Parshat Vayigash (2012)
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Who is afraid of the big, bad wolf known as Satan?
Sometimes I wonder what people believe in more sometimes, G-d or “the devil.” No honestly, when I hear Bible-beaters talk sometimes I almost hear in their voice a fearful conviction and reverence for Satan that is on par, if not greater, than their belief in G-d. This is a mentality I find confusing, and wholly illogical.
Not that I don’t hear religious Jews bring up the topic of “haSatan / the Satan” from time to time. But rarely does this conversation come up. And even when it does it is raised almost ironically. Example, once during a disagreement between two old men who had tangled with each other over some charged opinion it ended with one of them telling the other to “go to the devil.” We all kind of laughed and shrugged it off as hotheaded speak. It was no less dramatic than someone telling another to “go to hell,” as that’s another topic that we don’t necessarily talk about much; the reason is both “hell” and “the devil” are concepts that we don’t put a whole lot of stock into as Jews.
Though from time to time we do have these ideas raised in our tradition. We find both of these topics brought up here in this weeks parsha. When Benyamin, the youngest son of Yaakov Avinu – Jacob our Father, also named Israel – was about to be taken down to Egypt at the request of the concealed Yosef, who was the lieutenant in charge of the Egypt, we find find Yaakov lament in this way:
“Lekach’tem gam et zeh me’im panei vakarahu ason vehoradaetem et seivati bera’ah she’olah/ Now if you take this one away from me also, and harm fall upon him, my gray haired head will go down to my grave in bitter sorrow.” – Genesis 44:29
Having already lost his son Yosef, and then loosing his beloved wife Rachel who mothered him, all he had left was Benyamin who was the second and last remaining person of that line and union. He is so distressed that the text says that if anything harmful comes upon the lad that he will go down into Sheol in terrible grief.
Sheol is a concept that we more often talk about in our tradition. Aside from being present various places throughout the Hebrew scriptures, it is also a readily used form of imagery employed in the poetic books such as Tehillim – the Psalms. We don’t often shrink away from discussing this term, because the majority of the time in the context of the scriptures it is clearly symbolic of “the grave” and nothing more. Only over time and layered under a lot of foreign influence would the term come to be understood more as a concept of “hell” or “gehinnom,” a sort of afterlife purgatory. This imagery seeped into rabbinic literature and debates through the influences of dualistic world views common to the outside world. But for us Jews the term was never so greatly charged as among the gentiles.
But it is actually kind of shocking when among the classical rabbis we hear something about “haSatan.” This is something the standard rabbis present in our Chamush don’t often concern themselves with. But here in the commentary for this text we see even Rashi go out on a limb and discuss the Satan:
“And harm befall him: For the Satan accuses at the time of danger” – Rashi to Genesis 44:29
The fact that we don’t talk about haSatan much doesn’t detract from the reality that we do have a place for this character in our tradition. However it must be stated that us Jews, even the most conservative among us, do not hold by a concept of Satan in the same manner as fundamentalists of other religions.
This might be confusing to some people how we can sidestep such a discussion when this is something clearly talked about in the Tanach itself, most notoriously in the book of Job; and furthermore it manifests in the Chumash, even if only spoken about through inference and never directly. However it is not avoidance of these texts that makes this character such a minor player in our tradition, it is actually careful consideration of these biblical sources that brings us to this conclusion. And understanding the context of these sources also brings us to the understanding of the above commentary by Rashi.
In the Torah references, from the Chumash itself, it is only used in the general sense as a description of a state of action and less as a possible noun. In Numbers 22 we find the only two Mosaic references, in verses 22 and 32 in the middle of the story of Balaam and his talking ass.
“… and the angel of Hashem placed himself in the way as an adversary (l’satan) against him.” – Numbers 22:22
“And the angel of Hashem said to him: ‘For what do you beat your ass these three times. Behold, I have come forth to be an adversary (l’satan), because your way is contrary to me.” – Numbers 22:32
In this text we see clearly that to l’satan means to be an adversary, an opponent, and to stand contrary to another. Most people know this part of the terminology, however somehow read ever the obvious point that is being made here. The “Angel of the L-rd” is said to be the one that is standing here in opposition with his sword against Balaam in verse 22, and then in verse 32 he actually speaks out as a spokesman for G-d Almighty. This might seem curious to some who hold on to complex mythologies of Satan as a counter demi-god to the Almighty.
This is better clarified for us by the text of Job that uses the term Satan as a proper noun and as an apparent name:
“And it happened that on a day that the sons of G-d came to present themselves before Hashem, the Satan (haSatan) also came among them.” – Job 1:6
Here in this text we find a very hard to explain position for the radical fundamentalists to explain away, those who see the Satan as synonymous with concept of “the Devil.” If the text already explored didn’t make it clear who the boss of this spiritual or angelic opponent is, here it directly states that haSatan is summoned among the “sons of G-d,” a biblical term most often used in mystical interpretations as applying to mere angels. As we continue through this chapter and explore the text we see that this character is not profiled as an adversary to G-d. In fact haSatan’s presence and role seems to be ordered by G-d, as one in His employ, bound to answer and act only on the order of the Almighty. The Satan’s role is as an adversary against man, but it can not be credibly posited as so in opposition to G-d and His will.
As we further explore this text the bounds of this role are more revealed to us. G-d asks him to consider His servant Job, and in character haSatan stands as an accuser and opponent, in the role to try to convict the righteous Job; he is the minority and negative report. He lives up to the role “devils advocate” in the literal sense. But Satan as the devil, in the popular sense as understood by the gentile culture, does not jive with a historic or biblical understanding.
I say historic because we must first understand that Job is categorized among the minor prophets, with most of them clearly dating from the late biblical era. Though traditionalists often tend to see Job as an early and ancient book taking place before the Mosaic era, this view is not supported by scholars. The book of Job in both reference and philosophical approach reflects the understanding of a later time. The often cited Sabean context of the book (see Job 1:15) can place this text within either the early biblical period or the late-kingdom era, as this culture and religious manifestation did span a great 1,300 year period. However it is more sensible that this book arose later than sooner.
The reason, aside from basic language and tone, is that this book reflects the attempt to explain for Jews how they can understand a rising influence of dualism among themselves. It is this dualism that is key to understanding what era the book of Job comes from. Dualism was only something that had become to influence Israelites in the wake of the Babylonian and Persian exiles (7th to the 6th century BCE).
Dualism, the idea that good and evil are balanced and contrary to another, is something that Torah true Judaism rejects on all levels as being un-biblical and illogical. Dualism is defined as a “co-eternal binary opposition;” it is a philosophy where good and evil are always in an opposing struggle, where spirit and body are contrary to another, where light and darkness are in constant battle. This ying vs. yang view is something that the Tanach makes great pains to oppose as soon as it is introduced, G-d choosing to quash this mentality by taking issue with it and directing a rebuff of this philosophy to the Emperor Cyrus (Koresh) of Persia. The words of the prophet Isaiah to Cyrus read as follows:
“I am Hashem, and there is nothing else, besides Me there is no G-d; I have girded you, though you have not known Me; that they might know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none besides Me; I am Hashem, there is none else; I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I am Hashem, that does all these things.” – Isaiah 45:5-7
In a striking blow G-d Almighty proclaims that there is nothing else in the entire world, in fact no other deity nor any other power in the universe aside from Him. He stands alone as the One who creates and orders all the happenings of the heavens and earth. The G-d of Israel defies the mentality of the pagans that hold by the conviction that there are gods and autonomous spirits of evil that bring hardship and calamity upon the world.
This text is often passed over in shame by the fundamentalists of many world religions, clearly because it is convicting of an error in their mentality. But for us Jews it is something that is enshrined in the introductory blessing for the Shema – our most holy confession – said every morning before we take up our day. It is unavoidable for us, we cannot shy away from this truth of the holistic approach of spirituality and congruent reverence for G-d. As monotheists logic demands, and the voice of G-d declares, that there is no such thing as demi-gods or counter deities. Logic dictates that the belief in anything aside from the Entirety of G-d as being a compromise of monotheism.
Our faith and His word stands against the errors of Christian philosophy that yet claims that G-d is the One and Only, but then double talks behind accommodations for a devil not just as a fallen angel according to their oral tradition, but the Torah stands contrary their very religious texts that calls their devil (aka Satan) “the god of this world.” (2 Corinthians 4:44) Our scriptures also bear witness against the superstitious among our Muslim brothers who overly reverence “the Sheitan” as one of the Jinn (genies) and live in fear regarding this character. Either G-d is truly Elohim, the sum of all spiritual powers in the universe, or He is not; we cannot have it both ways. Any fragmented view of the spiritual or physical world into domains outside of G-d’s complete will and direction is heretical. Indeed to reverence or fear anything aside from Hashem is idolatry no matter how we qualify it.
As we look at this weeks parsha, and as we further explore the rabbinic interpretation for this text, we should not be troubled as we see the rare reference to haSatan made. We are not at all suggesting that there is a devil out on the prowl to get us, with the authority to act against us. We need to calm our souls and look at the text in context of a truly biblical world-view.
Instead the Torah here is revealing a different truth to us, pointing out the actual purpose of haSatan, not as a fearful or omnipresent devil stalking us in order to bring harm upon us, but as a merely finite tool in the charge of the Almighty. The Satan is the negativity experienced when we find ourselves in times of danger and harm, the thing that makes the argument that the calamitous situation is befitting us and that we will not be able to rise above the trial of it all in order to stand strong by G-d’s standard of righteousness for our lives and conduct.
Take comfort my friends, that like Job, most often for the people of G-d the claims of this “devils advocate” are merely false and an argument entertained merely for the purpose of proving unequivocally and through actual life example that we are truly righteous people. Like in the life of Job who was tested so harshly with hardship in health, wealth, family and comfort, we can be found blameless and worthy of all the favor that G-d shows us in this world. It may feel like these misfortunes are taking our souls down to a helpless and dark place, as fearful as the grave. But these trials are merely a mock trial for arguments sake, one that we will surely overcome with the help of The Almighty G-d.