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Vayigash

04/06/2015 07:08:00 AM

Apr6

Vayigash
Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

They come to the cemetery with a pocketful of stones to be left on the gravesite. Once I've recited the tradition's prayers and a few words of memory, they dutifully place the stones on the marker. But I can see in their faces that the stones they carry home are so much bigger than those left behind. Tiny pebbles are left on the grave marker, but whole rocks remain on the heart: rocks of bitterness, betrayal, and rage.

They are people still arguing with their parents, still longing for their approval. In some cases, from parents elderly and infirmed, in others, from parents dead twenty, thirty years: A daughter still trying to get them to smile and say to her, "You're a good girl"; A son still trying to hear, "I'm proud of you. You did well". So many people burdened with anger and resentment at parents whose expectations were monumental but whose affection and approval so miserly and thin. A lifetime of bitterness for want of six words --"I love you, whatever you do!"

They are people who have cut themselves off from their own children. Mention the name and there erupts a geyser of rage for the gratitude unexpressed, the loyalties betrayed, the generosity unrequited. Parental love is so complex. How is it that dreams and aspirations -- all we want for our children -- become twisted into suffocating expectation? My teacher Harold Schulweis once proposed that we Jews have a particular, distinctively Jewish form of child abuse -- it's called disappointment.

They are people alienated from a brother or a sister. The filmmaker, Barry Levinson, pictures his family at Thanksgiving time (nee: Pesach Seder) sitting at the table, together, sharing all the joys and struggles of life. And then one year, a slight -- the turkey was cut before part of the family arrived...and that was the last Thanksgiving together: From then on, only bitter acrimony, "You cut the turkey!" Never again would the family sit at the same table. Never again, until death brings them together. But by then it's too late. At graveside we cry for all the years wasted, all the love squandered, all the moments neglected. At graveside we feel the stones that weigh down the heart.

In this week's Torah portion, the book of Genesis comes to a splendid dramatic climax. This climax is not an epic battle or momentous act of state. Instead, it occurs in the heart of one man. Joseph sits upon the throne of Egypt, the right hand of mighty Pharaoh, controlling the life of all Egypt. But he is haunted by his memories: The brothers who cast him into a desert pit and then sat to enjoy an afternoon meal while plotting his murder. The days in the pit of Egypt's prison, alone, abandoned, forgotten. Why was there no rescue sent by Jacob to recover his favored son? But of course it was Jacob who sent him to his brothers, dressed in the coat that brandished his favoritism like a flag. Joseph's eldest son is named Menashe -- "for God has made me forget all my tribulation and the house of my father." But he remembers. And then, one day, the brothers show up.

He delays them and dallies with them, as he struggles with himself. If ever there was a man who deserved permission to turn his back on his family and his past, it is Joseph. But something won't let go. And when he hears his brother Judah speak offering himself in the place of the youngest, Benjamin, Joseph cannot hold back. "I am your brother Joseph!"

There is a time, writes Ecclesiastes, to cast away stones. To let go. Not to forget but to forgive. Among all the ancestors of Egypt, Joseph is given the unique title of Tzaddik, the righteous one. To be a tzaddik is to vanquish bitterness and rage and find a way to love. To enjoy the release and renewal the comes with casting out the stones and becoming one again. Shabbat Shalom.

 


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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780