Irrational Emotion

Rashi quotes Bereishis Rabba on this week’s parashah (Vayeishev) but then continues beyond what is in the medrash.

וַיַּעֲזֹ֣ב כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ֮ בְּיַד־יוֹסֵף֒ וְלֹא־יָדַ֤ע אִתּוֹ֙ מְא֔וּמָה כִּ֥י אִם־הַלֶּ֖חֶם אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא אוֹכֵ֑ל וַיְהִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה מַרְאֶֽה׃

[Potiphar] left all he has in Yosef’s control (lit: hand) and didn’t think about anything of his except the food he was eating; and Yoseif was well built and good looking.

Bereishis 39:6

“וַיְהִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר” – כיון שראה עצמו מושל התחיל אוכל ושותה ומסלסל בשערו (ב”ר) אמר הקב”ה אביך מתאבל ואתה מסלסל בשערך אני מגרה בך את הדוב מיד.

“And Yosef was well built” – “Since he saw himself ruling, he started to eat and drink and curl his hair.” (Bereishis Rabba) HaQadosh barukh Hu said: Your father is in mourning, and you are curling your hair?!

– Rashi ad loc

Bereishis Rabba leaves the substance of Hashem’s complaint against Yosef only implied; there is nothing in this medrash about expecting that Yosef’s empathy with his father’s sadness would keep him from being unable to enjoy his new status. However, I found an earlier source than Rashi. The Tanuchma has a longer version of the story, including:

כיון שראה יוסף את עצמו בכך התחיל אוכל ושותה מסלסל בשערו ואומר ברוך המקום שהשכיחני בית אבי, א”ל הקב”ה אביך מתאבל עליך בשק ואפר ואתה אוכל ושותה ומסלסל בשערך הרי אדונתך מזדווגת לך ומצירה לך

… Since Yosef saw himself like this, he started to eat and drink, curl his hair and say, “Blessed is the Omnipresent Who allowed me to forget my father’s home.” HaQadosh barukh Hu said, “Your father is in mourning for you in sackcloth and ashes, and you eat, drink, and curl your hair? Behold your lady will attempt to mate with you and cause you problems…

However, think about it. Yaaqov would have no idea that any of this is going on. If we were calculating about this, we would wonder what’s the point? Yaaqov is equally miserable either way, why should Yosef make himself miserable too?

The story here reminds me of something taught about the burning bush:

אמר רבי ינאי מה התאומים הללו אם חשש אחד בראשו חבירו מרגיש, כן אמר הקב”ה כביכול (תהלים צא טו) “עמו אנכי בצרה“.

Rabbi Yannai said, “Just as these twins, if this one’s head is troubled, his fellow feels it, similarly HaQadosh barukh Hu (as it were) said, “I am with them in pain” (Tehillim 91:15)

דבר אחר: מהו עמו אנכי בצרה – כשיש להם צרה אינם קוראים אלא להקדוש ברוך הוא במצרים (שמות ב כג) “ותעל שועתם אל האלקים”, בים (שמות יד י) “ויצעקו בני ישראל אל ה'”, וכאלה רבים, ואומר (ישעיהו סג ט) “בכל צרתם לו צר.” אמר לו הקב”ה למשה: אי אתה מרגיש שאני שרוי בצער? כשם שישראל שרוים בצער הוי יודע ממקום שאני מדבר עמך מתוך הקוצים כביכול אני שותף בצערן.

Another thought. What is “I am with them in pain”? When they have pain, they do not call out to anyone but HaQadosh barukh Hu. In Egypt, “Their sighs went up to G-d.” (2:23) At the sea, “And the Benei Yisrael cried out to Hashem”. (14:10) And many more like this. And it says, “In all their pains, He has pain.”

HaQadosh barukh Hu said to Moshe, “Don’t you feel that I remain in ‘pain’? Just as Israel remains in pain, you should know from the place from which I am speaking with you, from among the thorns (as it were), I remain in their pain.

— Shemos Rabba 3:5

Does it change anything for the Jews working, being beaten and dying in Egypt whether G-d appeared to Moshe in a thornbush or a proud cedar?

I noticed this Rashi in Bereishis and the medrash he is teaching shortly after a related conversation. Someone said that it was irrational to avoid Wagner’s y”sh music in protest of his antisemitism. After all, the man is gone; he doesn’t gain emotionally, financially, or in any other way by my listening to his work? So what’s the point of a boycott? And the truth is, she’s correct — still, I don’t listen to Wagner’s y”sh music. Not out of protest. I agree that it’s a pointless protest. Simply, I can’t enjoy it. I can’t hear the work and not have thoughts about the composer and the role his writings played in the rise of Nazi racial thought. So the total experience simply isn’t one worth having.

I think Hashem is making the same point here. Emotions are supposed to be irrational. If someone is able to think about their response and calculate whether or not it would matter or actually help, then there is something wrong with their empathy. The pain should be too pressing to be able to set aside.

I sit here trying to figure out if there is anything I could possibly do about the stories of barbarism coming out of Aleppo, or that have sadly become a norm of news from ISIS. Lining people up for mass execution; has the world learned nothing in 70 years? As the war in Syria veers away from peace for Syria or the planet, and spills over in revenge attacks across Europe. As we look like we’re entering an era in which Vladimir Putin appears to be increasingly the leader of a dominant superpower.

It seems that even if it turns out there is nothing I can do to help — and I haven’t given up yet! — it seems Hashem still expects “empty” gestures of me. Or more accurately, that I express rather than repress the shared pain.

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