Parashat Miketz / Lessons From Villains

The two things that Moses gave us in the Torah are really one and the same, but we learn them from two different passages: Although mortals can closely resemble God, there will always be a tiny hierarchical gap between them.

When Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, the ruler of Egypt, impressed by the young man’s wisdom, informs him: “Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than thou” (Genesis 41:40). With regard to this verse, Resh Lakish provides a homily that appears in the midrashic text Bereisheet Rabbah.

“Resh Lakish said: Moses gave us two things in the Torah and we learn them from a passage about a villain. It is written [about the Children of Israel]: ‘thou shalt be above.’ Is God saying to the Children of Israel, ‘You will be on the same level as me’? No, because the Torah adds the word ‘only’ [‘thou shalt be above only’]. My greatness is on a higher level than yours. And we learn this point from a passage about a villain. It is written: ‘Thou shalt be over my house.’

“Is Pharaoh saying to Joseph, ‘You will be on the same level as me’? No, because the Torah adds the word ‘only’ [‘only the throne will I make greater than thou’]. My greatness is on a higher level than yours. It is written: ‘Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy.’ Is God saying to the Children of Israel, ‘You will be on the same level as me’? No, because the Torah adds, ‘for I the Lord your God am holy.’ My holiness is on a higher level than yours.

“And we learn this point from a passage about a villain. It is written: ‘And Pharaoh said unto Joseph: “I am Pharaoh” [Gen. 41:44].’ Is Pharaoh saying to Joseph, ‘You will be on the same level as me’? No, because the Torah adds the words ‘I am Pharaoh.’ My greatness is on a higher level than yours” (Bereisheet Rabbah 90:2).

The two things that Moses gave us in the Torah are really one and the same thing, but we learn them from two different passages. They essentially embody a theological rule: Although mortals can closely resemble God, there will always be a tiny hierarchical gap between them and the Almighty. He is supreme, and mortals can thus occupy only a secondary position vis-à-vis God.

In Deuteronomy, God promises Israel, “And the Lord will make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath” (Deut. 28:13). Had it been written, “and thou shalt be above,” it might have been understood that God is promising his people that they will have the same status as he does. However, as mentioned, the Torah adds “only,” and that word signifies a certain diminution in Israel’s greatness. Thus, God is saying: “You will above only – that is, you will not be quite as great as I am because my greatness is on a higher level than yours.”

The same conclusion is reached with regard to the passage in Leviticus where God commands Moses to inform the nation, “Ye shall be holy” (Lev. 19:2). It could have been understood from these words that Israel can reach God’s level of holiness and is even commanded to do so. However, the emphasis at the end of the verse, “for I the Lord your God am holy,” clarifies that God’s holy status will remain unchanged and that, while commanded to resemble him, Israel cannot reach the divine level of holiness.

Moses makes these two points crystal clear in the Torah, argues Resh Lakish, although we learn them from the passage involving Pharaoh. In giving Joseph powers that are very similar to his, Pharaoh qualifies this allocation of authority with the comment, “only the throne will I make greater than thou.” Similarly, God makes it clear that he will always have a higher status than mortals.

Resh Lakish uses this same unusual interpretive method with regard to other evildoers in the Torah: “It is written, ‘And Hamor spoke with them, saying’ [Gen. 34:8], Resh Lakish said: God declares his love for Israel with three different expressions: devotion, passion and desire. With regard to devotion, it is written, ‘But ye that did cleave [unto the Lord your God]’ [Deut. 4:4]. With regard to passion, it is written, ‘The Lord did not set his love upon you because ye were more in number than any people’ [Deut. 7:7]. And with regard to desire, it is written, ‘And all nations shall call you happy; for ye shall be a delightsome land’ [Malachi 3:12].

“We learn these things from a passage about a villain. With regard to devotion, it is written, ‘And his [Shechem’s] soul did cleave [unto Dinah]’ [Gen. 34:3]. With regard to passion, it is written, ‘The soul of my son Shechem longeth [for your daughter]’ [Gen. 34:8]. And with regard to desire, it is written, ‘because he [Shechem] had delight in [or, wanted] Jacob’s daughter’ [Gen. 34:19]” (Bereisheet Rabbah 80:7).

The three expressions of God’s love for Israel also appear in the passage concerning a miscreant, Shechem, son of Hamor, who rapes Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, and then wants to marry her. If we take these three expressions of love out of the context of the story of Shechem and Dinah, isolate them and place them in a theological context – they will have the same meaning as Moses’ and God’s declarations concerning the Almighty’s love for Israel.

In drawing this parallel, Resh Lakish is defining his position and ours as readers and interpreters who are a mirror of the biblical text. In those roles, we can see a parallel between those declarations, and what is stated with regard to two villains in the Torah: Shechem and Pharaoh.

The imparting of theological meaning to passages concerning evildoers is not an act of desperation. Moses makes it very clear that mortals can never reach God’s level of greatness, and God himself openly declares the three ways in which he seeks to express his love for Israel. Nonetheless, Resh Lakish decides to deduce these two points from passages dealing with villains. This is an ethical exegetical choice that has broad interpretive implications for the entire biblical text.

Resh Lakish presents a picture of the biblical text that is similar to Maimonides’ view; it is a picture with clearly allegorical features, in which Resh Lakish draws parallels between the concepts of power and love as expressed in the words of Moses and God, and those same concepts as they appear in passages concerning villains. For Resh Lakish, these concepts are absolute and abstract, irrespective of the particular context in which they appear.

Despite his allegorical interpretation of the passages concerning Shechem and Pharaoh, Resh Lakish does not for one moment forget that they are miscreants, and he deliberately reminds the reader of their malicious character. Nonetheless, in choosing passages involving such nefarious personalities, Resh Lakish sees a certain symmetry between God and Pharaoh and between God and Hamor, son of Shechem.

According to Resh Lakish, monarchical rule assumes a single character, whether it is in the hands of Pharoah or in the hands of God. And, similarly, love has a single nature – whether the Bible is presenting the various ways in which Hamor feels and expresses his love for Dinah, or whether it is describing the various ways in which God expresses his love for his people.