It can be really difficult to be exceptional, even “exceptional” in a positive sense. Case in point: Joseph, whose story we read over the next four weeks.
Jacob has settled down with his family in Canaan. Joseph, now 17, is his favorite son. He is good-looking, bright, capable, and a son of his beloved Rachel (the son that didn’t cause her death). He favors Joseph even though he himself suffered the consequences of paternal favoritism, maybe telling himself, well, Isaac was wrong to favor Esau, but Joseph is obviously special, so he needs special attention. Jacob begins to groom Joseph, which includes giving him the infamous coat as a designation of future family leadership (the translation of ketonet passim is not necessarily a coat that is multicolored, but perhaps full-length with long sleeves or maybe embroidered).
Then Joseph starts have dreams of personal greatness (sun, moon and stars in one dream, sheaves of wheat), which don’t need much expertise to figure out they describe the family bowing down to him. The jealousy of the brothers explodes into murderous fury, and when Joseph is sent out to them alone, they tear off his coat and throw him into a pit. But they have no plan, having acted on impulse. It’s not clear exactly what happens to Joseph next, except that Reuben fails to rescue him and Judah suggests that they sell Joseph instead of killing him. After they sell him, they lead Jacob to conclude his favorite boy was torn apart by wild beasts.
[Interwoven with the Joseph saga are tales of Judah, since he’s going to become the real leader of the family and the ancestor of King David. This week, some time after recommending the brothers make a profit while getting rid of Joseph, Judah’s twice-widowed daughter-in-law Tamar tricks him into impregnating her after he refuses to give her his third son to fulfill his levirate duty.]
Joseph is probably sold to more than one caravan; the narrative is unclear. Finally, in Egypt, he is sold as a slave to Potiphar, a courtier. Joseph distinguishes himself and is given more responsibility and trust. Then Potiphar’s wife keeps trying and failing to seduce him (Biblical workplace sexual harassment), finally accusing him of rape, which lands him in prison. Once again, in prison, he stands out. He is put in charge of the other prisoners (40:22-23). Then he accurately interprets the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the royal baker and royal wine steward, to mean that the former will hang, and the latter will be returned to court. Joseph asks the wine steward to speak up for him to free him, but the steward doesn’t.
The rabbis tend to gush about Joseph, calling him “Joseph the Righteous.” Over the years, I’ve described him as a spoiled, self-centered teenager; a teenager who is totally clueless concerning people’s emotions; an opportunist; and an ambitious, manipulative manager. But I hadn’t really thought about him as someone who is both hailed as truly outstanding and perennially outside the society that lauds him.
He is indeed exceptional, and that leads to rewards and isolation. His father favors him, but he is fatally estranged from his brothers. His work for Potiphar is exemplary, but he is harassed by Potiphar’s wife and specifically resented as a Hebrew slave (39:14). His behavior in prison is, again, exceptional, as are his dream interpretations, but the wine steward forgets him, so he languishes in prison. Throughout the rest of his life, Joseph will continue to be exceptional and to be both richly rewarded and emotionally isolated.
Chanukah starts Sunday night. More on that next week. For now: Chanukah (however you choose to spell it) marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the Jews, led by the Hasmonean family, defeated the Syrian Greeks (Selucid Empire) who had been forcing the Jews to adopt Greek ways. The holiday is 8 days long, probably because it was a postponed celebration of the fall holiday, Sukkot. The oil “miracle” is a nice story made up by the rabbis to avoid celebrating a military win, especially by the Hasmoneans. But the oil story means we eat fried foods like potato latkes and jelly doughnuts (sufganiot).
From Good Clean Jokes (A, Kostick et al., 1998) p. 314
Teacher: You have ten older brothers?
Teacher: Does your mom holler at you a lot?
Mark: Nope. By the time she finishes hollering at my brothers and gets to me she usually has laryngitis.
Quotes about the Exceptional
The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely. Lorraine Hansberry
What characterizes a member of a minority group is that he is forced to see himself as both exceptional and insignificant, marvelous and awful, good and evil. Norman Mailer
Little islands of human happiness, peace, and prosperity are so exceptional at this point in history that I’m not even sure we can draw lessons from them. P. J. O’Rourke
From Three Women a radio play by Sylvia Plath
I shall meditate upon normality.
I shall meditate upon my little son.
I do not will him to be exceptional.
It is the exception that interests the devil.
It is the exception that climbs the sorrowful hill
Or sits in the desert and hurts his mother’s heart.
Admiring the Christmas trees displayed in his neighbour’s windows one year, Nathan asks his father, “Daddy, can we have a Hanukkah Tree?”
“What? No, of course not,” answers his father.
“Why not?” asks Nathan.
Bewildered, his father replies, “Well, Nathan, because the last time we had dealings with a lighted bush, we spent 40 years in the wilderness.”