Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Vayechi

So, after last week’s commentary, I received good feedback, mostly appreciating my take on Joseph’s approach to his brothers and his sense of forgiveness. One friend quipped, “Wait until next week.” Well, it is “next week.” As this week’s Torah portion unfolds, the plot thickens, especially if you add Midrash (commentary) into the mix. Jacob dies. At Joseph’s request, Pharaoh leads an entourage to the cave of Machpelah, to bury Jacob with Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. Joseph’s mother, Rachel, is buried along the road to Bethlehem.


On the way back, the brothers grow anxious. “With Dad gone, perhaps he will now take his vengeance out on us?” Midrash Tanchuma adds a twist. It speculates that they were afraid because on the way back to Egypt, the entourage passed by “the pit” into which Joseph’s brothers threw him. The commentary posits that Joseph stopped and went to inspect the pit. He stood there, pondering it, reflecting on his history and how it unfolded. It was at that moment that the brothers became afraid.


The text plays out wonderfully. His brothers tell him, “[F]ather commanded [us] before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to Joseph, “Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you’ … Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also went and fell before him, and they said, “Behold, we are your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid, am I supposed to question God? Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good, to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.” And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts. (Gen. 50:17-21)


Nowhere in the text does Jacob issue this instruction. Nowhere in the text does Joseph contemplate revenge. While they may have feared that his trip to “the pit” would cause ancient pain to resurface, Joseph in Midrash and in text maintains his belief that there are bigger forces at work than his brothers’ evil or attempt to weasel out of trouble. In adding the pit episode into the story, the Midrash commentator argues that he did not go to the pit for any reason except to offer the prayer for thanksgiving. He stood there facing his history, thankful for the miracle of faith that gave him enough strength to weather the storm and still find a way to love his brothers. Joseph’s tears come from the pain he experiences knowing that despite his commitment to his brothers, they lack the faith to believe in his sincerity. Yes, his brothers materially altered his life, but had they not done what they did, he might never have saved Egypt and the surrounding world from the famine.


Certainly not every painful act fulfills some greater divine plan, but ultimately, whatever we experience at the hands of another takes on its own life. We make choices as to how we move forward. Joseph could just as easily chosen a different course and kept to himself. When someone wrongs us, he/she may be responsible for the immediate pain and loss, but we have to accept responsibility for every choice that follows. Sometimes, in fact often, in our commitment to healing, we find other avenues for blessing.


Too many people get hurt and get stuck, without realizing that we only continue to victimize ourselves when we hold tight to grudges; so tight that they continue to gnaw at us for years to come. We become the perpetrators of our own pain.


So, I cannot tell you what is and is not God’s plan, other than to say that I refuse to believe that we are destined to live mired in anguish. Whatever has happened to us, we are where we are supposed to be in the moment that we are here. We have to decide what to do with it. Yes, the forces trying to hold us back do not magically wash away, but even in the face of the greatest challenges, we have an obligation to be human and humane. Pirke Avot teaches us, “In a world where no one is behaving like a human, strive to be human.” In every case when faced with life and death (blessing or curse) we must always choose life. Shabbat Shalom.