Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Rabbi Jack Riemer asks a fascinating question: what do you do when you come out of the pit?
VaYeishev describes how Joseph falls from his status as the favored son of Jacob, to the depths of a bor reiq, she’ayn bo mayim (an empty pit, in which there was no water) [Gen. 37:24]. The empty pit, in which Joseph was thrown by his jealous and angry brothers, is rife with symbolism. Throughout Torah, potable water represented life, and could be found most commonly in wells. Both Abraham and Isaac dug wells. In addition, Eliezar finds Rebekah (the then future wife of Isaac) at a well, and Jacob met the love of his life, Rachel, at a well. In stark contrast, Joseph finds himself not in a place of life, but in a place of death – trapped in a pit, with no water.
All of us, at one time or another, or perhaps more often, find ourselves in a bor reiq, she’ayn bo mayim; where life seems to be closing in on us, and our prospects for the future seem dark. While we are in the pit, we may feel anger, frustration, hopelessness, betrayal, or a host of other similar feelings.
Joseph is “rescued” from his pit by a merchant caravan, which takes him prisoner and sells him as a slave in Egypt. In Egypt, as Joseph climbs the slave hierarchy to a position of respect, he is falsely accused of rape, and thrown in prison, a second pit.
So, Rabbi Riemer asks: what do you do when you come out of the pit?
I am reminded of a Buddhist teaching, which I once heard but cannot source. Two monks, a master and a student, are walking through a forest and come to a wide river. A woman is standing by the river and asks them to carry her across. Although it is against the rules of their order, the master invites the woman to climb on his back and walks across the river. Afterwards, they go their separate ways. Hours later, as the monks continue their journey, the student breaks their silence and says: “Forgive me Master, but I have a question.” The master nods his permission, so the student continued: “Master, I thought we were forbidden to have any physical contact with women. How could you carry her across the river?” The master looked at the student and answered: “I left that woman by the bank of the river. Can you say the same?”
Rabbi Riemer is asking us, what do we take with us when we come out of the pit? Do we carry our bitterness and anger into the world, or do we find a way to leave those feelings in our past?
I cannot recall any other place in Torah where we encounter an empty pit like Joseph’s, and this makes him a singular role model. Joseph may have been angry, ashamed, humiliated, and more by what his brothers did to him – but he did not let that spoil the rest of his life. Even more, he used his experience in the pit as an opportunity. Rabbi Riemer writes:
Before he [Joseph] went in, he was totally insensitive, totally oblivious, to the effect that his strutting around in the special clothes that his father had given him had on his brothers. He was totally insensitive to the pain that he caused his family by telling them his dreams. But now, after the experience of suffering that he has gone through in the pit, he comes out ‘willing to be wise again’, and able to make sure that the hatred he has endured will not make him forget the potential for good living that he has inside him.
At the end of our parasha, Joseph is in the dungeon, seemingly a worse pit than the first – and it looks like they have locked him up and forgotten about the key. It might be easy to count him out, but that would be a mistake.
Like Joseph, each of us goes through periods of deep suffering, pain and even trauma. What will we do when we come out of the pit?
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Words matter. Language frames, well, everything.
When we study a foreign language, we learn not only the words, but the culture of the people who speak them. For this reason, it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to translate literature from one language to another without losing something along the way.
As American Jews, we speak English. However, English is not the language of Judaism. It is a language steeped in Christianity. That’s why I prefer not to use words like “Jew” or “Judaism.” To understand who we really are, we need to turn to the language of our people, to Hebrew.
The story of how we got our Hebrew name can be found in VaYishlach. In this week’s parasha Jacob escapes with his family from the clutches of Laban only to learn that Esau is approaching with four hundred armed men. The last time Jacob saw Esau was twenty-one years before, when he fled the camp because Esau was determined to kill him. Fearing violence in the morning, Jacob splits his family into four separate camps, hoping that at least some may escape and survive. Then something really strange happens. Jacob spends the night alone on the far side of the Jabbok river, where a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. Who was this man? Where did he come from? The text says nothing. Then, as the sun began to rise, the man asks Jacob to release him because the sun was rising. Why would that matter? The weirdness continues when Jacob refuses, demanding that the man bless him first. Of all the things Jacob might say at that moment, why ask for a blessing? Yet, the man does not find the request at all strange. The dialogue continues:
“And he [the man] said to him [Jacob], ‘What is your name?’ And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, ‘Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and prevailed.’” [Gen. 32:28-9]
The interpretive tradition is clear, and Jacob admits as much a few verses later: Jacob did not struggle with a man that night, but with something else – either God or a messenger from God. The Hebrew word Yisrael means “struggle with God.” Over the course of the night, Jacob was transformed from Ya’akov, which means “heel,” to Yisrael, the one who struggled with God and prevailed. We are B’nei Yisrael, the children of the one who struggled with God. Our tradition is not one of blind faith, but of struggle, for we are Jacob’s spiritual and genetic descendants.. We encourage questioning, challenging, probing. In the Torah itself, not even God is immune for questioning or challenge!
This, I think, is a source of our resilience; our relentless questioning of ourselves, our institutions and our faith; our ability to change, adapt and evolve while staying true to our ideals and values; our drive for integrity even when the world seems a dark place.
Our spirituality, our mission, is not “touchy-feely” but to struggle for a higher cause, and to prevail.
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
This week Jacob literally finds himself between a rock and hard place. After stealing the Blessing of Succession from Esau by tricking their father Isaac, Jacob flees the camp for his life, hoping for safety and security with his Uncle Laban. That night he dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder to heaven. God speaks to Jacob in the dream, and reaffirms the covenantal promise first made to Abraham. Not only that, but God also says: “Behold, I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done as I have spoken to you.” [Gen. 28:15]
Jacob awoke from his dream in amazement and said, “Surely God is in the place, and I did not know.” [Gen. 28:16]
Entire books have been written about this passage, and one of my favorites is by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. In one chapter, Kushner highlights a strange grammatical detail in Jacob’s statement of awe. In referring to himself as “I” Jacob uses the Hebrew word “anochi.” In Hebrew there are several ways one can say “I,” but the word “anochi” is the most formal iteration, and is generally reserved for people of great import, or more often, just for God.
Why does Jacob refer to himself as “anochi” in this moment? One possibility is that up until now, everything Jacob has done as been focused on his own self-interests. What do we know about him so far? During childbirth, he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s heel as if he was somehow trying to emerge from their mother first to claim the birthright of succession. Some years later, he takes advantage of Esau, trading a bowl of lentils to his hungry brother in exchange for that very birthright. Then, as their blind father ailed, he “pulled the wool” right over Isaac’s eyes, tricking him into giving the Blessing of Succession to Jacob instead of Esau. Now, to be fair, this was not Jacob’s idea, but his mother Rebekah’s plan. Yet, Jacob’s only question when Rebekah suggested it was to ask what would happen if he got caught. Even more, he was immediately satisfied with her answer: that she would take the blame and pay the penalty. The rabbis teach that when we are full of ourselves, there is no room for anyone else. Jacob saw only himself, had empathy only for himself.
Then, at the ebb tide of the spirit, after his first night alone in the wilderness, a new day began. In a moment of powerful self-awareness, Jacob “awoke” and recognized that he had been blinded by his arrogance.
“Anochi” is the Jacob that was. We need the next two Hebrew words to understand what Jacob was becoming: “lo yadaati.” The literal translation of “lo yadaati” is: “[I] did not know.” In the Hebrew, the pronoun “I” is included not as a separate word, but rather as a mere suffix of verb conjugation. It is possible to read the three Hebrew words “Anochi lo yadaati” as one phrase: “I did not know.” However, the words “lo yadaati” commonly stand on their own with the same meaning. Why then do we need this strange and somewhat clunky three-word formulation?
Rabbi Kushner brings a sensitive interpretation from Menachem Mendl of Kotzk to offer a beautiful alternative translation: “God was in the place and I … i did not know.” So, moved was Rabbi Kushner by this nuanced line, that he made it the title of his book – which, by the way, I heartily recommend. The capital “I” is the “I” of arrogance. The lower case “i" is the “i" of humility.
As a child, Jacob was indeed a heel. As an adult, Jacob was forced to confront his arrogance and learn humility, and in a dark and vulnerable hour, discovered that he was never truly alone.
Neither are we.
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Here we go again! In this week’s parasha famine strikes the land, as it did in the time of Abraham, and Isaac brings his household to Abimelech, king of the Philisitines, for safety. The only problem is that, being a stranger, Isaac is afraid – especially because Rebekah was so beautiful. Thinking that someone might kill him to get Rebekah, he lied about their relationship and told everyone that she was his sister instead of his wife – just as his father Abraham had done when he and Sarah sought refuge in Egypt and then again with Abimelech.
As with Abraham’s story, the danger to Isaac seems exaggerated in his own imagination. When Pharoah and Abimelech each found out the truth that Sarah and Abraham were married, they became angry at Abraham, and made sure to respect the marriage. They did not ever threaten his safety. Similarly, when Abimelech learns that Rebekah and Isaac are married he is angry at Isaac for lying, and guarantees both Isaac’s and Rebekah’s safety.
It seems to me that, in the weeks following the killings in Pittsburgh, that we can learn something from our forebears. Should we look to our security? Absolutely, and with a careful and reasoned approach. However, we should never allow our fears prevent us from being true to who we are, or from living with integrity and even pride. Over the centuries and millennia, we have learned some difficult lessons, and as a people, have overcome the darkest of tragedies. It is not fear that carried us through, but rather our strength, our values, and our resiliency.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras