Friday, December 22, 2006

Miketz and Midoth

Character traits are tools. We are meant to use each one at the appropriate time. Sometimes, we must use anger and hate, other times, love and patience. The key is to know when to use each one, and to what extent. This lesson is taught both in Miketz and the holiday of Chanuka.

The midrash twice comments on Yosef's vanity in his younger years. Before his sale into Egypt, and again when he becomes the head servant in Potifar's household, we are presented with a slightly egotistical youth, curling his hair and paying undue attention to his appearance. Indeed, again, at the beginning of this week's portion, we find Yosef shaving and changing his garments for his meeting with the king of Egypt.

Rashi takes the time to point out that Yosef did this 'for the honor of the king's majesty'. Is this not clear from the context of the plot?

I suggest that Rashi points this out in order to make it perfectly clear that this time, Yosef's apparent vanity is commendable, and not a narcissistic act. The trait of vanity should be used for the honor of others. We are told by the halacha to dress in a respectable manner, with no tears or stains in our clothing. This is not for our own honor, but for the honor of Torah, God and the Jewish nation we represent, as well as for the basic honor of everyone we encounter (כבוד הבריות). When used in this way, vanity is a positive force. However, it can quickly degenerate from this ideal to personal honor and vanity. Therefore, it is particularly dangerous, and must be used with caution.

The Hasmoneans began their war and their dynasty for the honor of Israel, and with zealousness for God's name which was being profaned. This was commendable, and indeed, the Maccabees were wildly successful. However, their dynasty refused to hand over the kingdom to the tribe of Judea, as they should have. Because of this, their kingdom eventually came to be considered a bad force in Judaism. This is the reason that Chanuka did not merit its own tractate in the Talmud.

The character traits of קנאה and כבוד, zeal and honor, are ones which, when used correctly, are essential at certain points in national and individual lives. However, they can easily become abused and may end up destroying the very things they originally were to protect.

Rabbi Kook explains that the 'good' character traits, such as love, compassion, patience and kindness, must become part of our very being. True, there are certain times we need to supress them. However, the suppression of these midoth should be against our natural tendencies. We should feel uncomfortable the whole time we suppress them. In contrast, the 'bad' midoth should never become part of our natural state of being. Rather, they should remain in our toolbox of traits, to be dusted off and used only when absolutely necessary. All the while we utilize them, we should feel a foreign attribute in our actions.

May we internalize the good, and keep the bad at hand for its time of need, and may we look to the Torah for direction as we tread the path to the redemption.

(27 Kislev, 5769: Revisiting this issue, my chevrusa and I discussed the ethical in light of the Torah. Our discussion concluded that perhaps an individual halacha, such as Amalek could not be used in isolation to teach the ethics of the Torah, for it is a product not of a purely ethical form or category, but a result of various competing ethics and considerations. For example, the act of torture may be morally reprehensible. However, when used to urge a terrorist to reveal the location of a ticking time bomb, the overall ethical thing to do is to use torture. Some actions should define us (being kind, being peaceful), and are inherently ethical, while other actions, though sometimes employed, do not define our ethic, and only receive the nod of approval because of surrounding considerations. Thus, while an individual halacha may not define morality, the totality of halachot and hashkafa do, and provide a framework and set of rules to, with all the complexities of life, choose the best possible course of action when none may always be perfect. אשת יפת תואר and עמלק are thus not necessarily so different. They are both the best course of action for imperfect situations.)