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Parshat Vaeshev: Yaakov, Yosef and Liminal Space

A father and a son. Two narratives. Two cases of complex identity development. One parallel narrative of liminal space. One occurs in last weeks Parsha one in this weeks.

Yosef has been sent by his father to visit his brothers. Those very same brothers that hate him. Yaakov has been sent by God to return to the land and face his nemesis, Eisav – the brother that hates him and seeks his death.

Yosef meets a strange איש man in the שדה field on his way. He is lost, he is unsure of his path. Yaakov too meets a stranger a איש- man, on his journey. The man guides Yosef and directs him to his brothers. In doing so he directs him to a new fate, a new life. No longer will he be Yosef, the favoured son and bearer of the coat of stripes. Instead, he will suddenly be ripped apart, identity shattered. He will move from the innocence of youth to the complexity of adulthood. Yaakov’s identity is also challenged and formed in his encounter with the איש. He too moves from Yaakov – איש תם יושב אוהלים the innocent tent dweller to ישראל - a person destined to struggle with man and God.

Both events are central to the formation of central character. Both events share hermeneutical parallels. In the case of Yosef we are told: אִ֔ישׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה תֹעֶ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה – the man was wondering in the field – the שדה is deeply reminiscent of the Yaakov’s moment of deceit – when he adopts the identity of Eisav – the איש שדה. He asks the man where his brothers are הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א לִ֔י – again we are reminded of the repetitive words from Yaakov’s narrative with the איש when he asks him his name - הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ as well as the famous biblical prohibition of eating the sinew the אֶת־גִּ֣יד הַנָּשֶׁ֗הthe same words as expressed by both Yosef and Yaakov. In both cases they are crossing territorial boundaries – one between cities (Yosef) and one between countries (Yaakov). The גיד הנשה represents the ‘in-between’ space in the body paralleling the fact that both events take place in an ‘in-between’ space – the ‘שדה’ and the ‘נחל’ – the field and the river.

The idea of liminal space was originally coined by Van Gennep in his book in his 1909 book ‘Rites of Passage’ in which he studies the ceremonies of transition in different cultures. He describes a three-part process of separation, transition, and incorporation toward social regeneration. Recently the concept has been developed beyond and has become a popular in articulating the prospect of endless possibilities that lie at the heart of undefined spheres. Liminal space can be territorial – the space between two geographic locations – or two spaces – like a corridor or threshold (much like the wilderness was for the Jewish people between Egypt and Israel). It can be a rite of passage between two moments in our lives – for example brit milah or bar/batmitzvah. There are also liminal characters in our tradition – like Eliyahu for example. Liminality is a space in which we search for new forms and structures of self identity or meaning.

The parallel we see between these narratives of father and son take place in a liminal space; In an undefined place between two locations, two realties. This liminal space holds the possibility of character transformation for both individuals. For many years Yaakov has been grappling with his identity – who is he? Yaakov (on the heel – behind) or Eisav – the hunter, deceiver? Can one self contain two identities? As he is about to face his past Yaakov enters a non-place – a place the defies definition, defies context and is shrouded in mystery and chaos. It there that his new identity is born, it is there he becomes Yisrael. At the יבוק he – יעקב is as the two words suggest turned ‘inside-out’ and given a new identity. The new name – ישראל - possessing the compleixty of his make up – he is at once ישר - straight/honest and ישראל – frought/struggling. All of us bear the burden of our past and the complexity of multiple identities. The challenge is to move past the point of liminality towards structure and meaning even if we must leave behind the simplicity of what came before.

The point of liminality plays an altogether different role in the case of Yosef. Nechama Leibowitz explains it in the following way: (Genesis p396)

“This dialogue is inserted between two worlds, between the quiet and tranquil world of Joseph at home, shielded and spoilt by his father and the stormy, troubled run of a world that was his, after he met his brothers.”

Yaakov is journeying towards his home, his final destination, Yosef is journeying away from home, his first destination. Whilst Yaakov’s encounter is a search for integration after his earlier experience of rupture, Yosef’s encounter is an invitation for rupture so that he can exit the simplicity and self-absorbed temperament of youth. Joseph is still the ‘ish tam yoshev ohalim’. He is the golden boy born with the silver spoon in his mouth. The coat given to him by his father has initiated sentiments of grandeur and hierarchy over his brother. Joseph is, as Rashi aptly describes a ‘naar’, a child who has yet to undergo, as Donald Winnicott terms it, the maturational process in which we become conscious of our true and false self. In this sense he has to meet the ‘ish’, go to his brothers, be thrown in a pit and be estranged from family and self in order to truly become the ‘man’ he is destined to be. Yaakov on the contrary needs to complete the final process in his self developemnet – to find a way of integreating opposing identities and come out ‘shalem’ – the motifs in the narrative hint at this – the intertwining ויאבק of yaakov and his opponant (see Rashi 32:25), .

Liminal periods or spaces can make us feel extremely uncomfortable, suffused by a sense of disequilibrium, loss and chaos they pose danger. However, they equally hold the potential for renewal, creativity and new vistas. In both of our narratives liminal space acts as an opportunity for identity development, each in its own way. For Jacob it is the end of the process that culminates in integration, for Joseph it is the start of the process of disintegration eventually culminating in the creation of a leader, someone who is so sure of himself and his identity that he succeeds at eventually creating a path for his brothers to transform too. Much like in Van Geppen theory, Yaakov and Yosef go through a three fold process of separation, transition, and incorporation.

In the last few months we have undergone a shattering on many levels. In many ways war, tragedy, an unprecedented event of cataclysmic proportions, has forced us to enter a type of liminal space. This space can be daunting and make us feel vulnerable and fearful. But in many instances, liminal space/periods provide a catalyst for transformation, for maturity and a higher level of self-realisation. Sometimes the disorientation we feel, the space of the unknown, can be the very thing we need to grow and become who we need to be. My prayer is that this unbearable reality we are all experiencing, will be a liminal space from which will emerge stronger and more resilient, with a greater unified national identity.

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