Vayechi: The Pit Revisited

“And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did him?” (Bereishit 50:16)

They bring their father slowly back
and place him in his grave
then silently retrace their steps,
their faces turned to Goshen.

In unison the brothers walk,
heads bowed, engrossed in thought,
but when they seek out Joseph,
once more they find him gone.

Wide-eyed, they sight him from afar,
as once they watched him come.
They see him standing at the pit
and fathoming its depths.

They fear revenge is in his heart
and warily approach;
he turns around, his face aglow;
his eyes embrace them all.

For now he knows the shadowed pit
is sheltered by God’s wings;
he tells them softly, “God be blessed –
for here I was redeemed!”


In a commentary on Parashat Vayehi from 2006, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/va-yehi/5766/seeing-forest-through-trees, Rabbi Ron Shulman ponders the different perspectives with which we see our lives. He says, “Some people look at life and see only the facts. Others are able to look at life and see the meaning…” He compares the differing perspective of Joseph and of his brothers.
He cites a Midrash (Tanchuma 17) which recounts that when Joseph is returning from his father’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah, he passes the very pit into which his brothers had cast him, and he looks into it. Based on this Midrash, Rabbi Shulman speculates what Joseph might have been thinking as he peered into the crater. He wonders, “How did he remember that moment in his life? What future could he imagine with his brothers, those who had threatened to kill him?”
The Midrash answers, “Joseph stood up and prayed, “Blessed is God Who performed a miracle for me in this place!” Rabbi Shulman says, “There, gazing into a barren pit, the place of his greatest danger and fear, Joseph looks back and sees the wonder, mystery, and graciousness present in his life. In personal terms, such belief and understanding are what we might describe as a consciousness of God.”
The brothers assume and fear that he is dwelling on the evil that they perpetrated against him, and now that Jacob is dead, Joseph will take revenge. So they send him a message (which they fabricate) with Bilhah, saying that Jacob had urged Joseph not to take revenge. Joseph weeps, says the Midrash, that they have so little trust in his affection. When they appear, bowing abjectly, he speaks to them gently and puts their fears at rest. “Ten stars,” he tells them, “could do nothing against one star, how much less could one star do against ten? How could I lay a hand on those whom both God and my father have blessed?”
Rabbi Shulman sees how Joseph has processed the experiences he has undergone and is able, looking back, to see God’s hand in his life. Joseph comforts his brothers, “Besides, although you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.” (Bereishit 50:20) Rabbi Shulman adds, “Deeper still, Joseph has discovered a truth about himself, and the rest of us as well. In the midst of our affluence, our intelligence, and our skills, Joseph’s perspective teaches that we live best with a perception of God, a perspective that humbles us, helps to frame our relationships with others, and can assist us each to define our own place in the world.
“What does it mean to be conscious of God? Such an awareness or faith is our way of organizing, and imposing significance upon, the many circumstances and situations that make up our lives; those compelling moments about which we also form idealized memories, recollections sometimes detached from the actual facts of what took place. In other words, how we understand the events we experience defines how well we respond to them, and the meaning we derive from them.
“This was Joseph’s insight before his brothers. He was able to describe for them the results of what they had done. He was able to discover a purpose and attach a meaning to all that he had experienced. “Do I take God’s place?” he asks (Bereishit 50:19). Of course not, all of us can answer along with Joseph. Each of us stands in our own place, responsible for understanding the flow and consequence of our own lives’ choices, and relationships.
The gift we are given by the Torah is attentiveness — a consciousness of God that points us toward the ideals and beliefs that ought to matter most in our lives. Such insight is focused on that which transcends the specifics of particular events, highlighting their essential legacy instead. But, it does depend on how we look at it.
Some of us, like Joseph’s brothers, can only see the facts of what has happened, standing nervously by waiting to see what might come next. Others of us, like Joseph himself, can learn to put those facts into a larger context, to appreciate them with sacred sensitivity, and though not forgetting what has taken place, take responsibility for seeing in them a consequential meaning for our lives.”
In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen addresses this idea of making sense of the broader picture, with a childhood memory. “All through my childhood, my parents kept a giant jigsaw puzzle set up on a puzzle table in the living room. My father, who had started all this, always hid the box top. The idea was to put the pieces together without knowing the picture ahead of time. Different members of the family and visiting friends would work on it, sometimes for only a few minutes at a time, until after several weeks hundreds and hundreds of pieces would each find their place.
“Over the years, we finished dozens of these puzzles…I especially loved the time when the first hint of pattern would emerge and I could see what had been there, hidden, all along.
“The puzzle table was my father’s birthday present to my mother. I can see him setting it up and gleefully pouring the pieces of that first puzzle from the box onto the tabletop. I was three or four and I did not understand my mother’s delight. They hadn’t explained this game to me, doubtless thinking I was too young to participate. But I wanted to participate, even then.
“Alone in the living room early one morning, I climbed on a chair and spread out the hundreds of loose pieces lying on the table. The pieces were fairly small; some were brightly colored and some dark and shadowy. The dark ones seemed like spiders or bugs, ugly and a little frightening. They made me feel uncomfortable. Gathering up a few of these, I climbed down and hid them under one of the sofa cushions. For several weeks, whenever I was alone in the living room, I would climb up on the chair, take a few more dark pieces, and add them to the cache under the cushion.
“So this first puzzle took the family a very long time to finish. Frustrated, my mother finally counted the pieces and realized that more than a hundred were missing. She asked me if I had seen them. I told her then what I had done with the pieces I didn’t like and she rescued them and completed the puzzle. I remember watching her do this. As piece after dark piece was put in place and the picture emerged, I was astounded. I had not known there would be a picture. It was quite beautiful, a peaceful scene of a deserted beach. Without the pieces I had hidden, the game had made no sense…
“Life provides all the pieces. When I accepted certain parts of life and denied and ignored the rest, I could only see my life a piece at a time – the happiness of a success or a time of celebration, or the ugliness and pain of a loss or a failure I was trying hard to put behind me out of sight. But like the dark pieces of the puzzle, these sadder events, painful as they are, have proven themselves a part of something larger. What brief glimpses I have had of something hidden seem to require accepting as a gift every last piece.
“We are always putting the pieces together without knowing the picture ahead of time. I have been with many people in times of profound loss and grief when an unsuspected meaning begins to emerge from the fragments of their lives. Over time, this meaning has proven itself to be durable and trustworthy, even transformative. It is a kind of strength that never comes to those who deny their pain.”

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