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Encounters with the past: Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

by Rabbi Anne Brener

December 4, 2013 | 4:27 pm

Rabbi Anne Brener

Rabbi Anne Brener

Why is this book club different from all other book clubs? I know this phrase is out of season, but the strange confluence of holidays this year permits some flexibility. As my Torah study cohorts and I again engage with the page-turner of all page-turners, the Joseph story, I am grateful to return to this story with my sacred companions and see what I can learn in the encounter. As one of my Torah study pals said about the dramatic Joseph story the other night, “Maybe this year it will be different.”

Changing the story is what this week’s parasha is about. For the last two weeks, we read of Joseph’s journey. His father’s favored son, Joseph was thrown down into a pit by his jealous brothers, sold down into slavery, carried down into Egypt, and incarcerated down into Pharaoh’s dungeon. Last week, Joseph’s prowess as a dream interpreter brought him to Pharaoh’s court. He is appointed second in command of all of Egypt. It would seem that Joseph’s downward cycle ended, and he is on the ascent. But not so fast. 

When Joseph favorably interpreted the dream of the cupbearer, Joseph gave a synopsis of his journey to the dungeon. His telling reveals the way memory frames our journey and locates us in psychological experience rather than reality. “I was stolen. … I have done nothing … to put me in the pit” (Genesis 40:15). Joseph was not stolen. His jealous brothers threw him in a pit and then sold him into slavery. His psyche cannot yet apprehend the depth of his brothers’ enmity, his father’s role in creating it nor his own part in fanning the flames of their hatred, by bringing his father “ill reports” about his brothers and sharing his dreams of dominion. Attributing his exile to being “stolen,” rather than to the violent response of jealous brothers to a father’s partiality and a brother’s arrogance, reveals Joseph’s inability to shape his memory to become a vehicle for personal healing. Nor is he yet able to grasp the larger purpose of his journey to Egypt, which had not yet been revealed. 

When Joseph describes the Egyptian dungeon, he uses the word beor (pit). In conflating his time in the dungeon with his earlier experience in the pit, Joseph reverted to the place his exile began. This is not unusual. All losses are likely to be elaborations on a loss stored in memory, our original loss, providing the template through which we approach any other devastation. Confronted with another loss, we bring to it the perceptions of something in the past and experience it through feelings and memories associated with the earlier loss. Healing comes with an understanding of the power of the imprint of that initial contraction in shaping our perception and identity. We need to do the grief work, to dissolve the rigid boundaries imprinted in the shock of the original loss and see the world as something new. When Joseph names both incarcerations as “pit,” he is in the dungeon of memory.

Judaism dances between yizkor (remembering) and tikkun (healing). We emphasize the importance of yizkor while searching for tikkun. We strive to tell our stories in ways respectful of the past (yizkor) and open to the possibility of something genuinely new (tikkun). We want to learn to wear history not as a lead apron committing us to a worldview impenetrable to light and wisdom, but as a gossamer garment used toward wisdom and healing. When Joseph told his story, he was still frozen in the original wound: His brothers casting him into the pit. 

Even in Pharaoh’s court, Joseph was still imprisoned, as he tricks and tests his brothers, who have not yet realized who he is. But in Vayigash, Joseph completes his descent, and his memory is transformed. His brother Judah, who does not yet recognize Joseph, encounters him. He brings the story of Jacob’s family into the present. If Joseph is to join the family in the present, something must change. Joseph cries out in a voice so loud that it was heard throughout Egypt. It is in the crying out that Joseph hits bottom. This precipitates his transformation and dissolves the boundaries that freeze us in the prison of memory. It allows us to see something new. It will be the crying out of the people of Israel that will summon God’s compassion and lead them to the Exodus. It is our crying out from the depths that enables us to turn memory into blessing. In Joseph’s crying, he encounters his journey and reframes it: “It was not you who sent me here ahead of you, but God … [that I] be a provider.” Joseph is no longer in the pit.

May your memories be blessings. Shabbat Shalom.

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