A Torah Perspective
When we reflect on Bereishit, some might say that we are looking at a Patriarchal world. A world in which fathers—men—define the family and the tribe. In truth, the Imahot were obviously pivotal in defining the family. Nevertheless, reflecting on this “patriarchal” world is an important opportunity.
Masculinity is an issue modern society struggles with deeply. There are various versions of masculinity, some of which have aroused a movement to denigrate what is known as “toxic masculinity.” In fact, we have come to devalue masculinity as a trait.
Fatherhood itself is derided. When I was growing up with the Berenstain Bears and in my teen years Homer Simpson, the father figure was pretty much a joke. The mother is the one who is “with it”. Maybe Dad knows what he is doing in the office, but at home?!
What does it mean to be masculine or feminine? Our gender is a significant part of who we are. If we have negative associations with what it means to be a man, there is a deep problem with that. And that’s not only a problem for men and boys. It is a problem for all people, men and women alike.
Who Are Our Heroes?
The Torah is the blueprint of the universe and of human life. We need to look deeply into the Torah to understand who we are as men, or as women for that matter.
The Sefer aptly concludes with a final blessing, as Yaakov blesses his twelve sons. This is the continuation of the blessing Yaakov received from his father, and Yitzchak from Avraham. The blessings were meant as a form of spiritual guidance. In the Torah, the father was seen not only as an economic resource, but as a source of spiritual guidance.
We can tell a lot about a people by looking at its heroes. If I were to tell the average American that we have a 3,500-year-old book called the Torah and there is a big hero in there, what would they think? Ancient world, probably a warrior, very strong, maybe one of those alpha males with a whole slew of wives.
One of the great heroes of this book is Yosef. In the blessing Yaakov gave Yosef, we learn a lot about this hero. We glean what Yaakov thought were the most important traits his son embodied.
The Blessing of Yosef
Amazingly enough, Yosef is given the blessing of masculinity. Yaakov says that Yosef is blessed with the blessing “the blessing of breasts and womb”. According to Rashi, this is actually the blessing of becoming a father. Procreating with a wife and bringing your seed into the world in the form of a child.
Of all of the sons, Yosef more has mastered this idea of being a father. Wow, who is this guy? Is he an Alpha male with a harem of wives pushing out babies?
Not exactly. Yaakov told Yosef that he had the strength of the mighty one of Yaakov—his bow was firmly placed. Yosef had a bow—an ability to shoot. But it was withheld at the right times. What is the blessing of a father? It is male strength coupled with the ability to restrain that strength.
From the blessing Yosef is given, we see that he embodies the strength. That strength is the power to restrain yourself. It implies that you are a person of vision who can see the long-term goals. A man who has strength and restraint is a father figure, a spiritual guide that can lead others.
But does restraint mean that he repressed his emotions? According to some versions of masculinity, men are stoic, non-expressive of emotion. What about Yosef? As we read the story, we find many times throughout that he is led to tears.
Tzaddik Yosed Olam
Yosef was resilient. He went through the hardest times. But he also real and honest, expressive of emotion. Not only does he share his tears with the brothers. He shares his real feelings with them on many occasions.
The Zohar identifies one of the central Sefirot as Sod. Sod is associated with sexual energy. Our rabbis teach that Yosef embodies Sod—as it is said, Tzaddik Yesod Olam. Sod is that which is both hidden and central. Sexual energy is extremely central. It is the key to human continuity.
Sexual male energy has to be strong. Here is how a scientist might think of it: Men better have a strong sex drive. How else would cave men procreate after a whole day hunting and fighting for a saber-toothed tiger? They need to have a driving passion for women…
Male sexual energy is a driving force in life. The ability to give love and build family is critical. But it is also critical to withhold this. The defining moment of Yosef’s life was active restraint. As we read about the wife of Potifar:
And she caught him [Yosef] by his garment and said, lie with me. And he left his garment in her hand and he fled and exited outside.(Gen. 39, 12)
Yosef checked his passion at the door, overruled it. This triumph was beyond any normal human capacity. Tzaddik Yesod Olam—he was the defining Tzaddik of the universe.
Yosef ~ Fulfillment of a Vision
Yosef overcame temptation. He had an inner strength and he knew where that strength came from. He was able to direct his strength. In doing so, Yosef was the fulfillment of the vision of the fathers.
A major thing that distinguished the Avot was their sexual morality. So much of Bereishit hinges on how the Avot positioned themselves as sexually moral, in comparison with the corroded world around them.
What is the message of Bereishit? A deep message is that fathers matter. To be a father, you need to be a self-master as you channel your energy in the proper way. If the Avot blazed a path of morality and restraint, Yosef crystalized it.
Look at Our World
Judaism has an example of masculinity that is unique. We need to learn from this example. The recent Daf Yomi Siyum was a major Kiddush HaShem. I also read about some frustration regarding the focus on men in this event. I can appreciate that, and I am fully in support of women learning Talmud and other invigorating areas of Torah.
But whatever your individual perspective, we should all reflect on the fact that Jewish society offers something that the world needs desperately. Our community is promoting a vision of men deeply engaged in this endeavor with the support of their wives.
Whatever you think about that, it is a profound statement. This is a very different view of masculinity. In this view, men struggle to establish deep connection to HaShem. They are encouraged to get themselves out of bed for a Daf Shiur.
And it’s not easy. Men are called upon to engage in an intellectual pursuit which is difficult, complex and exhilarating. It is a completely different view of masculinity. It has little to do with being stoic or emotionally repressive or dominant. It has everything to do with self-mastery.
We Can Self-Master
I started learning Talmud at the age of 19. One man who inspired me was a math professor in Boston. He told me of his days in Russia in the 60s as a refusnik where he “broke his head” for hours every day trying to understand the dialogue of Talmud. There was no Artscroll, and he did this under the threat of imprisonment.
As a Jewish people, we have something very deep to offer. We build a society in which men give in deep ways—physically and spiritually. Men are meant to be spiritual guides, engaged in the word of G-d. This for their benefit and for society’s benefit.
Whether you are a man or a woman raising boys or just thinking about what kind of world you want to live in, consider this. Judaism has a different view. It is a strong and empowering view of men and all people. May we have our bow firmly placed and draw strength from the mighty G-d of Yaakov.