Thursday, December 20, 2012

Parashat Vayigash: One Wheel

“You shall not take revenge nor bear a grudge on other members of your people” -- What is this like? If one was cutting meat and the knife sliced his hand, would he then turn around and hurt the hand [that made the cut]? (Talmud Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4).

We are all part of one body – if we hurt another, it is like hurting ourselves. This is the deep truth that both Yehudah and Yosef come to in this parsha. Last week’s parsha ends with Yosef saying – Let Benjamin stay as a slave and the rest of you “go up in peace to your father.” Go up in peace to their father?! If they have learned one thing from the Yosef incident, it is that if one person in the family is suffering, everyone is suffering. There will be no peace with Benjamin a slave in Egypt just as there has been no peace with Yosef gone. As Yehudah puts it: Nafsho keshura be’nafsho – Yaakov’s soul is connected to Benjamin’s soul; their fates are deeply intertwined.

What Yehudah understands from the suffering side of things – that when one person suffers, we all suffer – Yosef understands from the doing well side of things – when one person is successful, we are all successful. This great power and prestige I have earned in Egypt, says Yosef, is not for me, for my own good alone, but for the good of the whole family (and by extension, the whole of Egypt and its surrounds); his good is causing others’ good by providing them with essential food.

This attitude is the exact opposite of sibling rivalry, the primary modus vivendi up until this point in the Torah. From Cain and Abel to Yaakov and Esav to Yosef and his brothers, the feeling was always that if one brother received some benefit, it was to the detriment of the others; there was no sense of a joint enterprise. The whole notion of wanting to harm, to kill the other brother, came out of this misunderstanding of the individuals’ essential separateness. They didn’t understand that hurting another (especially a brother) is like hurting your own hand, that Abel’s blood would continue to cry out to Cain forever.

Now it is time for nationhood, and nationhood requires a joining of paths, an understanding that our brothers’s suffering is our suffering, and our sisters’ successes are our successes. If a single family can’t learn to feel this way toward each other, how can the world?

A symbol of this new perspective of connectedness is the wagon wheel. Wagons, agalot, are strangely emphasized numerous times in this parsha as the vehicle of choice for bringing Yaakov, his family and all their belongings down to Egypt. Perhaps it is because agalot, whose root is egol, “round,” representing its wheels, symbolize a joining together of fates; all the spokes are connected and turn together to make a whole, moving as one. Yosef’s first dream imagined 11 sheaves of wheat in a circle around him bowing down. It is an arrogant egocentric dream. But the same image in the form of a wheel becomes a symbol of unification and connectedness; we all turn together.

The wheel perspective is not an easy one to maintain; we think of ourselves primarily as individuals, even within a marriage or a family, and certainly in the community, and the larger world. But on some deep level, we are all part of the same wheel, in the same boat, part of the same planet, our fates inextricably linked. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnames Buddhist monk, uses the image of waves in an ocean. Does each individual wave think of itself as taller or smaller, more beautiful than the next, or are they all simply waves, made of the same water, a tiny part of a vast ocean? Yehudah and Yosef came to some understanding of this truth in this week’s parsha – that we do not and cannot exist separately – and there is great strength in this perspective.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Parashat Miketz and Hanukah: On Not Being Swallowed Up

“Sometimes in my tears I drown.” So sings the singer Matisyahu. We all sometimes drown in our tears, are overwhelmed by sadness, by despair, by the darkness that can surround and swallow us up. That’s how Pharaoh felt in his dreams – skinny cows swallowing up fat cows, the bad consuming the good, until there is no trace of light or hope. No wonder the Torah says he woke up and “his spirit was agitated,” Vatipa’em ruho (41:8). He had looked into the possibility of darkness taking over the world.

What do we do about this overwhelming darkness, about the tears – even legitimate tears for real terrible things that happen – that want to consume us? In the midst of the darkest period of the year, Hanukah offers us a response, a way of living in this darkness.

The answer is light. It seems simple, but it is very deep. One cannot combat darkness with darkness. One cannot enter into a battle with darkness and try to drive it away by negativity, by arguing against its existence. No. Even with the best intentions, one is easily swallowed up by darkness. The only option is to create light, to create some opposing force of good.

And furthermore, teaches Hanukah, it does not need to be a big light. A small cruse of oil will suffice. Don’t despair and think – but I am one person. Even if I try to do good, to create light, what can I do to effect the cosmos? These problems are bigger than me. No, Hanukah teaches never to think this way, but to believe in the single cruse of oil, the single act of goodness, the single human light. Because no matter how small the light, even a single point, a tiny flashlight has the capacity to transform the darkness.

Its transformation is greater than itself. This is the miracle of Hanukah. That such small acts have ripple effects, that light has a way of spreading and multiplying, that a little oil goes a long way, longer that it should by all natural standards.

The Sefat Emet asks why the miracle didn’t happen with a fire coming down from heaven. Somehow this miracle needed to happen through human agency – people needed to take the time to search for pure oil, to search for the light and light it, and to do so even if they thought – no, knew – the oil was not really enough to break the darkness.

Such acts are the acts that bring about miracles, that draw down onto earth the light of heaven. They begin as small acts, but they are essentially acts of faith – of a belief that by lighting one small light the world will not be consumed by darkness. Once we act, God responds double-fold, no triple-fold, no 8-fold, which means endlessly. For once we take that first step, begin to create light in the face of overwhelming darkness, we have entered the arena of light, and here, there are no boundaries.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Parashat Vayeshev: On the Suffering of the Parent

It’s painful to be a parent. Someone once said to me that it’s like having your heart walk around in someone else’s body. It does feel like that sometimes – you feel your child’s pain so intensely.

Maybe that’s why in this week’s parsha, the only person’s emotional suffering we hear about is Yaakov, the father’s. Yosef is the one going through the ordeal – being stripped, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and wrongly accused and jailed. But we don’t hear a word of emotion from him. (Interestingly, in next week’s parsha, we hear the brothers speak of Yosef’s cries from the pit, but here, at the time, the Torah does not mention any such cry.) Yosef is busy dealing with the situation, making the best of it, turning failure into success and making friends with those in power. It is his father, at home without such action to occupy him, who does the suffering, crying endlessly.

Yaakov believes that his son is dead. According to the Sefat Emet, God did not reveal to Yaakov that Yosef was still alive in Egypt because He thought that would be even more upsetting to him, to worry over what was becoming of him. Perhaps that is so; to imagine each trial and worry over its outcome when one is unable to do anything to help – that would indeed be torture for a parent.

And yet, Yaakov seems on some level to have intuited that the death of his beloved child was not complete – why else would he refuse to ever be comforted? One cannot be comforted for a death that is not real.

Yaakov spent most of the rest of his days in pain over Yosef. Perhaps there was no other way. That is the price of connection.

But perhaps there was, there is a way. Avraham experienced a similar near-loss of his beloved son and was somehow far less scathed. Avraham’s experience, of course, was much, much shorter, only a few days of agony. And Avraham also seems to be a less emotional, and less attached sort of person than Yaakov (Sarah, on the other hand, seems to have died from the experience). But one also senses in Avraham a kind of unshakeable faith that helped him weather these storms.

The fact is that things did work out okay in the end for Yosef and also for Yaakov. Yaakov could not have foreseen that, but maybe he could have suffered less along the way if he’d been able to get to that place of faith, to move beyond the worry and simply trust that with all the ups and downs, his child would come out on top in the end. Maybe such a stance can help us all keep the heart that walks around in someone else’s body a calm and faithful heart.