Every three or four years, more or less, we read this week's parashah / Torah reading on the Shabbat preceding New Year's Eve . . . so we are watching the book of Breishit/Genesis come to a close along with the secular year.
It's an evocative combination: A calendar year comes to a close, the first book of Torah comes to a close, the life of a patriarch comes to a close . . .
Like the time leading up to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, this week or so in the secular calendar is a time for both looking back and looking forward. Amidst the unrelenting hype of post-Christmas sales, we are meant to consider the events and actions and relationships of our lives and resolve to do better. Despite the ads by Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, I imagine that these new year's resolutions should go beyond the number of pounds we promise ourselves we'll lose in the next calendar year.
The end of the book of Breishit/Genesis marks the end of a foundational text of the Torah. In Breishit we witness the creation of the world culminating in the creation of humanity and the establishment of the principle of Shabbat. We watch the first bumpy steps in the relationship between God and the most uncontrollable element of creation: curious, vindictive, disobedient, faithful, courageous, loyal, principled . . . people.
At the end of his long and eventful life, Jacob lies on his deathbed surrounded by his family in the closing chapters of Breishit. Jacob metes out judgment. At the end of his life, he reviews not his own behavior and actions, but those of his progeny. Son by son, Jacob evaluates past actions and comment's on that son's character: Reuben is "unstable as water"; Shimon and Levi are "tools of lawlessness . . . cursed be their anger . . . I will scatter them in Israel"; Judah--"the scepter shall not depart from Judah...and the homage of peoples shall be his"; Asher's "bread shall be rich". And like his father, Isaac, delivers a death-bed blessing to a younger son: to Joseph he says "The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills . . . . "
In Israel, New Year's Eve is referred to as "Sylvester", a nod to the non-Jewish roots of the festival. According to the Hebrew version of Wikipedia, the festival of the last night of the year called Sylvester in Israel and in some European countries is associated with Pope Sylvester I ( who served as Pope from 314 to 335) who died during the night of December 31st - January 1st. The date is, thus, a sacred day of remembrance within the Catholic world, and has become an international day of festivity since the Gregorian calendar became the internationally accepted standard with no thematic connection to Pope Sylvester, of course.
A week like this, when we re-watch the death-bed scene of Jacob's and are encouraged to contemplate the consequences of our actions by virtue of the ticking over of another calendar year, we should consider, perhaps, what Jacob did not: the aftermath of his own actions.
When Jacob died, surrounded by his twelve sons (and, one supposes, his daughter, Dina, although she is not mentioned) the Torah reports: "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (50:1) Reuben, Gad, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Shimon, Levi, Naphtali, Benjamin, Zevulun, Judah . . . nothing. By this account, Jacob has left behind one bereaved and eleven disaffected sons. Probably in shock at hearing their father's final words to them.
A few verses later, and we find those eleven brothers turning to Joseph contending that their father had left instructions that Joseph was to forgive his brothers their offense of selling him into slavery and then they offered themselves as slaves to Joseph. Jacob has left behind a dysfunctional family whose only hope for healing is found in the favored son, Joseph. Joseph does indeed, bless his brothers will healing words: "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result--the survival of many people. And so, fear not, I will sustain you and your children." (50: 19-21)
It is not his father's love that has inspired Joseph to such maturity and perspective, but the opportunity provided to him by God to reach for, and attain, lofty goals . . . to feed those who might otherwise starve. From such experience, the dysfunction of his own family must seem easily addressed: compassion comes easily to Joseph after all his life experience.
There is value in taking the time to stop and consider our actions and our behavior and our relationships from time to time. If that contemplation is triggered by the ticking over of the Gregorian calendar year, great! Any moment of self-reflection that draws us into an evaluation of that which motivates us, inspires us, shapes our actions and guides us in our relationships with those we care about is a good moment, whichever calendar we're looking at.
My dream was to issue a joint statement of compassionate concern for the residents of Israel and Gaza and a rejection of the connection between terrorism and faith with my Christian and Muslim colleagues here in Rhode Island. My fellow dreamers were the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of The Rhode Island State Council of Churches and Imam Farid Ansari, the President of The Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement. I am, as many of you know, in addition to being Torat Yisrael's rabbi, also privileged to serve as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.
On a Thursday in November, as the ink was barely dry on the Israel-Gaza cease fire, the three of us gathered with additional colleagues and together forged the statement below on the left. I had the privilege of following our joint statement with my own personal statement at a press conference on December 3rd. My statement is on the right:
This final parashah/Torah reading in the book of Genesis includes an evocative scene: the patriarch is close to death, his twelve sons are gathered around him as he speaks his final words to each and every one of them. The Torah tells us that the patriarch, Jacob, blessed each son according to his blessing.
Try as I might, I find little that's heartwarming or inspiring in this scene: Jacob's daughter, Dina, is nowhere to be found and does not receive a parting blessing from her father . . . which might be a blessing in itself.
For what Jacob does say to each son, in the presence of all the others, isn't what I'd call a blessing . . . indeed, many of the sons seem to be condemned by their father more than blessed.*
"Reuben, you're my firstborn, my power, and the beginning of my might, . . . unstable as water, you'll not be preeminent, for you ascended your father's bed . . . (49:3,4).
"Simeon and Levi are brothers: implements of violence are their tools of trade. Let my soul not come in their council..." (49:5-6)
"Dan will be a snake on a road, a venomous snake on a path, that bites a horse's heels,and its rider falls backward." (49: 17)
"Benjamin is a tearing wolf: in the morning eating prey, and at evening dividing booty." (49:27)
Of course, other brothers fare slightly better:
"Zebulun will dwell by seashores: and he'll be a shore for boats..." (49:13
"Issachar is a strong ass crouching between the saddle-packs: and he saw rest, that it was good, and the land, that it was pleasant. and he leaned his shoulder to bear and became a work-company servant." (49:14-15)
"Naphtali: a hind let loose, who gives lovely words." (49:21)
And a few are truly blessed:
"Judah: You, your brothers will praise you. Your hand on your enemies' neck, your father's sons will bow to you." (49:8)
"A fruitful bough is Joseph, a fruitful bough over a spring . . . archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and despised him. and his bow stayed stong, and his forearms were nimble, from the hands of the Might One of Jacob . . .Shadday [another name for God] will bless you . . . blessings of your father, the mighty and most high, blessings of the mountains of old..." (49: 22,23-24, 25-26).
So it's no small surprise when we read: "And Jacob finished commanding his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired. And Joseph fell upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (49:33-50:1)
Thirteen children, twelve gathered at the death bed, and only one mourned him.
It is certainly the case that some of Jacob's sons were responsible for some very questionable acts. And I believe that parents are most effective when they are not blind to their progeny's shortcomings. But a dying father might say to his fanatically revengeful sons (see Genesis 34): "My prayer for you is that you will be broken down with remorse and then rebuild your souls as upright men of honor, maturity and perspective." A dying father might say to the son who slept with his father's concubine, Bilhah (see Genesis 35:22): "My prayer for you is that you will be broken down with remorse and then rebuild your soul as a man who has control of his urges and has respect for women and for family relationships."
There is a lot that is broken and dysfunctional in this biblical family. Jacob's parting words to his sons almost seem designed to plant chaos and dissension among them.
Then two profound things happen. Two profound things that demonstrate to me how much Torah is truly a light for us in every generation:
Joseph, the one child who truly mourns his father, receives permission from Pharaoh to journey to Canaan to bury his father in the family burial plot in the cave of Mahpelah. And the Torah relates: "And Joseph went up to bury his father, and all of Pharoah's servants, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all of Joseph's house and his brothers and his father's house. Only their infants and their flock and their oxen they left in the land of Goshen." (Gen 50: 7-8)
In other words: as abusive as their father may have been, Jacob's sons stepped up and did him the honor due to him as the source of their lives. Jewish tradition teaches us that as adults, when we are no longer physically dependent on an abusive parent, we are not obligated to fawn over them, to keep trying to earn their love. But the adult children of abusive parents are obligated to make sure that their parents are safe, have respectable food, clothing and shelter and that their are honored in their death as the source of life and for whatever gifts of parenting they may have had. This is what we learn from Reuben and Simeon and Levi, Judah, Zebulun and Issachar, Dan, Gad and Asher, Naphtali and Benjamin.
The second moment of light comes as the family gathers together after Jacob is buried. Joseph's brothers speak among themselves: "And Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, "If Joseph will despise us he'll pay us back all the bad we dealt to him." (50:15).
But Joseph has grown, not only in stature, but in faith and maturity. Perhaps being cut off from his family for so long has taught him the importance of family. He responds: "Don't be afraid, because am I in God's place? And you thought bad against me. God thought for good: in order to do as it is today, to keep alive a numerous people. And now, don't be afraid. I'll provide for you and your infants. " And he consoled them. And he spoke on their heart. (Gen 50: 19-21)
The long journey of this family of Jacob's begins with the pain of the effects of an abusive parent and ends with the healing power of a faithful and loving sibling.
*All translations are from Richard Elliott Friedman's excellent English translation of the Torah.
In this week's parashah, we continue to engage in dreams. Last week, we marveled along with Joseph's family, at the self-aggrandizing spins Joseph put on his dreams . . . and the seeming cluelessness of that young dreamer regarding the effect of is dreams on those around him.
From a dream about sheaves of wheat and heavenly bodies, Joseph cheerfully and unhesitatingly notifies his family of his expectation of grandeur. For the most part, Joseph's dreams will, as we know, come true . . . his brothers and his father will come to bow down to him at Pharaoh's court. But, unforeseen by Joseph, his beloved mother who waited so long for his birth, will be spared that particular humiliation: Rachel will die before her husband, his other progeny and her youngest child are forced to settle in Egypt.
Rabbi Chaim Stern in his rich anthology, Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah, remarks: "Joseph is called [from prison] to interpret Pharoah's dreams. Pharaoh says to Joseph: I have heard this about you: you have but to hear a dream to interpret it (Genesis/Breishit 41:15). Pharaoh, struck by Joseph's brilliant understanding, gives him control over Egypt: he is to be second only to Pharaoh. The boy who once dreamed of glory, gains it by understanding the dreams of others."
It seems that Joseph did a lot of growing up somewhere between the pit his brothers threw him into and the prison Pharaoh threw him into: Joseph learned humility. When credited with a certain genius regarding the interpretation of dreams that confound even Pharaoh's most seasoned seers, Joseph steps out of the limelight and credits his insight to God. When given the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh, the newly matured Joseph sees not himself, but others, at the center of the royal scene.
Ironically, it is when Joseph steps aside, publicly deferring to the inspiration of the God of Israel, that Joseph rises in the Pharaoh's esteem. Faith, leadership, wisdom, respect and perspective all seem to benefit from a capacity to learn from life's lessons and a willingness to live in the shadow of God.
Parashat Vayigash Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18-47:27
The biblical book of Breishit/Genesis is full of dysfunctional families. Mothers and children are banished to the wilderness, sons are bound on altars and then never speak to their fathers again, brothers begin their rivalry in utero, mothers and sons conspire to deceive fathers. It's official: Breishit is a soap opera that's running longer than "The Days of Our Lives!"
As is often the case in the real world, in fiction and in divine revelation, this family does not contain one villain and one innocent. Rather, the dysfunctionality of the family comes from the fateful chemistry between several flawed individuals. Part of the saga of the Breishit families are moments of transcendence in which they mature, achieve resolution and show us how we might heal the great and small ruptures in our own lives.
This week's Torah reading / parashah contains just such a moment, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brother, after manipulating them with a terrifyiing game of cat and mouse. This is a moment that has been building up from the time of the brothers' childhoods when the older brothers resented their younger brother for the special treatment he received at the hands of their Jacob (the coat of many colors), and for Joseph's seemingly narcissistic dreams.
Joseph suffers an indescribable trauma when his brothers, the family which is supposed to make us feel safe, throw him into a pit and leave him for dead. Now they stand before him, supplicants asking for food. He is the second most powerful man in Egypt and his brothers have no idea that the man who holds the key to their survival is that same obnoxious little brother they abandoned decades ago.
One of the fascinating, and deeply true, aspects of this story is that after all those years, after garnering all that power, Joseph still felt so vulnerable at the sight of his brothers that he had to hide his identity from them, threaten them with his power, surround himself with the accouterments of his office. It couldn't matter less what our external attainments are. The dynamics of our family histories affect us in the core of our being, in a place that outward attainments cannot touch. It is only be repairing the rifts between us, by reaching out to each other, that we can heal.
Let's remember that this story is not a modern self-help book, it's a profound gift of the divine revelation of our Torah. the fact of the presence of these passages in the Torah is an indication that God understands how families heal. The fact of the presence of these passages in the Torah is an indication of God's love for us and an indication of how God can inspire us in our daily lives.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.