The Power of Midrash: Parashat Vayigash, December 18 – 2015
by Rabbi Heather Miller
When I was growing up, I found a very special book on the shelf. It was big and it was silver with turquoise stones. And, it happened to be the most sacred text to the Jewish people- it was the Bible. This is what it looked like.
It was inscribed in the front pages dedicated to my mother. The most beautiful part of this Torah I thought, was that it had pictures depicting various biblical scenes. I would stare at these pictures many times wondering what it would’ve been like to actually see the events of the Bible taking place.
For example, this picture of the beginning of the world:
Here is the garden of Eden:
Here is Noah and the ark:
And I thought that the paintings and engravings depicted in this Bible, revealed what actually took place. Only many years later did I find out that these pictures represented just one person’s interpretation of what was going on in the scene. Of course this person was not there, so, they read the text carefully, and they imagined what was taking place, and then they drew a picture of the scene as they imagined it.
Later, I learned that the rabbis engaged in this process as well, but they did it with words. Their process was called midrash. Midrash means interpretation. The process of midrash is also a process of filling in the gaps of the story. Reading a text and then imagining what it might have looked like or felt like for each of the people involved.
For instance, we can take this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. Continues the story that begins once upon a time, in the 2200’s before the common era- that’s over 4000 years ago- Jacob had a son named Joseph with his beloved wife Rachel- Jacob loved Joseph so much that he made for him a special colorful coat, and treated him well. The only trouble was that Jacob had 10 other sons and one daughter before having Joseph, and they became jealous of their father’s favoritism to their brother.
Through a series of events, the siblings got rid of Joseph, and though he could have easily been killed, Joseph rose to power in Egypt, becoming a head consultant to the Pharaoh himself. Eventually Joseph’s brothers come before him, but they don’t recognize him. And eventually he reveals himself as their brother.
First of all– what does Joseph look like?
So let’s take a close read of this text. In Genesis 39:6, we are told:
“Joseph was handsome and of fine appearance.”
So we know that Joseph looked good, but we don’t know the circumstances of his good looks. What did he look like, and what were his good looks attributed to?
The process of midrash attempts to fill in the gaps here.
An ancient text called genesis rabba reveals that:
Rabbi Yitzchak said, “Throw a stick to the ground, and it will land near the place you found it. For it says ‘And Rachel was beautiful, and of fine appearance.’ Therefore Joseph was handsome. [Midrash Rabba 86]
So, Rabbi Yitchak tells us that Joseph must’ve looked like Lis mother Rachel, who we are also told was very beautiful. Whatever that looks like.
Physically he was beautiful in the eyes of his father.
But another Midrash tells us not only was he beautiful physically, but he was also beautiful symbolically because he represented the strong love Jacob has for Rachel. That is since Jacob loved Rachel so much of course he would love Joseph very much.
The mystical and medieval work called the Zohar, similarly bolsters this idea. It states:
Whenever Joseph would walk by Jacob, he would look at Joseph, and his (Jacob’s) soul would be restored, as if he was looking at the mother of Joseph, for the beauty of Joseph was similar to the beauty of Rachel. [Zohar 216b]
So in the ancient and Medieval texts, we are told that Joseph gets his good looks from his mother, Rachel.
The midrash also offers another explanation for Joseph’s good looks; it notes:
“He was engaged in ma’aseh na’arut, [childish or girlish behavior] making up his eyes, curling his hair and lifting his heel (Genesis Rabbah 84:7).”
Rabbi Dalia Marx calls this “ostentatious self-pampering” and notices and shares that a rabbi from the 11th century named Rashi decides that Joseph was curling his hair and making up his eyes and so forth “so that he would be beautiful.”
The midrash, in its attempt to fill in the gaps of the text, therefore offers us several explanations behind the Torah description of Joseph as beautiful:
Either he was because he took after his mother Rachel who was also described as beautiful, or her was because he represented the great love that Jacob had for Rachel,
or he was because he did his makeup each day.
In its variant explanations, the midrash opens up possibilities for understanding Joseph and those around him in greater depth. These, too, can color how we see ourselves in the text.
But there’s another question about the text– why didn’t the brothers recognize Joseph when they were standing right there in front of him and he revealed himself?
The text says:
ג וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי; וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ, כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו.
Vayomer Yosef el eichav: “Ani Yosef! Ha’od avi chai?” V’lo yach’lu echav la’anot oto, ki niv’halu mi’panav.
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, they were confounded on account of him.
Were they dumbfounded and unable to talk because now their little brother in the big colorful coat appeared before them now a grown man? Was it because they had left him to die or be sold to the Ishmaelites 22 years ago and figured he would have perished yet here he was standing in front of them? Was it because Joseph was now speaking Egyptian instead of Hebrew or with a deep voice as he was no longer a child? Was it because they were in front of the Pharaoh’s senior advisor and this was an unfathomable position for their little brother?
Maybe it was related to the way Joseph looked now?
The process of interpretation called midrash again attempts to fill in the gap’s with the text leaves.
Would you like to see how artists depict what this scene looks like? See if you can determine why Joseph was unrecognizable as their brother based on these paintings…
This first illustration by Nutritore shows Joseph as a man of high position on the stairs in a beautiful building with frescas and columns.
The second painting by von Cornelius really emphasizes the brothers’ shepherd’s clothing and contrasts that with Joseph’s regal attire.
The third painting by Bourgeois highlights the stature of the once “little” brother, as well as his darker skin and high throne.
The fourth depiction is just a little fun piece I found on the internet where Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. His Egyptian headdress and distance between them emphasizes the difference between him and his brothers.
Each of these depictions offers new insights on the text.
Tonight, we have a very special artist in our midst. Her name is Judith Margolis and she, along with our BCC past president Davi Cheng and 52 other artists each took a portion of the Torah and created a visual representation of that Torah portion. In this way they are joining this great tradition of making Midrash– that is filling in the gaps of the story. They are doing so visually, and in doing so, convey new understandings of the Torah. And as such, the revelation of Torah continues on…