To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Reflections

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27).  The parsha opens with an incredibly dramatic and emotional, moving exchange between Judah and Joseph (44:18-34).  Judah attempts to explain to Pharaoh's viceroy, whom he and the other siblings still do not realize is Joseph, his concern for the well-being of Benjamin which is so closely linked to the very survival of their father, Jacob.

Judah is willing to take Benjamin's place so that the youngest of the siblings will not be lost to their father.  We are drawn to see this as a noble gesture on Judah's part and yet Joseph may actually be more hurt than the text suggests by Judah's seemingly selfless act.

In response to Judah's appeal (44:34), "How can I go up to my father if the youth (Benjamin) is not with me, lest I see the bad which will befall my father?" Joseph cannot emotionally restrain himself any longer.  Clearing the room so that he is left alone with his siblings, Joseph cries out (45:3), "I am Joseph.  Is my father still alive?"  What a seemingly odd question!  Judah has just pleaded for the well-being of his father, so what motivates Joseph to ask if Jacob is actually living?

Perhaps his question is born our of the unresolved hurt which Joseph feels about both his relationship with his siblings and with his father. Within Joseph's revelation are these two wounds:  first, you (Judah) are concerned that Jacob would not be able to survive the loss of Benjamin, but why were you not similarly concerned when you and the others tore me from my father? and second, my father seems to have survived "my loss" never even seeking out the place where my remains were supposedly buried so why would you not think that he could survive Benjamin's loss in a similar manner?

We view our realities through the lens of our unresolved emotional struggles.  What is present to us is always influenced by past hurts.  This is why we so often repeat patterns which keep us locked in the prison of issues from which we attempt to hide.  "I am Joseph," he repeats in 45:4, "your brother, it is me whom you sold into Egypt."

Joseph wants them to understand the pain which continues to burden him, but first he needs to acknowledge it to himself.  The Torah reminds us, often in subtle ways, that the real journey is that of self-discovery.  We descend into our own personal Egypts (the Hebrew word for "Egypt" literally means "narrow space"), those narrow passageways from which we struggle to find some breathing room, a chance to make our path beyond the constraints of past hurts.  For, if we are unable to honestly and openly confront this challenge we will end up lamenting as Jacob did (47:9) that few and troublesome have been our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this week is Meiketz (Genesis 41:1- 44:17).  The Joseph narrative continues.  Through his dream interpretations, Joseph becomes the trusted counsel to Pharaoh and gains a position of power within Egypt.  It is through Joseph’s insights and guidance that Egypt plans for years of plenty and years of famine.  When famine engulfs the vast geographic area which borders Egypt, Joseph’s foresight and preparations make Egypt the destination for those who are hungry to find relief, thereby setting the stage for Joseph’s reunion with his brothers.

A key element in our parsha is the notion of remembrance.  What and how we remember sets the tone of our relationships.  The parsha opens with the chief cupbearer remembering how Joseph interpreted his dream and he tells the Pharaoh of Joseph’s skills.  It took two years for the cupbearer’s memory to be jogged (41:1, 9-13) for just as quickly as Joseph’s insights became a reality and the cupbearer was released from prison, returning to his position in Pharaoh’s house, the cupbearer forgot what Joseph had done for him. (40:23).

Later in the parsha, when Joseph’s brothers come into Egypt following Jacob’s request for supplies to survive the famine (42:1-5), the use of remembrance underscores the unresolved issues and latent pains which burden Joseph.  When Joseph sees his brothers, he recognizes them, but chooses to act as a stranger toward them, for while he recognizes them, they do not remember him (42:7-8).  At that moment, with all the power and wealth at his disposal, Joseph is still enslaved by past hurts.  When we allow the past to dictate how we see and act in the present, we remain entrapped in our memories rather than using our past to serve as a motivation to strive to live healthier and more fulfilling lives.

I recently had the opportunity to rejoice with friends at the celebration of their youngest child’s wedding.  What made the ceremony and reception so beautiful and touched me deeply was the sense of how remembrance served as a foundation for the joy felt not only by the bride and groom, but also by both sets of parents.  To feel a real sense of blessing in life one needs to not only appreciate the moment, but also acknowledge the journey to that moment.

Both during the ceremony and at the reception, those who could not be present were remembered.  They were recognized for the lessons they taught, the struggles they faced, the opportunities they afforded. Yet, what I found most affirming was that in the midst of the hundreds of guests who were there, our friends surrounded themselves with the individuals who had shared their journey the longest:  friendships they have maintained from childhood, individuals who reminded them of who they once were and hence could most clearly recognize who they are today. 

Through hard work and innate smarts, our friends have achieved great success in their lives and they have been extremely gracious in sharing that success with both family and friends.  But the real wisdom I was able to observe was that they kept coming back to reconnect with those lifelong friends as if to recharge, reaffirm and not hide from who they were and have become.

It took Joseph a long time to accept himself, to acknowledge and remember his youthful arrogance, then to transform it into the humility and wisdom which allowed him to no longer hide from his brothers, giving him an opportunity to use those remembrances to establish healthier relationships with his siblings in the present.

This is our ongoing challenge:  to utilize the past with all its strengths and its flaws as an impetus to a more affirming and positive life in the present and for our future.  If we hide from it, if we are unwilling to recognize that which has served as a stumbling block, then we will limit our own growth and never permit ourselves to achieve the uniqueness locked within each of us.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy Chanukah and a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Vayyeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23).  The Jacob narrative now shifts its focus to the next generation:  Joseph and his brothers.  We are presented with a scenario which begs an age-old question, "Is it possible for individuals to change patterns in their lives which, while familiar and comforting in their recognizable nature, are actually hurtful and hold a person back from real growth and emotional vitality?"

Jacob, who just a few of weeks ago experienced the potentially harmful ramifications of parental bias of one sibling over another (25:28),  allows the same jealousies to fester with his own children.   Not only does the Torah state that "Jacob loved Joseph more than all his children," (37:3), but he rubs that distinction in their faces by making Joseph a colorful garment which serves as a constant needling to the siblings of their father's favoritism.

Recently, I had a conversation with a person whose father had just died.  When I asked him about their relationship, he told me that he and his two siblings knew that they each were their father's favorite.  He said it with a sad, but warm smile on his face.  Each sibling knew that he was loved and respected by their father and that uniqueness, the man said, lovingly bound the siblings together.

Such was not the case in Jacob's household.  His favoritism of his young son fosters a sense of entitlement in Joseph which manifests in the youngster's dreams of superiority and the boastful display of what he dreamt before his entire family (37:5-11).  The intense jealousies unfold into the most dire of consequences.  Joseph's brothers literally want to kill him, thereby not only ridding themselves of Joseph but also punishing their father.

Out in the fields, away from paternal oversight, Joseph's siblings concoct a scheme to sell their brother into slavery and to deceive their father by returning to him with only Joseph's blood-stained garment.  It is not stained with Joseph's blood, rather that of a goat which they have slaughtered to add to their deception:  "they brought it (the coat) to their father and said, 'we have found this.  Do you know if this is your son's coat or not?' " (37:20-34)

Jacob recognizes the garment and makes the assumption that a wild beast has killed Joseph.  He mourns Joseph for many days (37:34).  His other children, hoping that their father's time of grief may serve as an opportunity for them to comfort him and feel a connection with him that they have so desperately missed, come away with the realization that their deceptions will only lead to further alienation within their home.

We cannot rid ourselves of past hurts or hope that destructive patterns will change unless we are willing to honestly and openly confront them and work toward a healthier way of interacting with others.  The absence of another does not erase the past.  Rather, it only makes the challenge of confronting the harms more onerous because one must seek out answers through a dialogue with the self rather than with the other.  Yet, if we want to live our lives less encumbered by the baggage of earlier times and relationships, we will only be able to achieve that goal by returning to the emotional scene of the crime.  In this way we can work to ensure that the past will not harm our health and well-being now and in the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Vayyishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:32).  It could be subtitled, "Confronting Our Worst Fears."  Jacob's journey, like so many journeys in our lives as I wrote last week, is not to a new destination, but rather a return to familiar surroundings.  It is an encounter with that which is still unresolved.  We may view this journey through the imagery of the maze or the labyrinth.  Wandering through a maze we encounter dead ends and may even despair whether we can find our way out.  Yet the journey through the labyrinth returns us to territory previously traveled and offers an opportunity to reexamine our past and the courage to find a new, healthier direction for the venture ahead.

As Jacob approaches his upcoming encounter with his brother, Esau, the two decades which have elapsed do not cushion him from the unresolved issues which necessitated his quick departure and he is filled with dread.  He fled penniless and returns a wealthy man, but possessions are poor insulation against the harsh realities of the self.   His last moments with Esau are etched in his memory:  he betrayed his brother by preying on Esau's vulnerability and then again by participating in a deception which triangulated Jacob with both his parents.

It is not surprising then, that our parsha opens with yet another nighttime encounter for Jacob.  Having outwardly prepared his family for the next day's meeting with Esau, Jacob spends the night alone (32:25) and "there he wrestled with a man until the break of day."  After a night of our own fitful sleep, we might say to ourselves "With so much on my mind I tossed and turned all night."  We might even notice that we have a leg cramp from sleeping in an awkward position (32:26).  Will our troubled night's sleep move us to work at ways to resolve that which torments us?  Will we attempt to find ways to prevail (32:29) or will we dismiss the soul-searching as just a case of indigestion?  At our moments of inner awareness, at times when we honestly confront ourselves, we have the potential to strive to the heights of our uniqueness just as Jacob realized that he can become Israel.  But just as easily we can slip back into patterns which are not ideal, familiar patterns which are easy, patterns which do not challenge us or encourage our own growth.

There are certainly times when the issues we must confront are brought about by our encounters with others:  what has been done to us or what we have inflicted upon them.  But very often, even when the external events have been addressed, we are left with a wrenching pain, not in our legs, but in our minds and hearts.  In the stillness of the night, we encounter ourselves, and while it is true that all too often we are our own worst enemy, we are called upon to ally ourselves with the best that is within us, thereby permitting ourselves to see our uniqueness and to share that gift with others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch