Half-lives, Half-breath, Hope: Jacob and Joseph

About one quarter of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph, dreamer and diviner, the child of Jacob’s old age, the child Jacob favors over all his sons (Gen. 37:3).

His brothers hate him for that. Joseph himself seems to stoke their hatred. At 17, he dreams that he and his brothers are sheaves of grain – and each sheave bows to his. He tells his brothers. In turn, “they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams” (37:8). Joseph dreams again: Now his entire family bows to him, as eleven stars, the sun, and the moon. Even Jacob is shocked: “Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground? So his brothers were wrought up at him and his father kept the matter in mind” (37:10-11).

Sometime soon after, it seems, Jacob sends his favored child to check on his brothers. He is to see how his brothers are doing, how the flocks are faring, and to come back to report to his old father. He goes unaccompanied. Alone.

His brothers see him coming; their rage takes over. They strip him of the special tunic his father had made for him. They throw him in a pit. They debate. Should he die? Should they sell him? Does he, in that dark pit, hear every word? Joseph’s brothers harbor a murderous hatred, but, in the end, they leave Joseph’s life – or death – to slaveholders: “Come,” his elder brother Judah says, “let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves” (37:27). Sold into slavery, carried to a foreign land, does he play back each word in his mind?

At seventeen, Joseph is cast into a dark pit and sold into slavery. He rises to become the right-hand man of Potiphar. He falls again, accused by Potiphar’s wife. He spends at least two years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He rises again, becomes the right-hand man of the chief jailor. At thirty, he becomes Pharaoh’s vizier because he is not only a dreamer, but a dream interpreter. Pharaoh even gives him a new name: Zaphnath-Paaneah, a name which might mean “Egyptian,” though Jewish tradition reads it as “revealer of secrets.” Finally, Joseph is given Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On, to be his wife.

In a position of extraordinary power and prestige, his life secure, beloved by the ruler of the most powerful country in the known world, he might, one imagine, send word. He is alive, he is well. But he does nothing. He sends no word to the father who loved him best, the father who coddled him and who relied on him.

Joseph named his first child Manasseh, from a root that means to forget, to make disappear from the memory. Joseph is explicit: I name him Manasseh, he says, because “God had made me forget my hardship and my parental home” (41:52).

The years go by. And by. Joseph is about 39 when his brothers appear in Egypt, hoping to buy food in a time of famine. Two more years will pass before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and only after repeated manipulations. He will pin crimes on them, he will hold one brother prisoner and threaten to make another his slave. He is 41 years old when his father, Jacob, finally discovers that his beloved son is still alive.

Jacob, aged and broken, revives. “Enough,” he says. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!” (45:28).

We read this story as a quintessential narrative of sibling rivalry, one of so many describing murderous hatred among brothers. Cain kills Abel. Esau wants to kill Jacob. Joseph’s brothers almost murder him.

But if this story was just about sibling rivalry, why does Joseph not let his father, who loved him so, know he is alive?

When he learns that Joseph is alive Jacob’s breath, his ruach, lives in him again (45:27). Believing Joseph dead, Jacob had lived a half-life for twenty-four years.

Surely Joseph knew his father loved him with an abiding, consuming love. How could he let his brothers get in the way of such a love? How could he leave his father half alive for over two decades?

Remember the second dream? His whole family had made obeisance to him. His father was angry, accusatory, he “kept it in mind.” And then, he sent his son to his eleven brothers, brothers who hated him.

Did Joseph believe his father betrayed him to his brothers? Did he decide that a new identity, a new name, a new world could be his only future? Did he think: I will kill the past; everyone in it tried to kill me?

His tears gave him back what he could not kill: hope. Joseph cries, often. First, when he overhears his brothers talking about what they had done to him (Gen 42:24), next, when he sees his younger brother, Benjamin (43:30), and again when he reveals himself to his brothers (45:2). He cries and kisses his brothers after the revelation (45:14-15), and when he finally sees his father again, he weeps on his father’s neck “a good while.” (46:29). Somehow, in all his pain, he could still cry for what he had lost, cry and thus, hope.

In this broken world, where terror and horror surround us every day, perhaps we can hope that our own tears can heal – ourselves and others. May it be so.

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Passing on Paradise for Love on Earth

We’d sung happy songs and deeply moving prayers. We welcomed Shabbat in with Feelin’ Groovy and were moved (again), when our second oldest member, Ruth Kingberg, beckoned in the angels of peace by singing Shalom Aleychem. Mi Chamocha featured our new cowbell. Veshamru, the high and slender sound of the recorder.

Time for the drash, the story, the reflection.

The subject: Parsha Lech Lecha – particularly, Genesis 15. The content: Night visions, dreams, predictions, a covenant.

In the first of two nighttime encounters with the Divine, Abraham mourns his childlessness. God knows how that anguish haunts Abraham and makes him a promise of children. God commits to the Divine promise by invoking a ritual well-known to the Ancient Near East (though strange to us).

In that ritual, animals were sacrificed and the parties to the contract would walk between their divided parts. Should they violate their agreement, the punishment would be dire: They would end just as the animals beside them: cloven in two.

In this night vision, God Godself is the one who passes between the animal parts. It is God who must keep the promise. Abraham is merely to believe in it.

In the second night dream, God comes upon Abraham to foretell his descendants’ future. They will be enslaved for four hundred years before knowing freedom again. It is a dark vision, a vision of horror and pain.

Two visions, two dreams, two futures: Life with children to follow, to keep the memory of one’s short existence on the earth alive, to carry a good legacy. Then, the knowledge: We cannot make our children safe from the real world they belong to.

Whoever we love, whether attached to us biologically or not, these are the beloveds we long for, the souls we want to make safe. Those two night visions – the one of hope and the other of dread – they are both, in essence, about the power of human connections on this earth. They are about love.

That night, I also told a story about Adam and Eve. In that tale, they find life outside the Garden of Eden difficult, challenging, and painful. But when God offers them the chance to return to the Garden they flatly refuse – even though they are both old and exhausted from years of labor. They cannot bring themselves to leave their real lives behind. Not before they must, anyway. They refuse to leave their children, their memories, and their earthly experience for the happy forgetfulness of paradise. They reenter the real world, the world of earthly love.

I asked my congregants to imagine they stood before the gates of the Garden of Eden. Would they enter? Would they, too, refuse? If the latter, what was it that held them to the earth, to the real world?

Everyone had a card and a pen. They began writing.

After the service, one of our children showed me his card. He had written his name on the top: Caleb Malin. Next to it, he had drawn a Star of David, a tiny Torah scroll and, finally, our Temple Or Olam logo, the fiery letter shinn. Below he listed all the things he could not leave behind:

My dog my Parents my brother my gram my PaPa my Granmuther my ante my uncl my rabis my cusens my Grandfather my ont.

“Caleb,” I said, “this is absolutely beautiful!”

“Those are all the things I won’t leave behind,” he said. “Can I draw a picture, too?”

“Please!” I answered. “Let’s go find you another card.”

Later at the oneg, Caleb came by to show me his picture. I read the card again. “Caleb,” I asked, “I didn’t know you had two rabbis. Who is your other rabbi?”

“Mr. Ralf!” he said.

I laughed.

Mr. Ralf, of course, is my husband of almost thirty years. At every service, Ralf plays a range of instruments, from the darbuka, a Middle Eastern drum, to recorder, to (most recently) the cowbell.

Ralf has a calm and quiet soul. For seven years, he has done one task after another for our congregation, from creating earlier websites to designing our monthly Shmoozeletter to maintaining our data base to schlepping all the instruments and musical equipment and our Torah to every last service and to every last bar or bat mitzvah. He has comforted congregants and made them laugh. He is a beacon.

No rabbi could do more.

I cannot bear the idea of leaving Ralf behind. Were the Holy One of Blessing to offer me Paradise, I would refuse it – even if the cost was that I would never see it at all and would have given up, say, one little minute with Ralf.

God would not ask such a thing, I think. God would know that my longing is to be with Ralf, with my beloved family and friends as long as I can be, just as God knew that Abraham longed for those he needed to love to live – Ishmael and Isaac. The real world, with all its pain and sorrows, with all its frustrations and disappointments, contains our dreams.

Perhaps there will come a time when I am ready to go. Maybe I will feel that way someday, though it seems so impossible to me now.

But if and when God or Paradise beckon and welcome me, may they do so only after I have made it clear that my dreams, like Abraham’s, were about the love I bore for those I loved while I was on this earth.

Shabbat Shalom.

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