Tale of two women

Tale of two women

Vayigash — Genesis 44:18-47:27

The concluding chapters of Genesis are devoted to the literary masterpiece of the story of Joseph. The drama in the portion is particularly stunning: Joseph (now vice-regent of Egypt) reveals his true identity to his brothers (who have arrived to plead for the life of Benjamin during their pilgrimage for provisions in the face of famine).

The Joseph narrative largely moves between the characters of the men. The favored relationship of Jacob and Joseph spawns the soiled siblinghood between Joseph and his brothers. The near fratricide of Joseph is averted only by the intervention of Reuben (or Judah depending on which verse we choose). In Egypt Joseph is obtained by a man of the court, Potiphar. In jail, he interprets the dreams of other men. After ascending from jail, he sits at the right hand of Pharaoh himself.

The arrival of the brothers — and later of his father, Jacob, for the unexpected reunion with Joseph — continues to drive this story of men with other men.

In this week’s portion, then, the subtle but noteworthy mention of two women deserves attention. That both names appear in a largely unremarkable catalogue of households that traveled with Jacob down to Egypt is all the more reason to ask what the writers and editors may have had in mind.

In Genesis 46:15, we read: “These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-Aram, and Dinah his daughter….” Whether Dinah travels with the entourage into Egypt is unclear, although the Torah seems to suggest she did not. Dinah, it will be recalled, is the victim of a rape (34) and except for this brief mention here, there is no other information about her.

Later Jewish tradition tries to place Dinah in Egypt, where she somehow becomes the mother of Aesnath, Joseph’s Egyptian wife (presumably alleviating rabbinic anxiety regarding Joseph’s apparent intermarriage). Leaving aside the peculiar pairings whereby, were this to be true, Joseph’s half-sister would become his mother-in-law, this obscure rabbinic tradition sheds little light on Dinah.

The second woman mentioned is Serach Bat Asher, the only granddaughter of Jacob that the Torah mentions (46:17). Unlike Dinah, Serach becomes the source of ample legendary material in the rabbinic tradition. According to legend, Serach played several key roles, including using song to inform Jacob that Joseph was alive, presumably easing him into awareness of information that presented otherwise might have caused him to go into shock or die.

Legend also suggests that as a reward, Jacob bestowed the blessing of eternal life on Serach, which is why rabbinic tradition has few problems with having her reappear 400 years later. Now, it is suggested, she is the one who verifies that Moses has received authorization from God, because only she remembers the code words Moses used that match those used by Jacob.

On the night of the Exodus, while the Israelites are preparing to depart, Moses searches for Joseph’s coffin, which must be taken along for reburial in the Land of Israel. Only Serach is able to help locate it, because, again, she alone remembers. According to later rabbinic tradition, Serach remains a living presence among the Jewish people.

What are we to make of this curious confluence of two women, one who exists primarily in Torah, the other who takes on life only in the later rabbinic imagination?

Tradition links both to Joseph. In the case of Dinah, we sense the Torah may be suggesting that the barest redemption from her tragedy is accomplished only by her escaping from the very family that could not protect her and used her rape as a pretext for wider violence (34). Like Joseph, she is the sibling alienated from the brothers; perhaps the bond between the two — which tradition prudently and maybe prudishly portrays as one generation distant — is forged out of this alienation.

Serach is bound to Joseph in his death, not his life. It is her efforts that help resolve and finally confirm Joseph’s ambivalent identities, which swing between being the younger son of a patriarchal nomad and being the vice-regent of the world’s great empire. Serach assures that notwithstanding his Egyptian adventures, Joseph will forever be with his native family in their promised land.

In these subtle inferences we discover that it is in the small relationships and quiet actions — that in fact comprise daily life for most people — that we may find meaning.

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