Shabbat VaYigash: How To Become Israel

The famous part of this week’s parashah is at the very beginning: after weeks of build-up, the saga reaches its dramatic climax as Judah steps forward to confront the ruler of Egypt (not knowing that this ruler is his own little brother). In this single act of courage and emotional maturity, Judah breaks a tragic cycle of family dysfunction which has haunted the household of the first Jews since Abraham.

But that’s not our text. We are reading from the second third of the Torah in this year of our Triennial Cycle, and we begin with chapter 45, verse 16 of Bereshit (Genesis). Joseph has revealed his identity to his brothers, the tearful reunion has begun, and Jacob is about to find out that his long-lost, most beloved son is not only still alive, but is ruler over all of Egypt.

Jacob will journey to Egypt to see Joseph. What must that journey have cost? After so many years, what would he find?

Life has continued in the interim; the lost years cannot be regained. That which has been torn, like Joseph’s old multi-colored coat, cannot be fully repaired. Jacob at first finds himself unable to believe. It is a tremendous shock, and he reels from it.

What might he be thinking? Is his mind working with the possibilities, attempting to discover how it is that he was deceived? Does he look upon his other sons in a new light? What tension exists in those days – might Jacob even be considering some bitter, angry action toward the brothers?

The Torah does not tell us more than this: somehow, Jacob manages to pull himself together, and he resolves to undertake the journey to Egypt.

And the Torah itself seems to react. At the beginning of chapter 46, calling him Israel for the first time in a long while. Israel – the name given to Jacob which becomes the name of our people, the name which speaks of struggle, hard-won experience, maturity. And Israel undertook the journey with all that he had, and came to Beer Sheva…

He travels as far as Beer Sheva, the city associated with his father Isaac. Something is calling him toward the memory of his father in these moments. Is he perhaps thinking of his own difficult experience as a father, does it shed new light on his experience of Isaac as a father? And then the text continues …he offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac. 

There is a hasidic story about a young man destined to succeed his father as Rebbe of a community, but his behavior worried his father. When reproved, the young man replied “This is my G-d and I will glorify; the G-d of my father and I will exalt.” (Song of the Sea, Exodus 15.2). In other words, the young man had to figure out his relationship to G-d for himself before he would be able to fully appreciate and respect that of his father. Is this the experience that Jacob – Israel – is now having?

The next verse relates: And G-d spoke to Israel in the night, saying, ‘Jacob, Jacob’. And he said, ‘here I am’.” (Bereshit 46.1-2) From the evidence of the Torah, it appears that G-d has not spoken to Jacob since the journey from Beth El, when Rakhel died in childbirth. G-d’s presence returns to Jacob, now Israel, only because Jacob is finally, it seems, able to become Israel.

We don’t know what was going through Israel’s mind and heart as he took that journey after so many years of loss. We only know that he we reunited with Joseph and died at peace.

Today the world mourns for Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday. I well remember watching him walk away from prison in 1990, amidst all the excitement, and the hope, that he engendered. After so many years, what was that journey like for Mandela? What did it cost him? We will never really know – all we have is the teaching he did by example of how to be reunited, and how to die at peace. It is, as the Torah would put it this week, to become Israel: to put down bitterness and anger, to walk away from regret for loss. It is to let one’s hard-won experience lead one toward wholeness, finally, rather than looking for payback or, even, the attention one feels one deserves.

And perhaps, in that way, finally to come to know what is the true source of one’s reverence and awe, and be able to see others – even one’s own parents – in that new light as well.

May the light of your own hard-won experience illuminate your life in these longest, darkest days of the year.

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