Early Shabbat Shalom and a Happy (secular) New Year to you all!
This week's Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18), begins "Vayigash aylav Yehudah...." "And Judah drew near" to Joseph to plead for his brother Benjamin's freedom. Judah volunteered to be taken as a slave in Benjamin's place, so that his father Jacob would not 'lose' the only other son of his beloved Rachel (believing still that Joseph was dead).
Judah pleads with Joseph to keep him in Egypt, instead of Benjamin. Moved by Judah's appeal, Joseph, moved to tears, decides at the moment Judah offers himself to reveal his true identity to his brothers. He then orders his servants to leave them alone and he tells his brothers that he is indeed Joseph . He then tells them not to feel guilty for having left him in the pit. He is certain that it was God's plan that he should end up in Egypt, where he could predict the famine, become Pharaoh's administrator, and save his own family from starvation. Joseph told his brothers to return to Jacob and bring the entire clan to Egypt where he will ensure their well being for the remaining years of the famine.
The entire Joseph narrative can be seen as an allegory for the journey of the ego, as represented by Joseph (see my past commentaries). Ultimately, we must negate the ego in order to allow the soul to shine forth. In this week's climax Joseph, faced with the reality of all the suffering that ego can bring to the world, realizes that he must unite all the pieces of himself in order to reconnect with the soul. He sends away his Egyptian servants, representative of his ego's "power," and standing there, stripped of all sense of pretense and self-importance, joins in a tearful reunion with all the disparate aspects of himself and the universe. This eventually results in the reuniting with Jacob, his father, his human source of life (along with his long-deceased mother). This reunion represents the oneness that we find when we unite ourselves with our divine source, the oneness of all existence.
This story of reconciliation is a moving one and brings us closer to the end of this chapter in Joseph's life. Yet, as always, there is another chapter yet to be lived. In sharing these thoughts on the reunion as representative of the journey of negating the ego, I would also like to share with you another Midrash I have written as a continuation of the Joseph saga.
Joseph was seated on his throne as he watched his brothers preparing to leave. They had just enjoyed a sumptuous feast together. They enjoyed each other, as if they were old friends; they had no idea that they were dining with their brother, nor that he had been setting a trap for them this entire time.
As they prepared to leave Joseph sprang his trap. "Wait," he cried, "someone has stolen my goblet. The perpetrator shall be discovered and punished appropriately." As all 11 brothers denied any wrongdoing Joseph watched as his men searched their bags. When the goblet was found in the sack belonging to Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel, Joseph could hear the jaws of the trap slam shut. "This one shall remain here as punishment for the wrong he has done me. The rest of you may return to your father."
Then something happened that Joseph never expected. Judah, the one who had been so instrumental in what happened to Joseph all those years ago, offered himself in Benjamin's stead. He pleaded with Joseph to keep him in Egypt rather than see the only other son of Rachel, the child of Jacob's old age, remain captive, and thereby grieving, and possibly killing, their elderly father.
As Joseph stood there looking down on his brothers, he could feel hatred and triumph raging in his heart. Yet, somewhere deep inside he felt another emotion trying to emerge, though he did his best to keep it repressed. For he knew that this emotion was compassion, the source of forgiveness, and he did not want to forgive. He wished nothing less than that. To see his brothers suffer as he did was his greatest desire. Only after that might he be willing to entertain any other idea.
As he felt hatred and compassion struggling within him he suddenly remember a dream he had the night before. And once again, it was a dream that held the key to his decision and his future.
In this dream, he imagined that he was standing, as he was now, above his brothers as they watched the goblet emerge from Benjamin's sack. In that moment, it appeared all the brothers turned as one towards Benjamin pointing an accusing finger at him. They encircled him like lions surrounding their prey, moving ever closer, tightening the circle, and preventing his escape.
Then, Joseph saw a deep pit in the earth just behind Benjamin. As the other brothers moved closer to Benjamin he continued to step back in fear, unaware of the danger behind him. As Benjamin stood almost at the edge of the pit, Joseph cried out "stop!" This the brothers did. Yet, what happened next astonished Joseph even more than it did his brothers.
Joseph descended the steps from his throne and pushed aside the brothers. He then stood in front of Benjamin and looked deeply into his eyes, not saying a word. All held their breath, wondering what he would do. He then reached out his hands and placed them on Benjamin's shoulders, all the while fixing his gaze on those familiar eyes. Their mother's eyes. Then, without warning, Joseph shoved Benjamin as hard as he could and listened to him screaming as he fell into the pit. The brothers gasped as they witnessed history repeating itself.
The room was silent, but for the low sobs rising from the depths where Benjamin lay. Joseph looked down into the pit, but all he could see through the darkness was Benjamin's eyes looking up at him through his tears. As he looked deeply into the well, into the eyes of Rachel's only other son, he suddenly heard a wail, a scream, unlike any he had heard before. This cry pierced his heart; it pierced the heavens. It was as if its grief could tear the world in two.
Then Joseph awoke. Yet, he was confused, for the scream still continued. He looked around his bedchamber, but could not find its source. He looked outside, but no one was there. He wanted to follow the sound of the cry, but he could not tell from which direction it came. It was as if the cry came from everywhere and from nowhere. It was as if it came from deep within Joseph, himself.
Then the wail changed to a deep sobbing, which gave way to the voice of a woman crying softly, "Joseph, my Joseph, what have you done to your brother? What have you done to yourself? To me? To us all?" Joseph knew that voice. Even though he had not heard it since he was a youth, it was a voice he could never forget. The voice of his mother. Joseph remained silent.
Then Rachel's voice spoke again. "Joseph, you must undo what you have done. You must release your brother from the pit. You must undo what has been done to him and to you." "But how? Why?Joseph asked. For all these years, I have never forgotten what my brothers did to me. Not a day has passed when I did not dream of setting things right. Now my opportunity has arrived. How can you deny me this justice, mother?"
"Justice!" replied Rachel, "this is not justice. This is hatred. This is revenge. This will eventually bring about the destruction of our family, our people and all humanity, if it does not cease." Joseph again remained silent, as his mother continued. "Joseph, look down into the pit. Look into the eyes of the only other child ever to emerge from my womb. "But the pit is not here," replied Joseph, "that was merely in my dream." "Look," Rachel commanded. Joseph turned around saw to his surprise that there was indeed a pit in front of him, just as in the dream. Perhaps he had never really awoken? Perhaps he simply went from one dream into another? Or perhaps in that moment there was no separation between the world of dreams and the world of reality.
Joseph looked into the pit and saw his brother's eyes staring at him through the darkness. "Look deeply into those eyes," implored Rachel, "and tell me who you see." Joseph looked deeply for what seemed an eternity, then he spoke, "I see my brother. I see you, my mother.I see myself." "Exactly," exclaimed Rachel, "We are all one. And so are we one with your other brothers as well. Benjamin lying there in the pit is your entire family; he represents a family that has tricked and deceived so many through the years. A family where twin brothers vied for parental blessings. A family where sisters strove with one another for a man's love and attention. A family where brothers plotted together to destroy the life of another brother. He is all of these, as are you.
"Continue looking into his eyes, my beloved son, and you will see yourself in him. Then look inside your soul and you will see him, as well as the rest of our family, within you. You must release him from his captivity. If you do not, neither you nor anyone in our family will every be free!"
Joseph suddenly looked up, breaking gaze with his brother, and cried into the air, "But why should I release him? You said it yourself. In our family it has always been brother against brother, sister against sister, parent against child. Perhaps it is seeking retribution that is truly the fulfillment of our destiny!"
"No!" cried Rachel, "I have come to you from my grave to tell you that this is not the way! I am here in Bethlehem alone. I was not buried with my family. I was not gathered to my ancestors, as is our custom. I was left out here alone by the side of the road where I died, as a reminder of what jealousy and struggle brings. I may have received more love from your father than did my sister, but in doing all I could to hold on to that love, I separated myself from her, and ultimately from everything and everyone.
"Yet, I know that Leah and I never truly hated one another, nor do you hate your brothers. We just were too narrow-minded and selfish to see that we were actually part of each other. Perhaps we understood this at the beginning. But as the competition for love and children continued we could each only see our individual suffering and pain. We were blind to the suffering of the other and everyone around us, just as your father had been blind to the suffering of his brother when he stole the blessing and the birthright.
"Do not be blind Joseph! See not with your eyes, but with your soul. Listen not with your ears, but with your heart. See the suffering of your brother; for it is your suffering and the suffering of all humanity. Hear his sobs, for they are your sobs. They are also the sobs of all who desire simply to live in freedom and happiness and are prevented from doing so. Hear him and see him now, for he is the same as you, all those years ago. He is the same as those yet to be born who will also suffer so long as there is hatred in the world. Look! Listen!Feel! my beloved son, and you will understand what I mean."
Slowly Joseph walked again to the edge of the pit and looked down again. Benjamin had been but a mere child when Joseph was sold into slavery. As Joseph continued to look at him, he began to feel the hatred well up within him once again. Then he remembered his mother's plea. He breathed in deeply and looked again, this time with his soul. He saw the pain and the fear in his brother. The longer he stood there, the more he felt the same pain and fear within himself. He wanted to run from it, but he did not. He knew he needed to stay there, still, quiet, and allow himself to feel these emotions, no matter how difficult it might be.
Then Joseph began to truly listen, for the first time, to the sounds coming from the well. They were not sounds of hatred, envy or jealousy. They were the sounds of pain and fear. They were the cries of someone who did not know if he would ever see sunlight again. They were the sounds of someone who believed that he would never again know happiness. They were the sounds that Joseph had made all those years ago, as he lay in the pit alone, prepared to die.
As he truly looked and listened, he could feel the pain, fear and longing deep within him. As he continued to pay attention to those feelings, he then sensed them slowly turning into compassion and mercy toward his brother, towards himself, toward his brothers and towards all who are suffering. As compassion and mercy grew, the pain, fear, and anger diminished enough for him to begin to realize that his mother was right. The only way to break the cycle of anger, fear, jealousy and hatred that had plagued his family was to release Benjamin from the pit. The only way to do his small part in bringing compassion and peace to humanity and the world was to show compassion towards Benjamin. But this was not enough. For he knew that he needed to show compassion and mercy not just to Benjamin, but also to all of his brothers.
The past was past. This was a new day, a new moment. Joseph had the opportunity to change the present. Hopefully, the future would follow suit. But that would remain to be seen.
Suddenly, Joseph realized that he was still in his throne room, surrounded by his brothers. He saw the youngest, Benjamin, not deep in a pit, but in the clutches of his soldiers, prepared to be taken into slavery. He saw Judah, now with a look of bravery and compassion on his face, prepared to take Benjamin's place so their father would not again experience a loss like he had when they sold Joseph into slavery. The faces were the same as all those years ago, yet they were completely different. As he looked at them, he felt love and compassion begin to well up inside him. He then had no doubt what he must do.
And so he ordered his guards to release Benjamin and then commanded them to leave him alone with these Canaanite men. He knew that he was about to reveal his true self to his brothers and that they were about to begin the process of which his mother had dreamed. His reunion with them, with himself, and ultimately with his father, was about to begin.
He had no idea how things would turn out. All he knew in that moment was what he must do in order to bring some peace and healing to his family and himself, thereby bringing a little more peace and wholeness to all of God's creation then, and hopefully in the future.