Vayeishev: The מלך and the מושל

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 8 months ago

      The animosity of Yosef’s brothers toward him is often explained as jealousy, and there is in fact direct biblical evidence for that claim after his second dream[1]; even before it is explicitly stated, it is tempting to conclude that all the hatred (which is the word that is used for their feelings up until that point[2]) that they feel is based on jealousy. The fact, however, that the word jealousy” is used after the second dream but not before indicates that there may be other reasons why the first dream was problematic, and there is further evidence for that thesis:

      Will you reign over us (המלך תמלך עלינו)” say the brothers[3], or will you have dominion over us? (אם-משול תמשל בנו)” And this raises a question. Yes, their father exhibits favoritism. Yes, their younger brother is likely spoiled. Yes, his dreams can be interpreted as megalomania, and his decision not to keep them to himself is tactless at best[4]. But are those dreams a reason to be jealous? An interpretation involving the brothers being jealous of pompous, narcissistic dreams infantilizes them in a way that does not seem entirely age-appropriate[5]. Do the brothers seriously believe that now that Yosef has had this dream, the likelihood of him ruling over them has increased?

      Looking at the details, the dream does not even make much sense: the family business is built entirely around cattle, while in the dream, they are binding sheaves—a completely different business. The brothers do not just laugh this off.

      The brothers refer to Yosef as בעל החלמות[6], the dream-master.” And indeed, Yosef is a dreamer. He dreams of feeding the world. Binding sheaves, unlike grazing cattle, means staying in one place and owning land—a condition that allows one to be much more productive, make more money and feed more people, but also much more amenable to the formation of slavery. (Observe, for example, that owning land in the United States today subjects one to the property tax—the only tax that one is forced to pay regardless of any economic activity; indeed, regardless of financial status, or any action or inaction whatsoever. You may own your house free and clear, and it may have been in your family for generations, but if you hit a financial rough patch and fail to feed your hungry overlords, they will take your home away.) Yosef seems to be interested in a system that carries some moral risk.

      Indeed, as we will BE”H see in a couple of weeks, Yosef bungles his plan, his success” leads to the enslavement of nearly all of Egypt, and his actions suggest a possible explanation for the formation of virulent anti-Semitism in that country[7]. What the brothers see are the very real seeds of both success and disaster.

      Yosef’s and his brothers’ descendants are to return to the Land of Israel and actually create the beginning of a free and successful nation with land ownership[8], but that is still centuries away. Yosef’s premature attempt at realizing his dream in galut, on the other hand, is much closer, and its repercussions more predictable at that moment. Some of the brothers, unlike Yosef, were already teenagers when only a miracle saved the family from Lavan; they are under fewer illusions about the world outside of the Land of Israel.

      There is a big difference in Hebrew between a מלך, who, as the American Declaration of Independence puts it, [derives his] just powers from the consent of the governed,” and a מושל, who cares little what his subjects think, simply imposing his rule upon them by force[9].. The brothers ask Yosef which he will create.

      What unfolds before us is the story of the many Jews who choose to enter politics in the nations in which they happen to live. From their actions in the Soviet Communist party to their actions in the American Democratic one, overwhelmingly, their intentions are positive; they are excited, looking forward to changing the world. The effect of their civic participation and leadership is to create a מושל and enslave people to their governments, feeding and fueling some forms of anti-Semitism. Yosef’s brothers do not yet see the healthy realization of his dreams in the Land of Israel, but they have a sense of something being very wrong with them in the moment.

      The word מושל appears twiced in psukei dzimrah, both times near the end; the second time, after the Song at the Sea, reads: כי לה’ המלוכה ומשל בגוים”[10]. This is usually translated as saying that the kingdom (a word related to מלך) is God’s, and he rules the nations”; but the second half is of a different form, and actually makes more sense being translated as whereas the nations have a מושל.” The spiritual reason so many Jews go into politics is that we have a deep drive to change this, expressed right after that verse in our davening: והיה ה’ למלך על כל הארץ”[11].

      But first, we must form our own nation in our own land and be a light unto the world from there; as writer Cynthia Ozick once said, we will not be heard if we blow into the wide end of the shofar. Let our kavanah be to form a nation in the Land of Israel as we are commanded to do, and through there to show the nations the Kingdom of God, full of consent and empty of מושלים. This is not what Yosef does in Egypt, and it is not what Jewish politicians are doing today.

      1 Breishit 37:11
      2 ibid. vv. 4, 5, 8
      3 v. 8
      4 Indeed, v. 8 states and they hated him even more, for his dreams and for his words.
      5 If Yosef is 17 years old (v. 2), many of his brothers are already in their twenties.
      6 v. 19
      7 There is, admittedly, evidence that a less virulent form of anti-Semitism existed in Egypt prior (see 43:32), and this may too have been a prerequisite for what formed later.
      8 The books of Shoftim, Shmuel and Melachim describe the ups and downs of this period
      9 At the time of the Declaration, in the West, the word king” generally referred to a מושל
      10 Tehillim 22:29
      11 Zechariah 14:9

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