Photo Credit: Unsplash

{Originally posted to Rabbi Weinberg’s website, The Foundation Stone}

I’ve mastered the art of backseat driving by absorbing the tension of Manhattan traffic, despite only being a passenger. Debbie, on the other hand, thrives on the challenge of road insanity, including the challenge of finding a legal parking spot.

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The only open spot was in a “No Parking” zone in front of a mosque. Because our handicap-parking permit allows us to legally park in such spots, Debbie zipped in and parked. A huge and hostile man – not as appreciative of my yarmulke as he was of his head covering – rushed out, and, towering over Debbie, attempted to intimidate her into moving the car. I, adrenaline already pumping from my backseat driving, was ready to join in the fray. A simple laugh from Debbie, a relatively small woman, deflated the balloon of a large man who relies on intimidation, and we calmly walked away. An intimidator needs someone to intimidate, so I wonder how Joseph’s brothers functioned as shepherds.

Were the men who wiped out the entire village of Shechem able to calmly sit and play their flutes when caring for Jacob’s flocks? Last we met them, “A Godly terror fell on the cities which were around them” (Genesis 35:5)” and intimidated those who were near these powerful men. Did their sheep tremble before them? [This section is a bit confusing to me: Can we include such men in the songs celebrating the herdsman’s simple life? Is there a hint to their shepherding demeanor in their choice of Shechem, the reason for their intimidating reputations, as the place to pasture Jacob’s flocks? I suspect that Joseph’s brothers were not the typical shepherds as portrayed in pastoral poems. It’s difficult to imagine a shepherd caring for his docile flock to immediately respond to the sight of Joseph from afar, by conspiring to kill him. They don’t hesitate to slaughter one of the baby goats in their care simply to have blood with which to stain Joseph’s coat. I also suppose that their resentment of Joseph was partially based on the fact that he refused to be intimidated. Perhaps this is why Jacob’s final words to Joseph before he disappeared for 22 years were, “Look into the peace of your brothers, and the peace of the flock.” (37:14)

Jacob was concerned for his sons’ inner peace and the impact their mood would have on his flocks. “[Jacob] kept the matter in mind,” (37:11) referring, not to Joseph’s dreams, but to the interaction between seasoned intimidators and the consistently confident Joseph, for this was to play out when the brothers travel to Egypt for supplies. These powerful men would eventually experience intimidation, and later learn, as is expressed in Judah’s confrontational speech to the Egyptian viceroy (44:18-34), when and how to ‘correctly’ use intimidation.

The portion of Vayeishev teaches us how one who refuses to intimidate or allow intimidation is the more powerful person. We’ve seen Joseph, but there is also Tamar, the woman who successfully forces Judah to cease intimidating – to appreciate the power of a woman who laughingly bursts the balloon of her intimidator. Judah had righteously, and with a sense of relief, declared, “Take her out and let her be burned!” (38:24) Tamar, ever calm as she was marched toward the flames, “…sent word to her father-in-law (Judah), saying, ‘by the man to whom these belong I am with child. Identify, if you please, whose are this seal, this wrap, and this staff.’ Judah recognized; and said, ‘She is more righteous than I!’.” (38:25-26) Tamar won this confrontation by refusing to be intimidated, without threatening public disclosure, speaking only to his integrity. It is the one who cannot be intimidated who eventually wins the day.

 

The Macabees understood that surviving the Syrian Greek bullies would be perpetuate our being intimidated by our enemies and, more significantly, lead to our feeling intimidated by God. The Talmud describes the generations at the time of the Chanukah events as fearful of the next destruction. It isn’t easy to survive God’s angry destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, as well as the exile of the people, without feeling intimidated by God. The people had to master the lessons of Joseph and Tamar, to experience the power of those who refuse to be intimidated. They changed our relationship with God. Their efforts were rewarded with the miracle of the oil, and, “You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong.” (Al haNissim Blessing added for Chanukah) God responded in kind. He allowed them to feel, even under horrible conditions, that He would fight for them. Matityahu, the Hasmona’i, refused to be intimidated. He spoke to the people at their highest, and inspired them to face challenges without feeling intimidated by God or our enemies… for all future generations.

Leaders who complain that they do not have answers to our current spiritual struggles are intimidated and have failed to internalize the powerful lesson of Joseph, Tamar, and the Macabees, that it is the one who refuses to be intimidated who wins the confrontation, and whose light increases each day.

I invite Joseph, Tamar, Matityahu, plus the people who fearlessly battled five major Arab armies in 1948, to stand with us as we light our Chanukah candles with the flames of their fearless accomplishments – flames that continue to illuminate our path, so that we can face our struggles, be they physical, financial, emotional or spiritual, without intimidation.

Shabbat Shalom

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