September 25, 2018

Torah portion: Father and son

Communication between Jacob and Joseph was sparse, and the dynamic between them was less than exemplary. The first time we hear Joseph speaking to his father, he is gossiping about his brothers. Jacob does not respond. Instead we are told, “He loved Joseph more than all his children,” and he displays his favoritism by giving him a “coat of many colors.” 

Joseph begins to dream big, and when he next speaks to his father, he tells him he dreamt “the sun, the moon and 11 stars bowed down to me.” Jacob disapprovingly responds, “What is this dream you have dreamt? Shall I, your mother and brothers indeed come to bow down to you?” Jacob is disturbed at Joseph’s perceived arrogance. Perhaps he was also disturbed that he may have helped nurture this arrogance. One way or the other, Joseph does not respond. 

Jacob then asks Joseph to go find his brothers. Joseph agrees, and Jacob says, “Bring me back word.” Joseph leaves, finds his brothers and soon discovers that the favoritism displayed toward him by his father has backfired. His jealous brothers plot to kill him, ultimately selling him into slavery to a passing caravan. As a result, Joseph never “brings back word” to his father. 

What little communication existed between Jacob and Joseph comes to a complete stop. The elderly Jacob, who had finally “settled down in the land of his ancestors,” loses touch with his 17-year-old boy, who is off to eventually fulfill his dreams in Egypt. For the next 22 years, Jacob does not hear a word from Joseph.

In 1925, Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon wrote “The Fable of the Goat,” a tale about a boy who follows a magical goat that leads him from his small town in Europe directly to the Land of Israel. The boy follows the goat through a magical cave, ultimately arriving in Safed. 

He is so delighted by this new environment that he decides he is not going home. He sends the goat back to his father with a note tucked in its ear. He tells his father, essentially, “I am in the Land of Israel. Do not ask how I arrived here, just hold onto the rope on the goat’s tail and follow its footsteps, and you will safely arrive to the Land of Israel.” 

The father fails to find the note, and, thinking his son is dead, butchers the goat in a fit of rage. Only after the goat is dead does the note fall out with the son’s message. Because the goat was the father’s only means of journeying to Israel to see his son, its death marks the permanent and irreversible severing of ties between father and son.

Drawing from the Jacob and Joseph narrative, Agnon’s story produces a series of ironic plot twists and parallels to the original story. Whereas the elderly Jacob settled comfortably in Israel and the young Joseph went to Egypt, Agnon’s tale has the father living comfortably in the Diaspora while his son seeks the new Zionist dreams in Israel. 

For 22 years, Joseph never wrote a letter to Jacob. While biblical commentators Nahmanides and Abrabanel sharply criticize him, Joseph’s silence is a strong indication that communication between “Jacob the patriarch” and “Joseph the dreamer” was never really healthy. 

In Agnon’s tale, the son writes a letter, but the father tragically discovers it only after he kills the goat. Agnon’s interpreters understand the father’s missed opportunity to read the note as a metaphor to a lifetime of missed opportunities for the traditional Diaspora father and the idealistic Zionist son to communicate with one another.

Both fathers believe their sons have been killed, and both deaths are connected to goats. With Jacob, the sight of goat’s blood on his son’s coat causes him to tear his garments in grief. In Agnon’s story, the father’s reaction to the sight of the goat without his son is to shed the goat’s blood. Both narratives present tragic twists on the scapegoat motif. 

Neither has a happy ending, either. Joseph reunites with Jacob, only to hear his father say, “Few and unhappy have been the days of the years of my life” (Genesis 47:9). Agnon’s father and son never reunite, living in physical and emotional alienation from each other. Both stories point to the painful price paid by a breakdown in communication.

What might have been had Jacob and Joseph talked about family matters and dreams? What if Agnon’s father and son had a functional dialogue about “Diaspora vs. Zionism”? 

The very last prophecy in the Bible predicts that before Elijah the Prophet announces the coming of the Messiah, he will “turn the hearts of parents towards their children, and the hearts of children towards their parents” (Malachi 3:24). 

Until then, “fathers and sons” can study the Joseph narrative, read Agnon and try not to make the same mistakes. 


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. Follow his blog at jewishjournal.com/through_sephardic_lenses.