This week witnesses the most dramatic turnaround possible in the fortunes of Joseph. In a matter of moments he is transformed from forgotten prisoner, destined to spend the rest of his life rotting in jail for a crime he never committed, to the King’s right hand man, and national hero. Included in the tale of this meteoric rise from ‘rags to riches’ is the somewhat glossed over story of Joseph’s marriage. Yet the story behind the identity of Joseph’s wife contains lessons which are fundamental to Jewish philosophy - our understanding of G-d and the way He interacts with the world in which we live. The Torah explains that Joseph, having been appointed prime minister, married
The Talmud relates that Leah, recognising that Rachel would be unable to play her true role in Jewish history if she could not provide two of the tribes, prayed that she give birth to a girl and not the head of the 11th tribe.
Miraculously G-d changed the foetus from male to female. Leah than had a daughter, Dina. Leah’s self-sacrifice cannot be overestimated. The chance to mother another of the foundation stones of the Jewish people was an unbelievable opportunity, and an achievement whose spiritual greatness cannot be truly appreciated. Leah was fully aware of this. In fact it was due to her recognition of this that she prayed for Rachel to be given the honour. Indeed Rachel went on to mother Joseph and Binyamin. The life of Dinah was not trouble free. In fact she was kidnapped and raped by Shechem. She fell pregnant and bore a daughter. Eventually Yaakov, under pressure from his sons, insisted that this daughter leave the family home. She left with an amulet that Yaakov gave her to assist her on her dangerous journey. Eventually she arrived in Egypt where she was adopted by none other than the aforementioned Poti-phera and his wife. This adopted daughter was of course Asnas. But how did Joseph meet her and why did he marry her? Joseph was, as mentioned, a national hero. He was particularly adored for his good looks. In fact when he would travel the country the local women would scale walls to get a glimpse of their hero. They would throw things at him just to get his attention. Asnas, the medrash explains, didn’t have anything to throw at Joseph and threw the Kamaya that she had been given by Yaakov. Joseph caught this Kamaya and immediately recognised it as indicating that Asnas came from the family of Yaakov. He then knew she was an appropriate wife and married her.
The story continues… Joseph and Asnas had two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. When Yaakov is eventually reunited with Joseph he announces that Ephraim and Menashe will receive a unique status among Yaakov’s grandsons – they will have a status equal to that of the other tribes of the Jewish people. So Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph and Asnas, end up on par with Yaakov’s sons in terms of their centrality as ‘founding fathers’ of the Jewish people. In short – Leah sacrifices her right to mother a 7th tribe, preferring to allow her sister the opportunity to do so instead. As a result she has a daughter, Dina, who in turn gives birth to a daughter Asnas in rather tragic circumstances. Amazingly Asnas ends up in Egypt where Joseph somehow happens upon her existence as a grand-daughter of Yaakov and marries her. The resultant children, Ephraim and Menashe, end up with the status of being among the tribes of Israel even though they are only Yaakov’s grandchildren. Amazingly, Leah ends up with two more offspring (great grandsons) as heads of tribes all because she made the original decision to forgo the right to mother a 7th tribe for the benefit of Rachel. This is an example of a central philosophical concept in Judaism in terms of our understanding of G-d and His creation i.e. the world around us – justice dictates that each of our actions, whether for good or bad, create a reality which expresses itself measure for measure. Leah gave up so much for Rachel. Justice dictated that she deserved to be rewarded with the very thing she sacrificed to do the right thing. This concept is a necessary truth. It is not just that a symmetrical world seems more fair or easy to relate to. It cannot be that a just world created and run by a just G-d can operate in any other way. At times it is hard to see this truth express itself.
However, the story of Leah and Asnas is a perfect example – for many years it seemed as though Leah’s righteousness only resulted in hardship and suffering. She must have suffered immensely to see the fate of Dina and then Asnas. At no point could she have ever anticipated the eventual outcome. Yet ultimately she received ‘payment’ measure for measure in the most remarkable way. And when she did, it was perfect justice. As this story of Leah demonstrates, eventually G-d’s justice is realized in the most perfect way.