In this very first week of our new secular year, we are reading the end of the first book of Torah – Bereishit – in the beginning. The final portion we read at the end of this first book is called vayechi – and he lived – yet this portion foreshadows the deaths of two key figures from our Jewish heritage, Jacob and Joseph.
Torah is linking life and death together as one organic whole, just like we celebrated the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 – so are we celebrating the fact of life and the whole of creation. The book of Genesis is a creation story by itself, starting with the creation of the world and ending with a reshaped sense of peoplehood whilst linking the deaths of 1) Jacob who was renamed Israel, giving his name to a people and 2) Joseph, foreshadowing the redemption (in the next book – Exodus) from Egypt. Two deaths laying the land for renewal, redemption, freedom and life.
What we may learn from this is that life doesn’t stand by itself. Sure we all are individuals, but as individuals we are influencing and influenced by other individuals. This process shapes our way of thinking acting and living. We learn from every experience. We may hope that these lessons are good, however, sometimes we are forced to draw lessons from disappointment, ill health or a challenging living situation. Sometimes we find a combination of these.
The questions that emerge from this knowledge can be challenging by themselves. What are we doing with our good experiences? Are we sharing them with people who made them with or for us? What are we doing with our bad experiences? Will they “slow” our progress (what we had in mind our lives should be) down? Can we overcome these hardships? Should we do this alone? Or do we need help? These questions might look very straight forward. But when you feel as if you have been thrown into the proverbial pit (like Joseph) you may find yourself without a rope or ladder with which to get yourself out. And we may find it hard to digest that a friend or brother like Reuben, isn’t able to get us out. Even for a dreamer like Joseph this would have been a hard pill to swallow. Our stories, however, aren’t written in a book. We do not have visions of how our lives are going to end up. Yes, we may have dreams – but these dreams may not come to fulfilment due to all sorts of possible reasons (partially or wholly) beyond our control.
It might be, therefore, good to know that you are part of this wonderful shared life wherein each and every single one of us, contributes in one or another way to the life of someone else. Similarly, that we may appreciate that we are shaped by interactions with others. In the course of my time living in the United Kingdom, I have come to realise that a helping hand can take many shapes and forms.
In this parashah, wherein the lives of two individuals who have experienced hardship are coming to an end, there are no commandments to be found. You see, hardship isn’t helped by commandments. It doesn’t help to be told what to do or what to think when you find yourself in that pit. This is a moment for compassion, this is the moment for that outstretched hand that we will read about in Exodus 3:20. This outstretched hand, that we read about in our next journey through Torah – it is for the people of Israel (the legacy of Jakob and Joseph) that finds themselves stuck in the dark pit of slavery where there is no ladder and no rope to rescue them. God is offering them an outstretched hand by means of two other extraordinary and self-proclaimed flawed people. One is a rescued boy who enjoyed a comfortable upbringing at Pharaoh’s court, yet without a moment’s hesitation he came to the rescue of a slave of who, though at that point he did not know, belonged to his people – his heritage shaped by the two other flawed people we read about this week. The second, his (biological) brother who, so it seems, acknowledges his brother without questions asked. He then, seemingly with the same humility and acceptance, aids his stammering brother in the presence of Pharaoh to plead for the release of the people of Israel who are stuck in a dark place.
We may think that there is a difference here, for Moses and Aaron are brothers and the people of Israel are his inheritance. Yet, we ought not to forget that this people is as much a stranger to Moses as Moses is a stranger to Aaron. What Moses and Aaron have in common, is that they both are seemingly standing up against injustice without the pursuit of benefit.
May this week’s reading and the year 2020 inspire us all to stand up against injustice – without the pursuit of benefit. May we all be that outstretched hand that gently (without well intended prescriptiveness) guide sour fellow, whether Jewish or not, out of his/ her dark pit.
Let this week’s reading be a reminder not to be like Joseph’s brothers, like Pharaoh or that slave driver. Let us not be that commanding voice that instils insecurity, sense of failing, despair that may darken the pit even more. Be that ladder or that rope that is enabling. Offer tools that they understand how to use, so that they may find a way to get themselves out with a sense of dignity, success and pride of achievement.
I wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful 2020 and above all – Shabbat Shalom.
Peter Luijendijk LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.