The Killing Fields – Parshat Vayeishev

“Do not go out into the field. Do not walk the road. For the enemy has a sword, and there is terror on every side.” – Jeremiah 6:25

 אַל תֵּצְאוּ  הַשָּׂדֶה, וּבַדֶּרֶךְ אַל תֵּלֵכוּ:  כִּי חֶרֶב לְאֹיֵב, מָגוֹר מִסָּבִיב.

Ah, if only Joseph had heard the words of the prophet, perhaps he could have avoided all the pain and misery that is to come.

We are heading into Joseph’s story – and it is a long and tortured one. He is sold by his brothers into slavery, after they barely decide not to kill him. He is framed for a crime by his new master’s wife, and sent off to rot in prison for two years. And though he makes it out eventually (and even rises to power) he does not return to his homeland, but remains estranged from his family for twenty-two years.

And at this moment, Joseph is heading right into all of this disaster. His father has sent him to meet up with his brothers, who are working in Shechem. But he seems to be having some trouble getting there:

When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the field. (Genesis 36:14-15)

 וַיָּבֹא שְׁכֶמָהוַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁוְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה

The Hebrew verb here – to’eh – is not walking, but wandering. He seems to be meandering about, aimlessly. Is he lost? Or is he simply daydreaming, like the dreamy teenager he is, unaware of the tensions in his family, and the danger that lies ahead.

Joseph should have heeded Jeremiah’s ominous warnings:

Do not go out into the field! There is terror on every side! 

But of course, those words came much too late. For Jeremiah lived over a thousand years after Joseph. Whatever Jeremiah has learned or intuited about the dangers of wandering in the field, Joseph could never have known.

Or could he?

The great Kli Yakar, of 16th-century Prague, seems to think so. He points out, that the word for ‘wandering’ – to’eh (תעה) – is a homophone for the word for ‘making a mistake’ – to’eh (טעה), and suggests that this is a hint to us. Joseph, he says, is not just wandering in the field; he is making a mistake about the field. And not just any field:

He made a mistake regarding the field of Cain and Abel. For Joseph should have payed attention to what happened to Abel, and known that because of jealousy, a man will kill his own brother.

טעה בענין השדההנאמר בקין והבל כי יוסף היה לו לשום אל לבו מה שקרה להבל עם קין שמצד הקנאה הרג איש את אחיו

It is true, the first story of brothers in the Torah ends in violence. It is also true that that first murder took place in a field:

When they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. (Gen. 4:8)

וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶהוַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶלהֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ.

So, the Kli Yakar suggests, when Joseph was wandering through the field, he should have remembered the story of that other field. He should have suddenly realized that he was in danger – that the field is the place where brothers kill brothers.

But really, isn’t that just a coincidence? It is just a place, and a common enough one at that. Is “the field” really the connecting factor between these two tales?

Maybe so, actually. Because back in the Cain and Abel story, when God asks Cain what he has done to his brother, and Cain famously replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God says an interesting – and frightening – thing:

What have you done?! The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. (Gen. 4:10)

וַיֹּאמֶרמֶה עָשִׂיתָקוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָצֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִןהָאֲדָמָה.

A harrowing image: the ground has soaked up the blood of the murdered brother, and that blood itself is screaming out in agony. The field now has a voice. God can hear it.

Maybe Joseph should have heard it, too; not literally heard a voice, that is, but he should have paid attention, and understood from history that brothers in every generation have been at each other’s throats. Cain killed Abel. Ishmael was cast out of the house because he was a threat to Isaac. And Esau wanted to kill Jacob – Joseph’s own father.

This cycle of violence has long been in his family. So Joseph should have known, says the Kli Yakar. He should have seen the field and remembered the story of Cain and Abel, and all the other brotherly feuds that followed.

But perhaps Jacob never told him these stories. Jacob, after all, has been playing right into the kind of jealousy that leads to sibling rivalry: openly favoring Joseph above his brothers, and designating him as the chosen son with the special gift of a multicolored coat. Jacob seems to be willfully oblivious to the lessons of his own experience.

But at least Jacob should have known better than to send his son out into the fields. For Jacob must have known about the kind of violence that lurks out there. He, most of all, would have been particularly aware of this danger – because his sibling rival, Esau, is first introduced to us as ‘ish sadeh’ (איש שדה), “a Man of the Field.”(Gen 25:27) So Jacob knew that murder awaited him in the field. How could he not see it about to happen to Joseph?

But we never learn. History repeats itself, and we keep forgetting. Even when the exact same thing happens in the exact same place at the hands of the exact same perpetrators. Even when we are heading out into the same blood-soaked fields.

This repetition brings us to one final question: Why does the Torah keep using “the field” as the setting for all of this bloodshed? Well, one reason is fairly straightforward. The fields were isolated places, perfect settings for violence to take place undetected.  In fact, the Book of Deuteronomy will later warn of cases of rape that take place specifically “in the field,” and point out grimly that, “though she cry for help, there is no one there to save her.” (22:25)

A more symbolic meaning to the field, however, is suggested by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, in his commentary on the parsha, Eish Kodesh, as he artfully links the use of “the field” in several contexts in Genesis:

When, God Forbid, the sorrows of Israel begin to strengthen and increase, and everyone is broken and shattered, then it is like [what Joseph says to his brothers about his dream:] “There we were binding sheaves in the field…” (Gen 37:7) For a field represents the place where all of the work of Israel comes and must be fixed. This is why [when Esau comes in to his father after his blessing has been stolen, Isaac smells,] “The scent of the field.” (Gen. 27:27)

כשח׳׳ו מוסיפים הצרות של ישראל להתחזק וכ׳׳א יותר נשבר ורצוץאז הוא בחי׳ והנה אנחנו מאלמים אלומים בתוך השדהשדהנודע היא הבחי׳ שכל עבודה של ישראל מגיע לה ומתקנהבחי׳ כריח שדה

The field is the place where work must be done – both literally and spiritually. And there is much work yet to be done here in this family. There is a history of pain and conflict buried in this field that has yet to be unearthed, sifted through, and replanted. Indeed, the story of Joseph and his brothers is the longest continuous narrative in Genesis, and it will take until the end of this book to finally break the cycle of hatred and reunite this family.

This is a family, after all, that has lived, from its first pair of brothers on down, under the threat of violence. Rabbi Shapira, writing in the midst of the Holocaust, understood the threat of violence all too well. And we, standing now in the 21st-century, are still reckoning with hatred and violence. And our brothers are still being struck down – if not in the field, then in the other place Jeremiah warned us about: the road.

There is still so much work to be done. And blood still cries out to us from the ground.

About Rabbi David Kasher

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