What’s Wrong with Egypt?

          Among the first words said by Jacob to his son Joseph in Parshat VaYehi are “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty, please do not bury me in Egypt.”[1] Similarly, at the end of Joseph’s life, he told his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”[2] He made the children of Israel swear “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”[3]
          What is wrong with Egypt? After all, it’s a lush land that saved the children of Israel’s lives during the 7 year famine. In order to understand what is wrong, we need to understand the definition of Mitzrayim as “place of constriction.” Despite the lush, fertile nature of the Nile river, our ancestors remember that this is not their true home and only when they return to the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, shall they be secure.

          In Jacob’s case he wants a continuation of the covenant of Abraham and Isaac. Just as they were buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs and just as they received the covenant to inherit Israel, so too does Jacob want to ensure that will occur to him. In Joseph’s case it’s more of a sense of not being abandoned. He senses the coming enslavement as well as the exodus from Egypt and he doesn’t want his bones left in Egypt when his descendants leave there.

          Where we are buried plays a very significant role in our lives. Just as our ancestors, we want to be buried in a place where people will visit us. We also want burial in a Jewish cemetery, with possible exception of those who fought in battles who prefer a military cemetery. Like our ancestors, our final resting place matters to us a great deal. Though Jacob lived 17 of his 147 years in Egypt and Joseph lived 93 of his 110 years there, it was never truly home for them. Home was the place of their roots, the Land of Canaan. As we conclude Sefer Bereshit, let us reflect on where we feel at home, where (if we haven’t decided) we’d like our final resting place to be and what will be important to us when we reach the end of our days on earth.

[1] Genesis 48:29

[2] Genesis 50:24

[3] Genesis 50:25

The Great Reconciliation: Or Was It?

This week Joseph and his brothers reconcile. Jacob goes down to Egypt and everyone has one big, happy family reunion. All’s well that ends well-or is it?

          The brothers’ first reaction to Joseph revealing his identity is to be shellshocked. While Joseph tells them not to be distressed, for he has been sent ahead to Egypt to ensure survival during the famine, the brothers don’t seem convinced. Next week, in VaYehi, they concoct a story: “Before his death your father left this instruction: ‘So shall you say to Joseph: forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’”[1] For the brothers to react in said manner must indicate that they have apprehension that all is not well, and Joseph will exact vengeance against them.

          Furthermore, when the brothers do Joseph’s bidding, telling Jacob that he is alive, “Jacob’s heart went numb; for he did not believe them.”[2] He doesn’t believe Joseph is alive until he sees the Egyptian wagons with choice goods. Next week in VaYehi, Jacob will excoriate half of his sons on his deathbed for their behavior. It does not seem that Jacob has forgiven his sons for their behavior. In addition, when Pharaoh asks Jacob “How many are the years of your life?”[3] he replies, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty, Few and hard have been the years of my life.”[4]

          It does not appear there is a Hollywood ending to this story. While Joseph does not exact vengeance, there are hurt feelings, uncertainty, 3030and apprehension. With our own families of origin, we might feel similar things. It is up to us, as we approach the secular new year, to try to get past our past and see if in the present day we can act to reconcile past estrangements. If we do not try, we will certainly not achieve and if not now, when?

[1] Genesis 50:17

[2] Genesis 45:26

[3] Genesis 47:8

[4] Genesis 47:9

Our Fears: Are They Valid?

          When Joseph’s 10 eldest brothers descend to Egypt to secure food during the famine, Joseph (in disguise as Pharaoh’s vizier) immediately accuses them of being spies. They offer information that they have a younger brother in Canaan to which Joseph said he would put them to the test: they must bring back their youngest brother. At this point the brothers said to one another “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why distress has come to us.”[1]

          There is a rabbinic principle of מדה כנגד מדה, measure for measure. When you sin, you will be punished in a similar manner. It makes sense that Joseph’s brothers would feel they are being punished now for what they had done in the past. Yet I must ask is this a helpful way of thinking? When things don’t go our way is it better to analyze what we did wrong or to learn from it and move on as best we can? I would argue the latter is the healthier approach.

          When our conscience tugs at us, as it did here for Joseph’s brothers, there is a lesson to be learned from it. However, to overanalyze and beat ourselves up over it is counterproductive. The past is the past; what we can and must do now is work towards building a better future. When we feel off course, lost or estranged, we need to remember that there is always a place for us, an area where we can thrive. Let us also recognize that our fears, while real too us, are often overstated. Even after Joseph reveals himself to the brothers, he says “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”[2] May we have faith that we are currently exactly where we are meant to be in life and that God will lead us in the direction we are to go.

[1] Genesis 42:21

[2] Genesis 45:5

Be the Light

       What is Hanukkah about? It is true that one lights candles at the darkest time of the year, inspiring a message of brightness and hope. Yet concurrently I would argue that we must be the light. When things look bleak, we are required to turn a positive spin on them. When we feel hopeless, we are required to find the silver lining.

          As the Prince of Egypt teaches us, “There will be miracles when you believe. Though hope is frail it’s hard to kill.” The next time you struggle with your situation, I want you to keep this line in mind. God sometimes works in mysterious ways and there is a light at the end of the tunnel in this rollercoaster that we call life. That is the message of Hanukkah: to never give up and to not only light the candles but to be the source of light, vitality and strength that we want for ourselves, our families and for all of humanity.