Vayechi: You Can’t Move Forward Without Looking Backwards

Just after the funeral and burial of Jacob, the third of the patriarchs, this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayechi, describes how the brothers were suddenly fearful that Joseph would finally exact his revenge against them for having sold him into slavery all those years before.

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Full of trepidation, they presented themselves to Joseph and begged for his mercy. Joseph again tried to reassure them that he bore no ill will towards them. Joseph cries, perhaps over the realization that his brothers, because of their guilt over what they had done to him, would never be able to accept his graciousness towards them at face value.
Michele Alexander’s chapter in the 1619 Project book, entitled “Fear,” is essentially a modern-day retelling of this Biblical episode. Alexander describes the dread by slave owners and their enablers that the tables could be turned, and they might face the vengeance of those whom they had previously oppressed. She traces that fear as it surfaced several times throughout American history:
For example: the Revolutionary War (if we could fight for our liberty, the founders thought, perhaps our slaves could as well!)
Or the Haitian slave Revolution in 1791, which led to Haiti’s independence from France (if it could happen there, perhaps it could happen here as well!)
And, of course, this fear flared up following the Civil War during Emancipation & Reconstruction, during and after the Civil Rights movement, and around the election of President Barack Obama.
Alexander describes how, in a bitter irony, American guilt over the original sin of slavery partly explains why black people in America are often seen by law enforcement through a lens of suspicion, as threats to be protected against rather than as fellow citizens. It is a reflection of the same irony that the brothers’ guilt over having sold Joseph into slavery meant that they always saw him as a threat, despite the goodwill he extended towards them.
The Midrash explains that the brothers’ guilt and fear of Joseph were sparked by a particular moment during Jacob’s funeral procession. While traveling through the land of Canaan, the procession passed by the very pit into which the brothers had thrown Joseph. Joseph stopped at the pit to reflect silently and then continued onwards.
The brothers, seeing Joseph standing silently by the pit, could only think that, by meditating on the past, he was stoking his resentment and would soon lash out against them. In fact, though, Joseph was offering a blessing of thanksgiving for the miracle of being saved and reunited with the family that had previously rejected him. The brothers’ fear of Joseph prevented them from hearing what he was really saying – or from believing it – and they missed the opportunity to stand together – with him – at the pit, and then move on, together.
In a contemporary reflection of this Midrash, many state legislatures are considering, or have already passed laws that restrict the teaching of the history and legacy of slavery in America out of a fear that this study will lead to resentment of America and its founders. In effect, they are trying to protect themselves by keeping Joseph away from the pit, not realizing that they don’t need protection from him, not realizing that they are actually only preventing Joseph from offering blessings of gratitude with them, not realizing it is an opportunity to stand together and then move forward, together.
This biblical episode, the final narrative of Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis, shows how openly and honestly facing the past can overcome our fears of it, and lead to a hopeful reconciliation. Sadly, the brothers were not able to find that path forward; perhaps America still can.
About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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