Healing after a famine

Parashat VaYechi

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Imagine living through years of famine, starving, scared, not knowing when salvation will come, hoping, wondering, praying, and yearning for respite from a plague that has forced everyone to face their vulnerabilities every day. The ground underfoot parched, dry, cracked, brittle. Stories abound of people dying everywhere. Then, imagine a national plan. Imagine a leader who assumes responsibility to protect and save his subjects, citizens and immigrants alike. That leader recognizes visionary creativity in an incarcerated immigrant and elevates him to a position of power and authority to collect, store and distribute the nourishment necessary to keep everyone alive. Imagine that leader offering distribution not only to his own subjects, but to all refugees seeking asylum and food. Then, that advisor, the viceroy of the entire society second only to the supreme leader himself, collects, stores, and distributes food. He brings his estranged family to relocate in an elite, well-protected, fertile, section of the country (eretz Goshen). At the same time, that viceroy re-structures society into a caste system divided between royalty, priesthood, and indentured servants, with his own family living outside of caste. Perhaps this was an emergency measure to bolster the economy, and would be abandoned once the famine ran its course. But the Yosef narrative indicates that this plan was intended as a permanent statute. (47:26 & Rashi)

The famine ended. The storehouses nourished everyone. But society changed. Nobody remained the same. The famine that starved humanity left people scared by the traumatic memory of how fragile they are. The famine was not only a physical assault. It branded the collective psyche of all human beings. Human freedoms were compromised, and the shared sense of social responsibility threatened. Memories of what life had been like before the hunger faded. Deeply embedded feelings of henger, ache, and frustration lingered. Nobody could quite know what the future would hold, despite life slowly returning to familiar routines. Under the surface, anger continued to burn slowly, deep and almost imperceptible, but there nonetheless. That hidden rage will not extinguish on its own. Nobody notices. But the seeds of potential abuse, oppression, intimidation, xenophobic hatred, complicity, corruption, cowardice, greed, have been sown. Seeds of a new famine were sown in response to and in the wake of the first famine. There was a second famine in the world, worse than the famine that occurred in the days of Avraham. (Bereshit/Genesis 26:1) The immigrants have been granted asylum and live outside of the castes their ancestor himself created. They live in one of the most fertile, luxurious areas of the country. Years will pass. Memories will fade. Jealousy will replace gratitude, nativist yearnings for power will replace righteousness, cruelty will dominate compassion. 

Parashat VaYechi narrates a moment of transition, the transition between famines. This first famine in Egypt starved the body. The one to emerge will starve the heart and soul as history will be rewritten and memories replaced: A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef. (Shemot/Exodus 1:8) Parashat VaYechi tells the story of that transition, the passage from famine to nourishment, from crisis to normalcy, from movement to settlement, from estrangement to embracing. That transition is told in the story of four events: pronouncements to sons and grandsons, the mourning ceremony for the patriarch, Yaakov, and the final encounter between Yosef and his brothers. Finally, those last two events are framed by embalmings, as if the Torah is telling us: the meanings of these events during a time of transition will not disappear. They need to be embalmed in the consciousness of society, lest these lessons be forgotten. 

Yaakov crossed his hands to bless Ephraim and Menashe. This event signals a hope for transparency and honesty in leadership. Yaakov’s entire life has been characterized by hiding, running, and lying. He lied to his father. He was tricked by Lavan, and Yaakov tricked Lavan in return. Finally, Yaakov can do what his father could not, he overcomes the legacy of his own fear. Yaakov said as much to Yosef, by contextualizing the blessing of his grandchildren on the occasion of his dream in Beth El, when he fled from Esav. As he was about to bless the children, Yaakov turned to Yosef and said:

El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me, and said to me, ‘I will make you fertile and numerous, making you a community of peoples; and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession. Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon. (48:1-7)

Yaakov assigned rights of inheritance to children from his beloved Rahel’s line. (Bechor Shor, Bereshit 48:5) In addition, by granting tribal leadership to Yosef’s grandchildren, Yaakov was expressing his gratitude for living to see not only Yosef, but Yosef’s children as well. (Seforno) After these introductory remarks, Yaakov, now blind as his father had been before him, found himself in the same situation as his father, standing at the end of his life before a recipient of a blessing, blind, touching the child, embracing and kissing him as Yitzhak had done to Yaakov instead of Esav so many years earlier (48:3, and see, Keli Yakar, Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, Rabbi of Prague from 1604-1619.48:9). The Torah then describes this moment of blessing:

Noticing Yosef’s sons, Yisrael asked, “Who are these?” And Yosef said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” “Bring them up to me,” he said, “that I may bless them.” Now Yisrael’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So [Yosef] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Yisrael said to Yosef, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.” Yosef then removed them from his knees, and bowed low with his face to the ground. Yosef took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand—to Yisrael’s left—and Menashe with his left hand—to Yisrael’s right—and brought them close to him. But Yisrael stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Menashe’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Menashe was the first-born. And he blessed Yosef, saying, “The God in whose ways my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day— The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm— Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” When Yosef saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Menashe’s. “Not so, Father,” Yosef said to his father, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.” But his father objected, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Yisrael invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Thus he put Ephraim before Menashe. (48:8-20)

The Maharal of Prague emphasizes that the repetitive phrase, I know, my son, I know, indicates clarity of awareness by Yaakov (Judah Loew ben Bezalel or Rabbi Loew, 16th century). The rabbis emphasize Yaakov’s clarity of mind and honesty: I know the behaviors of my sons. I know about Reuven and Bilhah and Yehuda and Tamar. I know [the future of the family] that have remained hidden from you….[Gideon will come from Menashe, but Yehoshua will come from Ephraim.] (Bereshit Rabbah 97:4) Finally, Yaakov modeled a leadership of transparency and honest judgement, taking responsibility for his decision. This moment repairs Yitzchak’s inner blindness, his avoiding the truth, and Avraham’s lies to Pharaoh. It is a moment in which Yaakov, called Israel, says,”I will tell you the truth as I see it. I will not abide by social conventions. We will need leadership in the future, and despite the fact that Menashe is older, Ephraim holds greater potential to lead the family as a young nation. I will not hide. I will not pretend not to see. I will not invoke a subterfuge. I will cross my hands overtly and for all to see.”

Yaakov’s pronouncements to his sons, on the other hand, are also close to prophetic utterances. He called his sons to his deathbed and offered them visions of the future. Yaakov was brutally honest and conveyed the implications of each of his son’s patterns of behavior and ways of thinking. The rabbis taught: Yaakov summoned his sons: in order to reveal their end. The Holy One, however, hid the absolute end from Yaakov, [but allowed him to offer projections of each one’s future….] (Midrash Aggadah 49:1)  There are many traditions of commentary on the nature of Yaakov’s final words. The tradition I choose for our time is to read many of his reflections as rebukes: 

There are four reasons to rebuke someone only close to one’s death: So that one not rebuke repeatedly, so that the other not be shamed, so that the rebuker not bear a grudge in one’s heart when the rebuke is ignored, and so that the one rebuked not be alienated and leave. (Sifrei Devarim 1

While this midrash is concerned with when to rebuke, it contains values that characterize the aged Yaakov. He was honest. He was courageously transparent. He was compassionate and careful not to shame or injure his sons’ dignity. He avoided holding a grudge. He navigated his life with the goal of holding on to his children, despite much pain and anguish, careful not to alienate them after the catastrophic errors of his youth

When Yaakov died, the Egyptians embalmed Yaakov and then mourned him for a total period of seventy days. Yosef asked permission of Pharaoh to bury Yaakov in Canaan and then return. The Canaanites noted the large gathering of Egyptian mourning, and they named the place, avel mitzrayim, “the place of Egyptian mourning.” Despite his power and position, Yosef honored protocol and requested permission to leave Egypt. The interplay between three cultures reveals a profound respect for each other, between Benei Yisrael, the Canaanites, and the Egyptians. They observe each other. The Canaanites dignify the moment by naming the place ‘avel mitzrayim. They recognize that these Egyptians are mourning someone important. They must also have recognized the intermingling of cultures, Egyptians and Hebrews, with an Egyptian dignitary in mourning along with the immigrant minority. (50:5-11) The rabbis taught:

Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman looked throughout the entire Tanach and found no place called, “Atad,” “thorn.” Can there be a threshing floor with thorns? Rather, this references the Canaanites who otherwise would have been trampled like thorns. Why did they merit such dignity here? Because of the compassion and respect they displayed to Yaakov. Rabbi Elazar said that they loosened their waistbands. Resh Laqish said they loosened the thongs of their sandals. Rabbi Yehuda bar Shalom said that they pointed with their fingers indicating that a great man had died. (Bereshit Rabbah 100:6)

In these moments, the heart of humanity was shared. These three disparate cultures respected and dignified each other. They lived the knowledge that people might otherwise ignore as a result of fear. They responded humanely in the face of human suffering, sadness, and grief. Yosef acted with humility. Pharaoh responded with compassion. The Canaanites stood in respect, dignifying the rituals which were not their own, but whose meanings penetrated their hearts. 

Finally, there is the last exchange between Yosef and his brothers:

When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Yosef still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Yosef, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Yosef was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Yosef said to them, “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.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (50:15-21)

Rashi notes that Yosef’s manner changed towards his brothers. The word, bears a grudge, yistemenu, is the same word that described Esav’s hatred towards Yaakov when his brother stole their father’s blessing in precisely the same kind of moment. Imagining Yitzchak’s death, Esav vows to murder his brother. (27:41) The brothers, now understandably terrified from the family history and repercussions of a grudge, lie to protect themselves. (Talmud Bavli Yevamot 65a) Yosef, however, tells them the truth, just as Yaakov told him the truth about Ephraim and Menashe:

So shall you say to Yosef, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Yosef was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Yosef said to them, “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.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (50:17-21)

Truth and forgiveness go hand in hand, and when the brothers ask for forgiveness, they touch Yosef’s heart. Hatred, cruelty, pain, suffering succumbed to compassion and love. Love heals. Yosef spoke kindly to them, to their hearts, and in so doing, he consoled them. (50:21). On this powerful verse the rabbis taught:

Words that come from the heart are like the sands of the earth–they are endless. They are like wild beasts; who can ever stop them? They are like the stars of heaven. Who can ever block their twinkling?…We are like body and soul, joined together…Besides, [said Yosef], if I were to kill you, how would anyone ever believe that I could protect anyone? If I kill my brothers, who would ever trust me?…(Bereshit Rabbah 100:9)

Yosef healed fear with kindness, mendacity with truth, potential violence with humility. Yaakov, in his old age, modeled similar qualities, even if some of his pronouncements were difficult to hear. This was a world of famine, of starvation, a famine and yearning for love, compassion, truth, revelation, safety, balance, well-being, respect, and humility. 

This entire narrative ends with the bookends of embalming. The word for “embalm” in Hebrew is, yachnetu. The root, ch-n-t, alsם means, “to bear fruit,” as in the verse from the Song of Songs, The green figs form on the fig tree, (הַתְּאֵנָה֙ חָֽנְטָ֣ה פַגֶּ֔יהָ) The embalming, therefore, signifies both death and rebirth, the emergence of renewed physical and emotional health after the famine of fear. Avraham, the immigrant, feared the powerful. Yaakov feared his father and his brother. He feared Lavan. The family was plagued by fear of loss–the loss of status, of privilege, of power, of position, of entitlement. They needed to learn to interact with compassion, trust, humility and respect. Those qualities would enable them to survive as a minority of immigrants, and teach them how to protect minorities when they would become sovereign in their own land. The entire narrative of famine captures the history of Jewish consciousness throughout the Book of Genesis, powerfully explained by Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl in the 18th century:

Go down there (Gen. 42:2) to elevate and descend to bring [them] to the life-force of the root and the self. And that is the meaning of Yosef died (Gen. 50:26), for the fact that the Torah descended until the final level is called “death,” for whatever descends from its level is called “death” (Zohar 3:135b). And they embalmed him (Gen. 50:26): for the Torah is called “Tree of Life,” and with trees we go according to the ripening of fruit, which is to say even though he descended to the final level he bore fruit. And he was put in a coffin (Gen. 50:26), as in the statement [of our Sages] of Blessed Memory, “The Tablets and the Broken Tablets were placed in the ark” (Bava Batra 14b): even the degenerations have elevation to be in the ark just like the Tablets, which are the Torah itself. …since in every thing it is the Torah that gives that thing life, one should not look at any thing in its materiality, only at the internality of the thing in the secret of The wise person has his eyes in his head (Ecclesiastes 2:14); and in the Zohar they said, “And where else should a person’s eyes be? Rather, a wise person gazes to see who stands above his head” (Zohar 3:187a), which is to say that in every thing he should gaze toward the beginning of that thing: from where it evolved and who is that thing’s root. (Me’or Einayim)

A famine of the spirit teaches us to look inwards, to actualize our humanity by feeling the continuity of all life from a single source. Our common “root” enables us to bear the fruit of life in a world that can be nourished by trust, dignity, respect, and justice tempered by compassion and love. Once people look inward and diminish their own ego, they are more capable of listening instead of making demands, and giving instead of grabbing. Perhaps the epidemiological and political plagues we are enduring will humble enough people to emerge with the courage to listen, with the strength to allow their hearts to break, and then allow love for fellow human beings to nourish their spirit.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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