Vay’chi: A time of oaths

“Place your hand under my thigh and swear to me”  (Genesis 47:29) This language reminds us immediately of  another scene in Genesis, when Abraham made his servant Eliezer swear an oath to him in the same manner. That time is was for getting Abraham’s son a wife from the “old country”, not from among the Canaanites. Eliezer did so, and that’s the story of how Isaac married Rebecca. What ensued from that oath was a lot of deception – Rebecca favored Jacob, Isaac favored Esau, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, and the father’s blessing at his deathbed.

We are at the deathbed of our last family patriarch, Jacob. This is the end of Genesis, and from here on out, in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we no longer tell the story of a family, a tribe. We tell the story of a nation. The Abraham, Isaac, Jacob saga ends here.

What is Jacob asking for in this scene? What is so important that he must have the solemnity of having a hand placed under his thigh? Jacob doesn’t want to be buried in Egypt. He wants to be buried in Canaan, and  his son Joseph makes that promise to his father.

In the early part of the story, Abraham is concerned with the family line, “preferring family ties over those with the natives of the land…” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary p 116). But by the end of Genesis, the tribal ties don’t so much give way but take on a different role. Jacob wants to be buried back where so much of the family history took place, where his father and grandfather were buried. There were no Israelites back there. The nation had moved to Egypt, Joseph was comfortably ensconced in the culture, and the people were settled in the land.

Maybe Jacob knew what was coming, that a ruler would arise in Egypt who wouldn’t know Joseph. Maybe he knew that the people were going to need to be reminded where they were from. The story of Joseph being reunited with his family was sure to have spread across the community. They would also have known about Joseph traveling back to Canaan with his father’s body, to be buried in the family tomb.

Language is precise in the Torah. Words matter a great deal, and similar words matter where they occur in different settings. Perhaps this oath scene was a precursor to Moses leading the people out, preparing them for the message Moses was bringing them: not just they were to leave Egypt, but to go to a particular place where both history lived and the future waited.

 

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Vayigash: Neck and neck

joseph weeping on benjamin neckDoes reconciling always mean total forgiveness? Can we reconcile with someone whom we don’t fully forgive? There are several instances of reconciliation in Bereshit, Genesis. One was when Jacob and Esau reconciled in Chapter 33:4  “And Esau ran toward him [Jacob] and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him.” They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, and when last together,Esau was out to kill his brother for having deceived him and stolen his birthright the eldest son’s blessing.

In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph and his brothers meet after twenty years, and they reconcile too. There are two verses that describe this reconciliation, and what’s different between them says a lot.

Jacob has just revealed that he is the long-lost brother that they had, at first, thrown in a pit to die and only later, were convinced by eldest brother Reuben to sell Jacob into slavery. It’s a very emotional scene. Jacob had told the brothers they could go home with all the food they needed, but had to leave Benjamin, his only full brother, with him. Judah makes a heartfelt plea that doing so would kill their father (Jacob) if they came home without Benjamin, that their father was still mourning the loss of his son Joseph. Finally, Joseph can’t bear it any more, and he tells his brothers who he is. They don’t believe him, “His brothers were unable to answer him – they recoiled in fear of him,” (Gen 45:3)

Joseph called them closer and told them again he was their long-lost brother, that it wasn’t their terrible treatment of him as a child that brought him to Egypt, but God’s will. “He [Joseph] then fell weeping upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and Benjamin wept on his neck.” (Gen 45:14) It’s the same language as when Jacob and Esau met again.

The next verse is, “He [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept with them; only after this could his brothers respond to him.” (Gen 45:15)

Do you see the difference? Every word is important in Torah, the extra ones we see, and the ones we don’t see. Joseph wept on Benjamin’s neck, but for the rest of his brothers, he only kissed and wept with them. There’s no “neck” there, like there was between Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and Benjamin. Weeping on someone’s neck is about as close as one can get, reconciling fully. But Joseph and his brothers don’t – they weep with each other, but don’t get as close as Joseph and Benjamin got.

Benjamin was the youngest brother, and the only full brother Joseph had. Their mother died giving birth to Benjamin. Theirs was a bond much stronger than with the others. Maybe Benjamin knew about what had happened to his big brother, maybe he didn’t. It’s easy to imagine that Joseph was still hurt by what his brothers did to him, and was still angry. He wept at seeing them again, of course, but he didn’t bring them in as close, weeping on their necks.

Joseph wept a lot in his story, and it was for different reasons each time. In this moment, he was glad to be with his brothers again, but he had been betrayed, treated horribly. He wept for those lost years, the loneliness and pain of being left alone, to survive on his own. And he wept for knowing he could never be truly reconciled with his whole family. There was a future for them all together, and he would get to see his father again, but like a word in a Torah verse, there would always be something missing.

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Chanukah: Eighth candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  In the interest of changing times, community, and adult children, I have edited these slightly.

chanukah 8

Tonight, the gift of OPTIMISM

This includes both a sense of perspective and a sense of joy.  Life will be hard enough, so relish the good moments.  Our other gifts will help you stay strong in the face of adversity.  This one will help you savor its absence.  Focus on hope, equanimity, and a positive outlook, instead of on worry and pessimism.  And when you feel despair or pessimism, take that as a sign of what work needs to be done next.  There is always work to be done in this world.  Be a joyous presence.  Count your blessings. Have fun.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

 

 

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Chanukah: Seventh candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world

chanukah-7

Tonight, the gift of SECURITY

Well, at least as much security as we can give you.  Physical security is no longer guaranteed in this world; violence is random and raging.  But we send you into the world with a deep personal security of who you are.  Your true, long range security has to come from within yourselves, from being and becoming trustworthy.  Meanwhile, we will do all we can to give you the foundation of composure, of knowing without question that you are able to do good things in the world.  We are proud of your innate abilities, your goodness, and your good sense, and of your willingness to try.  You do not need to compete, or to follow the crowd to gain self-esteem, because you already have, from us, and from within yourself, the seeds of true confidence.  Just nurture them.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah: Sixth Candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world

 

chanukah 6

Tonight, the gift of FREEDOM

Freedom came within boundaries that stretched as you got older, and it seemed to have come in painfully measured doses. We always intended you to know and experience freedom within guidelines you can keep using as you’ve matured.  You have become an adult and out in the world of nearly unlimited independence,  so we hope you will know how to use this freedom, and how to be true to your own standards. Freedom didn’t mean just doing what you wanted.  We also hope you realize we gave you this gift  so you would be able to recognize lack of freedom in others, and work so that they too will be free.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah: Fifth Candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  In the interest of changing times, community, and adult children, I have edited these slightly.

Chanukah-Night5

Tonight, the gift of HOME

As in, you can always come home.  As in, you can bring your friends home.  As in, this is your home. You may have moved away, and call another place “home”, but we hope this is “home home”.  You have a place in the world, with us, a shelter, both physical and psychological.  It looks just like any other home, maybe more chaotic than some, but it is your home, your safe place, where you started and where you can always come back to.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah: Fourth Candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world.

Tonight, the gift of JUDAISM

We give you Judaism, your own personal connection  with the Source and Spirit of the World.  This great gift includes spiritual strength, heritage, a strong moral code, and an incredible gift for survival.  Judaism gives you inspiration, scholarship, protection, compassion, a way to live, and a people to belong to, wherever life takes you. We give you this gift, hoping like us, you will unwrap it throughout your life,  and find new joys and questions, new ideas and old friends.  Sometimes this gift gets complicated, and sometimes downright confusing.  But we hope we are showing you how it may change in practice, not presence; how it continues to be a source within your soul.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah

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