The Torah portion Va’yechi is the concluding parsha of the first book of Torah, B’reishit. It ends the narrative of the founding mothers and fathers of our folk and faith, and also concludes the complex and compelling story of Joseph. As such, it has many aspects of endings, including Jacob’s death-bed blessings given to his sons and grandsons plus explicit instructions regarding his burial. The parsha also contains a poignant exchange between Joseph and his brothers which echoes of old duplicities but results in peace among them. Finally, the parsha tells of Joseph’s death and his final request, “When God has taken notice of you (i.e. the people of Israel), you shall carry my bones from here. (Gen. 50:24)”, foreshadowing the events that will unfold in the next book of the Torah.
Despite all these endings, it is how this parsha begins that is truly unique. All other portions start at the beginning of a line of text, and/or after an open space that indicates the start of a new block of text. Vayechi (meaning, “and he lived”), starts right in the middle of a line. There is no clear indication where the previous portion ended and this one begins. The very structure of the Torah text impresses upon us the unavoidable continuity that characterizes our lives. Past events influence future happenings. Present conditions cast new light on previous circumstances. Future considerations determine present actions. We see this understanding reflected in how Jacob recalls the formative experience of his own life — the encounter with God at Beth El (Gen. 48:3) — and how that transcendent moment influences his present actions as well as his perspective on the future as he proclaims his final testament (Gen. 49: 1-27). However, as a demonstration of the persistent power of past experiences — as well as our ability to shape their influence — a more eloquent example may be found at the end of the parsha when Joseph and his brothers finally put their troubled past behind them.
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!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father (Jacob) left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guild of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.”… (Gen. 50:15 -17)
While the Torah text gives no indication that Jacob made this appeal, it is easy to understand the brothers’ concern: now that their father was dead, Joseph would deal with them as cruelly in the futue as they had with him in the past. Our sages suggest what might have triggered this anxiety.
What did they see that made them afraid? As they were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him. Upon seeing this, they said, “He still bears a grudge in his heart. Now that our father is dead, he will make his hatred for us felt.” (Tanhuma, Va-yechi, para. 17; Gen. R. 100:8)
The Midrash imagines Joseph pausing at a site that recalls for him and his brothers the entire history of their complex relationship, beginning with Joseph’s childhood, spanning the years of his captivity in Egypt and all that ensued, culminating in the dramatic reunion with his brothers and with his father, Jacob. In his mind’s eye, Joseph could see the continuous chain of events and their unfolding consequences, one leading into the other like uninterrupted words on a line of text, the story of his life. It is not hard to imagine him recalling those past events as he stood there, reflecting on his present situation and contemplating what the future might hold for him and his brothers.
Seeing him in contemplation at this place must have roused strong feelings of guilt and worry within his brothers. So, they concoct yet another scheme, appealing to Joseph to spare them based on a fabricated message which appeals to Joseph’s love for his father. Yet they could not be more mistaken about Joseph, his motives or his intentions. The Midrash says:
But in fact, Joseph’s motive was a pious one – he wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle wrought for him in that place. (Ibid)
Rather than focus on the painful past which would surely fuel revenge, Joseph chose to acknowledge the present good that emerged from the terrible events associated with that dark place. With gratitude and wisdom born of experience, he pronounces a blessing there that is reflected in the future he foresees for himself and his brothers.
Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children. (Gen. 50:19-21)
The Midrash portrays Joseph as one who, despite the capricious cruelty and callous disregard to which he was exposed, still views the world and his place in it with understanding and compassion. He chooses to view the unbroken continuity of events that shaped his life from a perspective which favors reconciliation over revenge and peace over prosecution.
Surely every person has their own “dark pit”, painful circumstances or bitter experiences in the past that are present to us every day by virtue of their impact and their consequences that influence our future. What is true for individuals is certainly true for us as a people. We, the descendents of Jacob and Joseph, have a long history marked by too many dark moments, the evidence of which remains present in too many places. As we continue on our life paths, many of us choose to visit those places and those moments, be they in the life of our people or in our personal lives. We visit them with our physical presence, with our memories, with our sacred rituals. And we do so with no less purpose than did our ancestor, Joseph, and maybe with the same unexpected feelings of gratitude. We return to these places, these moments to figure out how they fit into the narrative of our lives. We search for understanding, and if such is not to be found, we hope for wisdom about the world and compassion towards others who endure pain or sorrow. Most of all, we express gratitude … thankful for our survival, our ability to cope and for the strength to avoid becoming consumed by anger, bitterness or revenge. Imagine Joseph standing at the edge of the “dark pit” and thanking God that despite all that had happened to him he did not become like his brothers; that while he did not emerged unscathed, he remained true to his core values and so discovered his essential self.
Hopefully, when we find ourselves in such moments, standing is those places resonate with difficult memories for ourselves or for our people, we follow the example of Joseph and find a way to read the narrative of our lives and of our history as a sacred continuum that acknowledges the past, including its pains; appreciates the present including its potential; and anticipates the future including its possibilities. Thus, like Joseph we will find within ourselves words of blessing and with them the strength to bring into the world — for ourselves and others — the blessings of harmony and peace.