14 Tevet 5780

January 10, 2020

As we read the last portion in the Book of Genesis on this Shabbat, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), after Jacob dies, we learn: When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they grew frightened, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!’ The rabbis of Midrash ask: “What did they see that made them afraid? As they were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him.” His brothers thought that Joseph was dwelling on the terrible deed they had done to him years before.

Driven by existential crisis, they send a message to Joseph, offering information that we, the readers, do not see in the Torah. “Before Jacob’s death,” say the brothers to Joseph, “our father left this instruction: Tell Joseph to forgive his brothers. Forgive their offense from years ago. Forgive the harsh treatment. Forgive the lost time and opportunity. Forgive them, Joseph, for they are also my children.” And in response, Joseph bursts into tears. (Based on 50:14- 17)

The death of a loved one often leads to life-changing decisions. We promise to eat healthier. Hug our children. Get our affairs in order. We swear we’ll live differently from this moment on. We promise to forgive and forget. Sometimes, it sticks. Sometimes, we change. On this tenth day of this secular New Year, our aspirations are already tinged with premature regret. We know it well: This is the season of promising change and falling short of our goals. We are creatures of habit and it is hard to disrupt our routines. Even death, with its clarion call, soon dissolves into the daily chatter of appointments, errands, and text message alerts. Yet it cannot be denied: The death of a loved one gives us a unique opportunity to do teshuvah – – a change in direction, a new behavior – to experience a moment of forgiveness that was previously thought to be prohibited, unheard of, or unimaginable. But, death changes the rules.

Many of you know that Yom Kippur is meant to simulate an encounter with death so that, if given another shot at life, we feel compelled to immediately re-calibrate and stick to our resolutions. Unfortunately, that life-changing message is often lost in the waves of hunger pains and the busy work of counting down pages in the machzor. In the wake of a loved one’s death, towering billboards appear in our mind’s eye: “Pay Attention!” and “Seize the Day!” and “Who Cares What’s Happened in the Past…How Do You Want to Live from This Point Forward?” And still, estate lawyers and therapists know all too well that the content of post-mortem family conversations rarely include themes of mindfulness, forgiveness and generosity. 

The death of a loved one reminds people of their childhood traumas, still buried deep inside, healed over but never expunged. And this is where we find Joseph’s brothers: returning to their childhood, to the mistakes they made and the wounds that never healed…certain that Joseph will unleash the force of his sadness and rage now that their father is no longer there to protect them. But, Joseph makes a different choice. A surprising choice. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells them. “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about this very moment. Look around at the blessings that surround us even in the wake of death and grief. I see abundance. I see opportunity. This moment does not deplete me. I can and will sustain, support and nourish you all.” (Based on 50:19-21)

I noticed that while the Book of Genesis is replete with sibling rivalry and family conflict, death opens the door to the possibility of reconciliation. Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father Abraham after long years of estrangement. Jacob and Esau also come together to bury their father Isaac. Following Jacob’s death…the brothers plead with Joseph for forgiveness. Joseph reassures and comforts them and speaks to their hearts. He tells them that the story couldn’t have unfolded otherwise, that they were all part of a divine plan; and he releases himself from resentment and them from remorse and the fear of revenge.

And, with this, Joseph’s story ends. Not with anger, estrangement or regret but with an embrace of opportunity, blessing and abundance. Tonight, may we be blessed with Joseph’s vision. His grandfather Isaac’s eyes grew dim at the end of life while Josephs’ seem to sharpen over time. May we be blessed with Joseph’s heart. His mother Rachel cried bitterly with every child born to her sister Leah while Joseph’s empathy expanded with each experience of loss. May we be blessed not only with a good ending to our story, but a good ending for our children and our children’s children. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers…each set of siblings strove for power and position until death disrupted their routine. If we must wait for death, then let our death create space for forgiveness and reconciliation. And, if we may, God, ask for one more blessing: Help us to find holy moments of disruption before death arrives, be it through this secular New Year and its fickle resolutions, a daily practice of gratitude, or this weekly routine of Shabbat. May we learn to see and embrace all the opportunity, blessing and abundance that surrounds us.