Thursday, December 17, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: On Wheels and Responsibility

What does a wheel symbolize? In our house in Albany, we used to have an old bicycle wheel hanging on our front porch and we would ask visitors what they thought it symbolized. They gave all kinds of deep answers (the truth is it was a symbol of bike-riding, which my husband loves).

What does the wheel symbolize in this week’s parsha? Three times the Torah tells us that Pharaoh/Yosef sent agalot, wagons, to transport the families and possessions of the children of Israel down to Egypt. These wagons seem to have some special significance, as, when the brothers tell Yaakov of their meeting with Yosef, he at first does not believe them, but then, the Torah says, Vayar et ha’agalot, “He saw the wagons,” and “the spirit of their father Jacob revived.”

What do these wagons symbolize? Note that the Hebrew term is agalot, from the word agol, meaning round, showing that the distinguishing feature of wagons is its round wheels.

A wheel is a symbol of connectedness. Look at how all the spokes join together in the center. It is a little reminiscent of Yosef’s dream, with him at the center and all the sheaves bowing down to him. There is a sense of joint purpose and connection.

This is the parsha of reunification. The broken family will finally be reunited with their lost son/brother. Vayigash means “He came forward,” and this verb is repeated numerous times. It is a parsha of meetings, of coming forward, of coming back together, in a place called Goshen, a play on this verb, a coming together place.

And so Yaakov saw the wheel and thought of togetherness and was revived.

The rabbis say that when Yaakov saw the agalot, he was reminded of the eglah arufah, the ritual of the broken-necked heifer which is killed to atone for an unsolved murder, a topic of study Yosef was apparently engrossed in before he left home. So the agaolot reminded Yaakov of the eglah arufah, which was a sign from Yosef that this was really him.

What is this strange connection to the eglah arufah ritual? The basic idea of that ritual is that even if we can’t unravel who killed someone, if a person dies near our city, we are responsible for him. We must somehow atone for our negligence in not coming to his aid, in not properly caring for his so that he would not come to this harmful end.

We are responsible for one another. How does this relate to our parsha? The eglah arufah is brought as a tikkun (a repair) for our lack of responsibility for each other. Here, too, in our parsha, this coming together is also a tikkun for the family’s past lack of responsibility for each other, for its letting go of ties of attachment so much as to actually sell their brother down to Egypt.

What will atone for this past? A renewed sense of connection and taking responsibility for each other. That is why Yehudah is the one who convinces Yaakov to let Binyamin go down to Egypt with him. What he says is simply: I take responsibility for him. You can hold me accountable for him. And indeed, when put to the test, Yehudah stands up for Binyamin, indeed holds himself responsible for his brother. Yosef has created a situation where, if they want, the brothers can leave Binyamin to his own fate and go off, without any responsibility for him. But Yehudah now understands that such an act is not really possible.

Yehudah now understands, after seeing the years of pain that he has caused his father through the loss of Yosef, Yehudah
now understands that we can never escape responsibility for each other. We can never go home and feel fine when our brother is not fine. We are intertwined, like the bicycle spokes, so that if one is sick, we all are. As Yehudah says repeatedly in his speech – I cannot leave Binyamin here because of what it will do to my father and therefore what it will do to me – how can I watch such a thing happen? I am attached. I am responsible.

Like the people of a city near an unsolved murder, what Yehudah says is: We are all responsible for one another. We are all part of one wheel. We may not be aware of our connection. We may think we live independent lives from our neighbors, but the truth is otherwise – the truth is a one-ness and a connectedness that is so healing that after decades of unremitting grief, Yaakov looks at the wheels and his spirit is revived. The truth is we are all part of this wheel, whether we know it or not.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Parashat Vayeshev: Ego in the Way

What stands in the way of hearing God’s message is often our own ego.

The Yosef story begins with his dreams. Yaakov, his father, also had dreams. But what is the difference between them? The one dreamt of a ladder leading up to heaven and God at the top, and the other, of himself in the middle of a circle of bowing family members. The one of God at the top; the other, of himself at the center.

Now, to be sure, there is something divine in Yosef’s dreams. They are a kind of prophetic vision of the future. But what they are missing is one essential element – a sense of who runs the show. Yosef had to learn this the hard way, by being pushed down multiple times, until finally he is able to articulate, at the end of the story, that all was indeed planned by God and that he, Yosef, is merely an instrument of the divine will.

Avraham heard clearly the message to leave his homeland. Yosef, too, had this gift of hearing/seeing the divine plan. But he could not properly understand its contents because his own ego was in the way.

Where is this happening for us in our own lives? When we try to figure out the right path, are we looking for an answer that puts us as the star of the show? Are we trying to figure out how to get others to bow down to us or are we trying to figure out how to understand the role that we, each one of us as an individual, is intended to play in God’s plan?

Parashat Vayeshev/Miketz: On Hearing the Cry

“Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at the anguish of his soul, but did not listen when he pleaded with us.” (42:21)

Thus say Yosef’s brothers in next week’s parsha. We looked on at tzarat nafsho, the anguish of his soul. We did not listen to his pleading. Strangely enough, in this week’s parsha, when we hear of the incident --- the brothers throwing Yosef into the pit and then selling him – we do not hear any pleading on Yosef’s part. What we are told in this week’s parsha is simply that they take him and cast him into the pit. And then right afterward: vayeshvu le’ekhol lekhem. They sat down to eat bread.

What is this breaking of bread right after throwing their brother in a pit? And where is the pleading – Yosef’s cries of anguish -- that the brothers recall in next week’s parsha?

The reality is that they don’t hear Yosef’s cries in the present moment – they don’t register it – because they are hiding from it, hiding from the awful reality of what they have done and how they feel about it. They are hiding and the symbol of their hiding is eating.

The problem is a lack of presence. Later on, they can recall “hearing Yosef’s cries” but at the moment it is happening the Torah doesn’t even record those cries because it is as if they do not exist for these brothers at that moment – they have removed themselves entirely from the situation by turning toward food. Had they taken a moment to “digest” what is going on, to hear those awful cries (it is painful even to imagine it) and to take in the extent of harm they were inflicting on someone that, no matter how irritating, they were nonetheless attached to, had they taken that moment to be present to the cries, all would have turned out differently.

It is our hiding – whether in food or other distractions – it is our hiding that causes pain. Interestingly enough, in recalling the incident the brothers do not blame themselves for their horrific act of throwing their brother into the pit. That was a momentary act of passionate anger and jealousy which could have been forgiven. What is unforgiveable is the turning away from hearing and from presence, the callous shutting out of cries.

In some ways it is easy to dismiss the brothers’ act as too horrific to imagine doing ourselves. But surely there are cries – both of those close to us and of those whom society has blocked from our view – surely there are cries that we are hiding from, cries and problems that we turn to food to escape from, cries that we cannot really hear until is too late. The answer is presence, always presence, presence in the moment so that we do not have to recall the cry, but can hear it right now and respond.