The Man from Dothan
In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there is a brief but indispensable walk-on part played by a figure of whom we learn only that he is “from Dothan.” He guides young Joseph to Dothan where he will find his ten elder brothers.
Joseph will be wearing the coat of many colors given him by his father – a garment that will remind his envious brothers that he is his father’s favorite.
- The brothers will throw him into a pit, then sell him to Midianite merchants.
- The Midianites will sell him to an Egyptian aristocrat, Potiphar.
- In Potiphar’s house, Joseph will rise to the position of overseer, where he will attract the notice of Potiphar’s wife.
- Failing to seduce him, she will falsely accuse Joseph of rape, for which – though innocent — he will be sent to prison.
- In prison, he will meet two men accused of attempts on the life of Pharaoh. They tell him their precognitive dreams, which he will interpret correctly.
- When Pharaoh has troubling dreams, the exonerated ex-prisoner recommends Joseph as dream interpreter.
- When Joseph correctly deciphers Pharaoh’s dreams, he is rewarded with the highest administrative post in Egypt.
- When the years of famine foreseen in Pharaoh’s dream come to pass, Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt to buy provisions.
- After some subtle interplay on the theme of recognition and accountability, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and the Israelites accept his invitation to resettle on the outskirts of Egypt.
- When Joseph has died and been forgotten, the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years.
- God intervenes to deliver them from Egypt, takes them under the leadership of Moses to the foot of Mount Sinai, gives them the Ten Commandments and invites them to partner with Him in history.
- They agree to accept God’s offer.
Nota bene: Without the man from Dothan, none of this could have happened. So one has to keep a lookout for the man from Dothan.
Take my own case. Since my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, died, I‘ve been aware of a responsibility to make his unique presence more known. There are boxes of his journals, letters and unpublished manuscripts sitting atop the row of file cabinets in my office. They are silent reminders.
Getting the boxes into my hands required a dismaying legal struggle, though my father’s will was quite clear in giving me access to them. Those who helped in that struggle, writing letters on my behalf, must have been puzzled not to see the intellectual memoir of my father appear, since writing it had been my purpose in seeking their help. The truth was that, several times, I had begun to write such a book and failed, each time, to see how to do it.
He was brilliant. He was incandescent. He was elusive. I simply could not get a handle on these materials. Eventually, they would be archived. There was no point in my bringing them out sooner if I could not do it in the right way.
In the Columbia class of 1925, which included some extremely bright young men who went on to influence American opinions and attitudes in the twentieth century, Henry M. Rosenthal had been judged by his classmates to have been their “genius.” One of those classmates, who had been, in his day, a cultural celebrity, said at my father’s memorial,
“All of us made compromises.
Henry never did.”
To the people, students and friends, who were influenced by him, he was unforgettable. A former student, herself a distinguished philosopher who knew the top figures in the field, wrote us that Henry M. Rosenthal had, for her,
“an intelligence that I for one will never see again.”
Just this week, the roadblocks have begun to roll to the side of the road. A celebrated writer of my acquaintance wrote me that she had been reading an advance copy of the correspondence of Lionel Trilling, the literary critic. Trilling was among the most renowned of the public intellectuals who had been my father’s classmates. He identified my father as “the closest friend” of his youth. To the surprise of the writer (who’d been a student of Trilling), the letters of my father and mother were the most vital and interesting part of this correspondence! One of its themes is my father’s intense sense of the Jewish vocation, and Trilling’s aversion to being identified in those terms. She urged me to go back to the memoir of my father and take it up again.
Of course, many other projects drum on the window for my attention. But perhaps time expands to make room for the assignments that need time. Anyway, strongly urged by the writer, I picked up the earliest of my father’s journals to see whether, by now, it might have become clearer to me how to approach it.
As I began to read Journal # 1, for the first time I saw what was going on with my father: the struggle between his intense transparency to God and the anti-spiritual carapace of modernity that the gifted youth of his generation felt they had to wear. The brittle shield of modernity! And — beyond modernity but perhaps nearer to truth –- the great fear that went with Jewish existence, almost from its beginnings.
If we recall the scene at the foot of Mount Sinai, the great fear is the negative of that picture. The negative goes with the picture. Any people who had contracted that covenant with God, to live the Ur-story behind all stories, would attract the most violent and continuous of hatreds. It goes with the territory.
His celebrated Jewish classmates affected plummy accents and convoluted “English” perceptivity. My father affected nothing, wore not one mask, and fully felt the fear. To feel it, and understand its sources was realistic — was masculine — was authentic. But it was not marketable. It was not the stuff of brilliant careers.
The writer who urged me to get back to the memoir of my father because, she thought, he might live when all the “hollow impersonators” would be forgotten, has played the part, for me, of
a directive from Dothan.