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?
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