefilte fish and sleep-away camp; JDate, and the IDF.

The narrative of מסורה, of Jewish tradition, is our narrative: the narrative of Jacob. Yet there is another narrative, one which speaks to us not as sons of Jacob, but as sons of Adam: it is Jethro’s narrative as much as it is ours. That narrative is about the grandchild’s desire to feel connected to his past and about the grandfather’s desire to feel connected to his future. It is a narrative about the universal human desire for identity – for particulars. לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, the Bible tells us: “it is not good for man to be alone.” This is true in each moment, and it is true in history, too: children deserve a heritage and grandparents deserve a legacy. If we choose, then we can provide both – and, thereby, become part of something much larger, much greater, than ourselves.

Shabbat shalom!


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