Thursday, 28 Dec 2023

Written by Nicola Feuchtwang

Endings destabilise us, even if they are planned or expected. We may look forward with excitement or with dread.  Looking back may prompt reminiscences tinged with nostalgia, regret and a host of other emotions.  Even just looking around, we may find our perspective changing – familiar sights take on new meanings, relationships are adjusted.

If that is true of a job or a course of study, how much more so the end of a human life.  Leading evening prayers in a house of mourning, whether as ‘clergy’ or lay leader, is not liturgically challenging – yet it can be surprisingly moving, even when there is no prior relationship with the bereaved family. Whether the death was sudden or long anticipated, peaceful or traumatic; whether we are a handful or a hundred, the funeral is now over, and our focus must begin to shift from the deceased to the mourners. The prayerbook can be a supporting structure rather than a straitjacket, and there is scope to select and adapt according to circumstances.

It has become customary, at least in Progressive circles, between the Maariv and Memorial parts of the service, to facilitate an opportunity for public sharing of memories. It may simply be a psalm and a repeat of the hesped for those who could not attend the funeral, but increasingly I hear favourite prayers, songs and poems; stories and anecdotes from friends and family members.  Sometimes different people at the same gathering will share very different perspectives on the same events.  Frequently I find myself wiping away a tear (or smiling) with the family, and thinking “I wish I had known her/him”, as the details ‘bring the person alive’ while paradoxically also bringing home the reality of their absence.  The process can confirm the bond between family members and sometimes help to heal tensions, although inevitably sometimes the opposite is true.

Parashat Vayechi, the very end of the book of Genesis, includes accounts of the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph, and is invariably read near the end of the secular year.  Deathbed scenes, end-of -life wishes and instructions, filial obedience, blessing of future generations, burial practices, defined periods for lamentation and mourning…we can find them all here, each offering ample food for thought and study.  Yet between the complex ceremonial associated with the burial of Jacob and the concluding narrative about Joseph’s own death, there is an intriguing passage which includes the following verse:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him?”  (Genesis 50:15)

They proceed to fabricate an additional deathbed scene in which Jacob supposedly left a plea to Joseph to forgive the ill-treatment he had suffered at their hands. The text then adds:

Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Gen 50:17)

The use of the word va-yir’u (‘they saw’) attracts the attention of the early rabbis and the medieval commentators of the 11th – 13th centuries.  What might Jacob really have said? what did the brothers think Joseph might be thinking?   They ask: What does it mean ‘they saw that Jacob was dead?’  What did they “see?” Rashi points out that they have just returned from burying him, it is several weeks since he died, they already know that he is dead.  Why are they worried about Joseph bearing a grudge when he had previously and explicitly said that he did not?    One Midrash (Genesis Rabba 100:8) speculates that it was Joseph’s behaviour which worried them:  perhaps he had stopped inviting the brothers to dine with him because of sensitivity about protocol, which they misconstrued as hostility.

I prefer another story in Midrash (Tanchuma  – Vayechi 37) which imagines that on the way through the desert to bury Jacob, the brothers had seen Joseph stop and stare into a deep pit, and they realised with horror that it was the same one into which they had thrown him all those years earlier. They interpreted his behaviour to mean that Joseph had just been waiting for Jacob to die so that he could wreak his revenge on them…. The Midrash goes on to suggest that, far from planning vengeance, Joseph was actually saying a blessing:

Barukh HaMakom she-asa li nes ba-makom ha-zeh 

(Blessed be God who performed a miracle for me in this place)

 

Joseph is able to see the bigger picture (‘You may have intended it for ill, but God intended it for good’).  So why does he weep? Surely not just because his brothers lie to him, but because their lie reveals their lack of trust.

It is perfectly normal for us to have differing impressions and memories of situations we appear to have ‘co-experienced’.   At times of stress and distress, however, each of us is at risk of misconstruing the words, actions, intentions of others, especially if our shared history is troubled and there are also feelings of guilt in the mix.  The danger is then that we may compound mistrust, even attributing malice where there is a possibility of blessing.

There seems to be a terrifying surge of hatred and ill-will in the world at present and this is no time for naivete. But as we conclude the book of Genesis for this year, let us try always to look for blessing too.

Chazak chazak v’nitchazek.

 

Nicola Feuchtwang LBC Student Rabbi

(Parts of this Dvar Torah were previously used in an assignment about ‘Hebrew Bible & Medieval Commentators’ at Leo Baeck College in 2020, and in a sermon at Alyth synagogue)

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.