“A Way to Life”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA President
“And he lived.” The book of Genesis began with lists of genealogies, telling us that a man lived a certain number of years and begot a son, then lived another number of years. From Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, with little personal drama – though there was certainly cosmic and social drama with the flood and the generation of the dispersion (tower of Babel).
Now, however, “and he lived” comes after tormenting personal drama for our ancestor Yaakov. Wrenched from his family and exiled for more than two decades, he watched his wife die, his sons become murderously angry, and then lost a son to an unknown fate. Yaakov must have thought about death a great deal. He greatly feared losing another son. He would have remembered how his own father thought he would die soon, and wanted to give a blessing. But how would Jacob bless? He spent years in grief, so that he would later say that his years were “few and evil” (Gen 47:9).
And his sons knew how fragile their father was. In last week’s parsha, we saw how Judah could not bear to think of what would happen if he and his brothers went home without Benjamin. “We said: the lad cannot leave his father; for if he would leave his father, his father would die” (Gen 44:22). “…When he sees that the lad is not with us, he will die; and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to the grave… How shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with me? May I not see the evil that shall come on my father!” (44:31, 34)
Judah’s plea broke through Joseph’s façade, and he confessed: I am Joseph. At long last, here was a turn of events that could bring some resolution to a divided family, perhaps even restoration. But most of all, it was a light in the darkness for Jacob: “Rav! Joseph my son is still alive; I will go to see him before I die.” (45:28) Like his father, his own death is still on his mind, but now there is a glimmer of hope. “Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive” (46:30).
The Torah departs from the family scene to describe how Joseph, over the next two years, organized control over the produce of the land to help people survive the famine; and how “Israel” dwelled in Goshen, became wealthy and “were fruitful and multiplied” – as though now, the blessing of Adam and Chava at the beginning of Genesis was restored.
Then our parsha begins: “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years.” Finally, he could be said to live; and, now truly approaching death at age 147, he could plan for his burial with his ancestors, and bless his children.
The agony of a family is captured in these few chapters of Torah. How long they all suffered in silence! This should give us pause. How many small deaths do we deal to members of our families, and continue to kill them softly with our silence? How long before we come to the point of Judah, saying, “I cannot bear it any more”? Can we come to understand how deeply alone a parent can feel when a child is missing from the family? Can we overcome age-old sibling rivalry, so vividly portrayed in our Book of Beginnings – can we move past the pain and hatred we feel when another seems to be the favorite?
We can. It does not have to take twenty-two years. The Torah shows us how, by retelling the story, with authentic reaching out to one another as Judah did to Joseph, even through his fear. His courage brought life, restoration, blessing.
If we want to mend the world, we can all begin here.