Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Va-yeishev

Gen. 39:1-6

This very short aliyah, highlighting the rise of Joseph in Potiphar’s household after his sale into Egypt, ends with the statement that “Joseph was well built and handsome.” Generally the assertion is considered to be an introduction to the following episode, in which Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce her husband’s good-looking young slave, but if that were so, it would make more sense at the beginning of the next aliyah. The present division seems to imply that Joseph’s appearance has something to do with his high status in the eyes of his master as well.

Despite centuries, possibly millennia, of admonitions from parents to children that “handsome is as handsome does,” and “You can’t tell a book by its cover,” modern studies show that good looks are still an advantage in everything from hiring to sentencing. It has even been suggested that we are biologically programmed to prefer a more symmetrical appearance as a sign of healthy genes in a possible mate.

Interestingly, especially in the light of the former argument, the same words that are used of Joseph are also used in describing his mother, Rachel. In their bald statement, “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful,” the authors are setting up the reader to share the preference of Jacob for Rachel and his contempt for Leah. Remember, “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” no matter how many sons they bear.

Midrash notwithstanding, in the actual text of the Torah Rachel cannot take credit for a single praiseworthy act; neither, of course, can Leah, but considering our biases, we somehow expect more from Rachel. At least Rebecca shows hospitality to Abraham’s servant and a superhuman kindness to animals in watering all of his camels, and, although we are told that she is beautiful, it is her actions that are the critical test of her suitability to be Isaac’s wife, not her looks.

Joseph, at least up to this point in the narrative, and arguably afterward, is like his mother in showing little promise of becoming a mensch. Although after the episode with Potiphar’s wife, he shows some sensitivity in noticing that his fellow prisoners are downcast by their troubling dreams, most of his later behavior is not particularly edifying.

On the other hand, we are told nothing of Judah’s looks, and as the fourth son of the despised Leah, his prospects are not promising. He also comes off badly compared to Joseph in his relations (in more than one sense) with his daughter-in-law Tamar in the episode recounted just before this aliyah. However, unlike his younger brother, he seems to undergo a true process of teshuvah, and despite paternal preference and Joseph’s natural charisma, it is Judah who becomes the ancestor of King David and, by extension, the Messiah, as well as the eponymous ancestor of the Jewish people.

L'shalom -

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