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Peter J. Rubinstein

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  January 10, 2009

We just read from the final portion of the book of Genesis. And just as the first portion begins Bereshit, “In the beginning…” and initiates the narrative of creation, this name of this last portion creates symmetry. It is called Va-yechi and begins with the words for life taken from the opening verse “Va-yechi Ya-akov b’eretz mitzrayim sheva esray shana”  “And Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt…”

While we can often treat the names of the portions casually, there is embedded irony in the name of this portion because this portion is not about life. The portion is a poignant narrative of Jacob’s last days. It describes the blessings Jacob bestowed on his children and grandsons prior to his death, gives the account of Jacob’s death and in the final verse concludes with the death of Joseph.

Therefore, the portion which carries the name Va-yechi, life, is infused with stories about the end of life. And therein lays the implicit message of the parashah, a portrayal of complexity. It raises the question: Knowing of mortality do we focus on the sadness of life even if we acknowledge the challenges and losses in life? Or can we find, do we find some blessing even in our most difficult moments? Are we able to use the moments of loss and challenge to focus on the future and hope for the better, or do we become obsessed by the burdens and hardship of the past and present.

There is a wonderful, rather extraordinary story, a commentary on this section which presents this perspective.

The Biblical story we read is rather straightforward. Jacob knew he was dying, and his sons, after receiving their blessings from him, were standing by his bedside.  Jacob spoke, “I don’t want to be buried here in Egypt. This is not my land. After I die, I want you to take me back to the cemetery where my parents and grandparents were buried.”

So, when he died, Joseph his son had his father Jacob embalmed in order that according to his wishes Jacob could be taken to the cave of Machpelah (outside Hebron) for burial. Joseph and his brothers accompanied their father’s body.

This is the first time Joseph had returned to his native land since he had been sold into slavery by his brothers.

Upon Joseph’s return to the land of his youth, Joseph went back to the places that he believed had been significant to him when he was young. Joseph and his brothers took a side-trip about 50 miles north to look at the pit into which Joseph’s brothers had thrown him to die.

That pit represented the nadir of Joseph’s life both physically and emotionally. In every way the pit was the “pits.”  According to a Midrash, Joseph stood on the edge of the pit and gazed toward the bottom. He reflected on the wondrous deliverance he had experienced since that day.

That hateful hole in the ground was the place that marked the beginning of Joseph’s remarkable journey. From there Joseph had been taken as a slave to Egypt, placed as a prisoner in Pharaoh’s jail, given the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and begin his rise to power. Eventually, Joseph met his brothers again when they came to him to beg for food. Joseph guided them to a rapprochement and met his father again in a moment of enduring emotion. The pit into which Joseph gazed upon his return to Canaan was the source of his salvation, good fortune and blessings. He thanked God for it all.

That is what Joseph thought when he gazed into the pit.

But according to the Midrash, Joseph’s brothers watched their brother gaze into the pit and had a very different idea about what was going through Joseph’s mind. They feared that he was considering tactics for revenge.

This Midrash demonstrates the incredible difference between the ways Joseph and his brothers perceived a regrettable event in their lives. Joseph considered the episode of the pit as launching him into a future filled with greater insight, sensitivity and understanding. His brothers were forever burdened by the circumstances of what happened and seemed to learn little. They remained afraid.

So it is for all of us. We cannot control the circumstances of life but we have power to decide whether hardships and struggles of life become a lasting burden or provide an opportunity to gather strength, fix our eyes and souls on the future, or give us a comforting and embracing reason to live the best of life. The decision is ours.

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