Friday, December 18, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: Joseph and George Bailey

            I don’t know if you guys know this, but there is a non-Jewish holiday coming up next week. Maybe you know some people who celebrate it? Maybe you even get to partake in the celebrations of friends and family? For those who don’t know about this holiday, it is one about which hundreds of movies have been made, so I’m sure you could easily look into those if you’d like. One such classic is a film entitled It’s A Wonderful Life. While reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s book on Genesis, something she said about the Joseph story caught my eye and made me think of the main character of It’s A Wonderful Life. The following d’var Torah contains spoilers, but the movie is 70 years old and there should be some statute of limitations for spoiler alerts.
            At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Joseph is reunited with his brothers, only, they don’t know that it is their own brother to whom they are speaking. The Torah says “[Joseph] recognized them and he acted like a stranger toward them” (Genesis 42:7). The peculiar thing is that the Hebrew words the Torah chooses here: “vayikareim” for “he recognized” and “vayitnakair” for “he made himself strange to them,” both come from the same three letter root. In order to scope out what kind of people his brothers really are now, after all these years have passed, Joseph must make himself invisible to them. Only in seeing how they behave while still thinking that he is dead, can he properly gage how they have grown since they sold him into slavery. While his identity is invisible to them, Joseph tests his brothers by demanding they go back to Canaan and bring him their youngest brother, Benjamin. When they do, seeing his brother compels Joseph to leave the room and weep (for a second time). On this second weeping, inspired by seeing Benjamin, the medieval commentator Rashi offers a midrash: “Joseph asked Benjamin, ‘Do you have a full brother [from your mother]?’ He answered, ‘I had one, but I don’t know where he is.’ Joseph asked him, ‘Do you have children?’ and he answered, ‘I have ten children … their names are Bela, Bekher, etc.’ Joseph asked, ‘What do these names mean?’ and Benjamin replied, “They are all for my brother and the troubles that have befallen him: Bela – because he was swallowed up among the nations; Bekher – because he was first born to my mother; Hupim – because he did not see my wedding, nor did I see his; Ard – because he went down among the pagans.” In the midrash, Joseph is moved by hearing the names of his nephews because, as Zornberg says, “His own existence is suddenly fleshed out in absence.”
            In It’s A Wonderful Life, main character George Bailey makes a wish that he were never born. An angel named Clarence grants his wish and takes him all around his hometown of Bedford Falls, seeing what life would be like for the town and the people he loves if he were not present. It’s not exactly analogous to Joseph’s situation; for Joseph did exist and his brothers are explaining to the stranger they do not know to be him the loss of him, while George Bailey interacts with people in an alternate universe where they have never known him. Still, in seeing how the world around him would move on in his absence, he is able to develop a stronger sense of his existence. The film ends with him re-wishing himself back to his original reality, where he exists and the people around him know who he is, and the whole town comes to his home to celebrate him and fill the void that had previously caused him to wish he were never born.
            In this week’s parasha, Joseph’s own George Bailey moment concludes similarly. By making himself strange, by using and interpreter and pretending to be a real Egyptian, by “disappearing” for his brothers, Joseph “has gained access to his lost self. His brothers, equally, have recovered a vital sense of pain at their loss” (Zornberg’s commentary on Parashat Miketz). Finally, he is unable to contain himself anymore. Parashat Vayigash, our reading this week, opens with a long speech by Judah which thoroughly illustrates how much the brothers regret what they did to Joseph. At the conclusion of the speech Joseph bursts into tears a third time. Unlike the first two times, when he left the room himself, this time he commands his attendants to leave him and his brothers alone, which Zornberg takes to mean that these tears are more passionate, so overwhelming he cannot move himself. The rest of the parasha is primarily about Joseph struggling to make himself seen again after being hidden in plain sight, having to convince his brothers and father that both their eyes and ears are working correctly: they are seeing and hearing Joseph. It’s a significant move from the focus on Joseph’s lack of existence to the focus on physical senses to assure his family of his true identity. Emmanuel Levinas wrote, “The Torah is given in the Light of a face. The epiphany of another person is ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the Other is already an obligation toward him,” (Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings). This week’s Torah portion ends with everyone in the Israel clan finally seeing each other clearly and harmony settles among them, at least for now. Jacob and his sons stay in Egypt, close to Joseph, where Joseph remains in his position of power in the Egyptian courts, just as George Bailey’s friends and family gather near him in Bedford Falls, where he remains the proprietor of Savings and Loan.

            Sometimes we must draw back in order to see ourselves and others more clearly, to allow others to see us more clearly in our absence. Understanding others and ourselves is an important goal through life, lest we live impulsively and reactionary as Joseph’s brothers did in the beginning of this narrative. We don’t want to be going around throwing people in pits just because they annoy us. But we also don’t want to stay hidden forever. The principal is to make space for others so that you may see them better, without allowing yourself to disappear completely. Take the time to conceal yourself when necessary to investigate the true motivations of yourself or others, and make sound decisions based on those investigations, but remember to still stay true to yourself. In this way, may we learn to recognize our own worth, appreciate those around us, and make peace with our friends, family, and neighbors. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

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