Vayechi: Life as Light

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

Shalom and happy new Gregorian year! It’s a new year on the date line
of your checks, but we are still reading from the book of
Bereshit/Genesis, just finishing it up this week with Vayechi, during
which Yaakov dies and is taken back to the Land of Israel, and Yosef
dies and makes his brothers promise to take his bones back to the Land
when they return.

However, in between those two dramatic moments is another: after
Yaakov dies, the ten brothers who sold Yosef into slavery become
worried that now he’ll take revenge on them. After all, he’s still the
Prime Minister of Egypt and they are just shepards out in the
boondocks- they are dependent on him and it’s reasonable for them to
assume that their father’s death might change the emotional dynamics
in the family. However, Yosef seems to forgive them, noting that
everything worked out for the best in the end:

“But Yosef said to them, ‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God?
Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so
as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.
And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he
reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-21)

The last few words of verse 21 are actually a bit more poetic than
rendered in the JPS translation quoted above: the Torah says that
Yosef spoke “al libam,” or “to their hearts.” Picking up on this
emotional language, a rabbi of the Talmud [in tractate Megillah, 16b]
explained that Yosef spoke words which were accepted by the hearts of
his brothers- that is, that he was effective in comforting and
reassuring them. He (R. Binyamin bar Yafet, in the name of R.
Eleazar), goes on to say that Yosef offered his brothers a parable,
which helped them understand that he harbored no ill will:

“If ten lights could not extinguish one light, how could one light
extinguish ten lights?”

A simple explanation of the parabel is that if the ten brothers could
not harm Yosef, because it was God’s will that Yosef would become a
ruler in Egypt, then certainly he, Yosef, cannot bring harm to his ten
brothers if they are destined to live and return to the Land. Yet
what’s fascinating about R. Binyamin’s midrash is that he imagines
Yosef speaking of his life, and the lives of his brothers, as light,
which seems to be a symbol of soul or spirit, connecting the life of a
person with the Light of God.

Perhaps R. Binyamin imagines Yosef as reminding his brothers that he
and they are not prisoners of the emotional past, enslaved by the
desire for revenge, but spiritual beings, children of the Living God,
who can always choose the way of holiness. The children of Avraham and
Sarah, of Yitzhak and Rivka, of Yaakov (who becomes Yisrael) and
Rachel and Leah are meant to be bearers of light, not of vengeance.
Thus it is incumbent upon them- and us, their spiritual heirs- to
choose forgiveness over grievance, to choose reconciliation over
resentment, to choose awareness of our spiritual gifts rather than
being mired in old hurts. In this way, light is added to light, and
the world is illuminated with love and grace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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