Vayigash: Closing the Eyes, Opening the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Vayigash: Closing the Eyes, Opening the Heart

A joyful January to all!

This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, which is the story of Yehudah’s
plea to Yosef, followed by Yosef being reunited with his brothers and
father in Egypt. Yaakov, their father, can hardly believe that his
son, missing for so many years, is not only alive, but the Prime
Minister of a world power! He immediately wants to go to see his son,
but before he leaves the Land of Israel for the last time (he won’t
return alive), he has a “vision of the night,” when God appears to him
with words of consolation:

“God called to Yisrael [i.e., Yaakov] in a vision by night: `Yaakov!
Yaakov!’ He answered, `Here.’ And He said, `I am God, the God of your
father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a
great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself
will also bring you back; and Yosef’s hand shall close your eyes.’ ”
(Bereshit/Genesis 46:2-4)

These words recall the famous verses of the 23d Psalm: “Though I walk
through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for
You are with me.” The promise to Yaakov is not that he won’t have to
“go down” into a frightening and new situation, but that God will be
with him when he does. That’s a powerful image for any of us who face
difficult times- we might have to leave the security of a settled
place, but the Holy one travels with us.

OK, so far, so good- but what about the last part of the promise, that
Yosef will “close your eyes?” This is a reference to the practice of
“kavod ha’met,” or honor due to the dead- we close the eyes of the
dead as a sign of respect, as it is considered unbecoming for eyes
which can no longer see to be open as if alive. So not only will God
be with Yaakov in Egypt, but Yosef, the beloved son of the beloved
wife, will also be there, and will care for Yaakov even in death.

The promise to Yaakov that Yosef will close his eyes — that is, care
for him in death- is a promise that he will not be abandoned, neither
in life, nor at its natural conclusion. It’s a promise of
reconciliation with a long-lost son, mourned as dead. (We might note
here that God’s promise restores a more natural order to the universe,
where sons care for their fathers in death, rather than fathers
mourning lost sons.)

Yet as powerful as these images of restoration and reconciliation are,
there is one more aspect to this promise, one that I didn’t fully
understand until I closed my own father’s eyes (factually, not
metaphorically), just about two months ago. Yosef may have been a
beloved son, but he was hardly perfect- his self-regard was a major
factor in tearing the family apart. Yaakov, for his part, was by no
means a perfect father: his favoritism among sons created jealousy and
resentment, which provided the fuel for the fire of his other son’s
anger towards Yosef.

Yet despite Yaakov and Yosef’s imperfections, which led to years of
separation and grief, the relationship could be renewed, even in its
final moments, in an act of hesed. Hesed is usually translated as
“lovingkindness,” but is better understood as “loving generosity and
giving-ness,” if there is such a word. Yosef, despite all the mistakes
he had made, and all the anger and grief and loneliness he had
experienced, could still treat his father with respect and honor at
the last moments of his earthly journey. Yaakov was promised: no
matter what happened in the past, no matter what you did that caused
resentments among your children, at the end, there will be love, there
will be respect, there will be a relationship of grace.

That, to me, is an even more powerful promise than the one God made to
go down to Egypt with Yaakov. That promise is this: our most precious
relationships, no matter how weighted down with the freight of the
past, can still resolve themselves towards hesed, towards generosity
of spirit and true giving. Our imperfections do not create an
immutable destiny- the Divine Promise is that kindness and concern for
another can burst through our inner walls, at any moment, and come to
permeate our lives.

Yosef and Yaakov were driven apart in a paroxysm of violent emotions,
and yet there could be the purest hesed at a poignant moment years
later. How much more true is that for the rest of us, who are
separated from each other only by our memories of past slights and
sharp words, and not by miles of desert and wilderness! The promise is
given: we can find hesed for each other, if we open ourselves to it,
and the greater miracle still is that we don’t even need to suffer the
years apart that our ancestors did- we can move ourselves towards
honoring and love right now, if only we are ready.

RNJL

P.S.: You can find a summary of the parshah here, near the top of the
page:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/vayigash_index.htm

The text of the Torah portion and haftarah can be found here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/vayiggash.shtml

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