you?? This past Wednesday, I had an epiphany that I wanted to share with you. Our class is studying Genesis right now, so nowhere near this week's Torah portion, Chukat, from the Book of Numbers. We were reading the story of Joseph, and specifically one of the most important scenes in all of Genesis; Joseph confronting his brothers, after they sold him into slavery more than a decade earlier. At a very tense moment in the narrative, the text says '[Joseph] turned away from them and wept' (Gen. 42:24). Immediately, five different people in the Bible class offered interpretations on why Joseph wept. And what do you think the answer was?
Well, the Torah doesn't tell us. We know only THAT he wept, we don't know WHY. And as we discussed it in class, we eventually came up with eight or nine (or more) reasons why: Anger,
frustration, joy, homesickness, nostalgia, bitterness, love, pity, sadness, and, and, and. At that moment in our discussion, I stopped and thought, how brilliant is the Torah for NOT giving us the answer, and allowing us to have this debate??? How wonderful to FORCE us into relationship with the text, and afford each and every reader the chance to be a Biblical scholar and commentator, and offer his or her own explanation. Which leads me to this week's Torah portion.
Even though we are already midway through the Fourth Book of the Torah (of five), the Israelites are STILL at Mount Sinai, and only in the second year of their wandering in the desert. And then, all of a sudden, when we reach chapter 20 in our parashah, we suddenly find ourselves in the fortieth, and final, year of their wandering. Essentially, in the
transition between one verse and another, the Torah has skipped 37 years forward in time. Clearly then, we must ask ourselves: What happened during all those intermediate years? We know the people sometimes moved around, and sometimes camped for longer periods of time. But other than that, we don't know much. And so once again, I submit to you that this is a wonderful tactic of the Biblical author! If the Torah just TOLD you what happened to them, it would perhaps be a great story (probably involving a lot more kvetching...), but you and I wouldn't feel too involved. It wouldn't really invite interpretation, and wouldn't draw us in. Instead, this is now a mystery. What happened to them? Why don't we hear about it? Where are all those stories?
Take a moment, and just close your eyes. Picture the Israelites in your mind. Lots of sand, a bunch of tents, bleating sheep, and only manna to eat. Can you see them? Can you transport yourself back to them? Now ask yourself, what happened in
those in-between years? How did they go from a rag-tag band of runaway slaves - with no unity, no self-confidence, no real faith - to becoming a feared army of powerful, confident warriors? After chapter 20, we hear about people after people who are afraid of the Israelites. SOMETHING changed. To me, that is the brilliance of the Torah. The extended hand, the open invitation, the tantalizing mysteries that draw us in and provoke us to react, to respond. I could tell you what I think happened, but that isn't the point, is it? The open invitation isn't just there for me, it's for you too! Care to respond?
Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of Gustav Doré's 'Joseph Makes Himself Known to his Brethren,' courtesy of Ragesoss on Wikimedia Commons