Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Books and Va-Yeishev (Joseph's journey begins ...)

Before Torah, I have to mention the two books I picked up today. Yes, I'm still reading The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis (by the way, it's amazing and maybe better than The Outside World), but when there's cheap books, I'm weak in the knees and my wallet sort of opens itself up and the money just ... well ... floats out. So I stopped by the $3 book sale and picked up Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, which I read in AmJew fiction in my last semester of college but hope to reread and take some more time with. It's a good portrait of the survivor's mentality and subsequent destruction therein. The other book is by Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua. Now, I've tried before to get through a Yehoshua book, but failed miserably. I actually don't even remember the book I was trying at, but it just couldn't keep me interested. It was, to be frank, dry. By this author is one of the greats, and no one will question that. So I picked up the book Mr. Mani because I desperately want to get why the man is so heralded and widely read. The construct of this book looks sort of, well, interesting, as it's a series of conversations among family members with biographies of each of the characters in each of the stories.


Now, for the Torah. I don't have a lot of different things to say on this week's parshah, but there is a lot on a few topics, mainly the first one. You can expect I'll examine the idea of "Sheol" further, of course.

This week's portion begins to tell the story of Joseph (which ends up spanning the entirety of the rest of Beresheit, or Genesis), in addition to a bit on Judah. The parsha ends with Joseph analyzing the dreams of the cupbearer and baker and the subsequent death of the baker. The cupbearer forgets Joseph, for the time being, and the beloved son remains imprisoned ...

+ Sheol? All well-read scholars know that the concepts of "heaven" and "hell" are not present in the Hebrew bible. But the term "Sheol" is used frequently in referring to the place of the dead. For example, in Gen. 37:35, Israel is mourning the loss of Joseph (who he believes is dead) upon the return of his sons. Israel says, "I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol." The commentary on this term says this is the most oft used term for "the abode of the spirits of the dead." The region is assumed to be situated "deep beneath the earth, enclosed with gates." Additionally, it was a place of "unrelieved gloom and silence" where everyone -- good or bad, great or small -- was received. All were equal there and none could leave.

I'm curious about this term, as I've been unaware of it prior to this passage. Did I just not notice it? I deeply appreciate that the concept of "Heaven" or "Hell" is left to discussion and ambiguity, for it gives us a greater chance to explore our time in the present. At the same time, this explanation of Sheol is sort of troubling to me. If the assumption is that it is a place of gloom and silence where everyone is equal, then it can't possibly ever translate into a "heaven" concept of the afterlife. Yet, it doesn't particularly convene a place of unrelenting pain and sorrow, thus can't really translate to "hell." So what is this place? Gloom -- a state of partial darkness; melancholy. Is it a place of partial darkness and silence?

After some poking around on the Web, there's various thoughts on Sheol, what it is and what it means. One suggestion is that it's purely a place where all creatures -- beast or man -- go. That is, dust to dust. It isn't necessarily a place where souls reside, but merely the word given to the depths of the earth where all dust/remains of the dead end up. Toward the time of Jesus, though, a believe among Jews in resurrection was highly believed and people began seeing Sheol as a "holding area" for those who've passed along and are waiting for the coming. NOTE: It must be mentioned that this is in no way the same concept as purgatory of Catholicism. In Sheol, it was believed, the dead awaited the resurrection whether in torment or in comfort. Either way, it was viewed as a place of abandoned shadows.

I guess I can understand why the idea of Heaven and Jesus as the savior became so heavily touted by folks, especially when considering this view of Sheol. At the same time, what's so wrong with Sheol? If you live a happy, righteous, fulfilling life and Sheol is all you get ... well, so it goes. I guess I prefer to believe in a holding realm where I can live with my content rather than immediate gratification of heaven.

+ The interjection with the story of Judah is curious ... necessary, of course, but curious.

+The commentary regarding Joseph's existence as a successful man and as a man in the house of his Egyptian master is significant, I think. It reads: "Some people are conscious of G-d's presence in their lives only when they are successful. When adversity strikes, they believe G-d has abandoned them," pointing out that Joseph felt G-d's presence in both good times and bad. It's significant because I think this is how about 80 percent of believers view G-d. Of course, it's psychologically understandable. What's the first thing we do when something bad happens to us? We look for someone to blame. "Things don't just happen!" we declare. If it's good, it's because we're being rewarded for being great, of course. If it's bad, then it must be the work of G-d and then we ask "what have I done to deserve this? Was it because I didn't tip my waitress at Denny's? Because I ran over the Feldman's cat last week? Why have you abandoned and punished me!?" I must admit I was that way for a long time -- but damn it feels good to be above and beyond those sentiments and reactions to things that befall me.