I always find it incredible how the Jewish custom of an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah (Genesis trough Deuteronomy) in the course of a year brings us back to the same verses, stories, and narratives that we read a year earlier, but in a different place in our lives that we relate to it differently each year. It underscores that the Torah, God’s word, is relevant to each and every one of us, no matter where we are in our lives, how old we are, or our circumstances.
I see that often in my life, but never more than this week’s Torah reading, this year. This year, it’s the 12th anniversary of my son’s bar mitzvah. This is the same Torah portion that he studied and read 12 years ago when we celebrated his becoming a bar mitzvah. This year, rather than being called up to recite blessings at the Torah, my son has been called to protect us in Gaza.
We read that Joseph was sold off to slavery and brought to Egypt. In all likelihood he went through Gaza because that would be along the established trade routes. Either way, he had a rude separation from his family. Either way, his father, Jacob, was fraught with distress by what he believed that was Joseph’s death.
While it wasn’t Joseph’s plan or desire to be sold into slavery in Egypt, eventually he realized that it was his destiny. He realized that while his brothers meant it for evil, God meant it for good. Now, my son is in Gaza, doing what he’s trained to do to protect us all. But it’s for sure not what he desired to do or was planning to do at this stage in his life. He should be home with his new wife, establishing their lives together.
It’s scary. I don’t really know how Jacob felt actually, imagining his son being eaten by wild animals. But this is the first time I have read Genesis 37 and looked at it through Jacob’s eyes. I wish I could go to Jacob now and tell him it’ll be alright. In the end, Joseph becomes a great leader, and they are reunited. Perhaps that would be a comfort to him. It is to me.
How did Jacob feel? We go from the narrative of Jacob identifying Joseph’s coat, assuming he’s dead, and then to Joseph in Egypt. We don’t hear about Jacob and Joseph for many years. After they reunite, Jacob still displays the trauma of his separation from Joseph by telling Pharoah basically that his life has been short and bad.
What was Jacob thinking at that time? Why would he describe his life as being so bad if he were now reunited with his son? What was he thinking during all the interim years? What did he do in his life differently once he thought he’d never see his son again? How did he cope? Of course, I trust that my son is doing what he’s meant to do and will come home safely, soon.
Jacob believed Joseph to be dead. That’s not my parallel. But this year, it is for too many others. Like Thomas Hand whose daughter, Emily, was kidnapped by Hamas. Initially he believed she had been killed. Then they were reunited. Thomas was horrified by her suffering and trauma. There are many others who don’t know the fate of their loved ones who are still hostages. Some of those in Hamas’ captivity don’t know that their loved ones are already dead. If they are even alive themselves.
This is definitely not how my son was supposed to be spending his birthday, the anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
I hope that he’ll be able to join Shabbat prayers in Gaza, that he’ll have the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah. I hope he’ll even have the presence to remember that it is the anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Who knows. Not knowing your child’s well-being is one of the hardest things. On that level, I know how Jacob felt.
When I spoke at his bar mitzvah, I said that it never made sense that Jacob loved Joseph more than his brothers. I interpreted it (independently) as Jacob loved Joseph differently. I surely don’t love my son more than his siblings, but especially this week, I do love him differently.
I suspect that if Jacob could have, he’d have gone with Joseph into slavery. We do the craziest things to protect and keep our children safe. If it were up to me, I’d be in Gaza with my son. Fighting Hamas alongside him, giving him cover, having his back. But it’s probably a good idea that I not be there anyway.
So I am at home, thinking about Jacob, our patriarch, and how he felt.
As much as I am looking at the narrative through Jacob’s eyes, and of course my son is only away from home temporarily, I hope my son will know that as difficult and even scary as it may be, just like Joseph, there’s a reason he is where he is, doing his job, protecting us. I just wish I could be there, to protect him. That’s my job.
Jacob didn’t get a heads-up text, “Hey Abba, I am about to be thrown into a pit and then sold off to slavery, so I won’t have my phone for a while,” and then a heart emoji. Jacob wouldn’t have had the opportunity to text him back, telling Joseph to be safe, telling him how proud of him he was, and that he loves him. Waiting for the one check mark to turn to two, indicating that it had been delivered. And then waiting, and waiting, for the two check marks to turn blue. That he had read it. Still waiting for those two check marks.