Returning to the Edge of the Pit, and Then Finding the Right Words

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By Rabbi Eric Yanoff

Parshat Vayechi

Sometimes, writing a rabbinic message for a newspaper or bulletin requires less rabbinics and more prophecy: Early print deadlines force us rabbis to predict where our hearts and minds will be some three weeks before we arrive at that point in time.

And sometimes, the interpretive midrashic connections between Torah portions make that difficult task a bit easier. With this in mind, as I write this (during the final days of 2016), a midrash looks ahead to Parashat Vayyechi, the final section of the Book of Genesis. As I write, I recall last week’s Torah portion (Parashat Vayyeshev), in which Joseph is thrown in a pit by his jealous brothers — saved only from certain death by their self-serving decision to sell him into slavery.

This week, Parashat Vayyechi imagines the brothers reunited, returning to that same Promised Land to bury their father Jacob. The brothers are concerned that Joseph has waited until this moment to wreak vengeance on them for their treatment of him, years ago; the midrash describes the scene: “When they returned from burying their father, they saw that Joseph went to make a blessing over the pit where his brothers had cast him. He made a blessing as a person should do over a place where a miracle was done for him: ‘Baruch … She-asah li nes ba-makom ha-zeh — Praised are You, Who made a miracle in this place!’”

The Hebrew of Joseph’s blessing connects the time of my writing (Chanukah) to the time of printing of this week’s d’var Torah: “Baruch … She-asah li nes ba-makom ha-zeh.” Sound familiar? It should! Just a couple of weeks ago, we said something similar for eight straight days: “Baruch … She-asah nissim la’avoteinu ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z’man ha-zeh — Praised are You, Who made miracles for our ancestors, back then, in this season.”

Imagine the scene of the midrash: The brothers stand at a distance, watching their brother peer into the darkness of the pit where they had betrayed him and caused him (and their father, Jacob) unimaginable pain. Joseph reflects back to that dark time — and true to his growth as a person, he allows himself the perspective to see that he has also been afforded great miracles, despite (and even because of) that dark time from the past.

Such perspective does not minimize, justify, ease or excuse his pain — but it does contextualize the past darkness, in light of growth and subsequent redemption. So, too, in our lives, it takes time to “zoom out” and see the learning and growth that comes from emerging from the “pits” of our lives.

And once more, in this week’s parashah, we get a reminder of how far Joseph (and his brothers) must journey to be able to look into that dark pit and see miracles worthy of a thanksgiving blessing, “she-asah nissim.”

This week, in the final verses of the Book of Genesis, we read, “vayinachem otam vayidaber al libam” — reassuring his brothers that he would not seek vengeance, Joseph comforted his brothers and spoke to their hearts. The medieval commentator Rashi explains what it means to “speak to their hearts” — teaching that Joseph spoke “devarim ha-mitkab’lim al ha-lev” — words that found ready access to his brothers’ hearts.

Having just stared into the darkness of their painful, divisive past, Joseph finds words of comfort, of communality, of love — devarim ha-mitkab’lim al ha-lev. What a gift — in his day (ba-yamim ha-hem) and even more so ba-z’man ha-zeh, in this time, recently! Given the charged rhetoric of our day — especially on social media, where politically charged, dismissive and hurtful comments are flung from all extremes of the political, religious and social spectrum — such words that are truly mitkab’lim al ha-lev (heartfelt, unifying, em- bracing and comforting) are, sadly, all too rare.

Heartfelt words that are mitkab’lim al ha-lev can be difficult to compose or speak — and when we are divided as a society, they can be just as difficult to hear or to believe in their sincerity. But such are the words that our society needs in order to move forward.

We cannot be expected to overlook or minimize pain; indeed, we must steel ourselves to look directly into the pit. But we also must be able to walk with our brothers and sisters back from the edge of that pit — and in so doing, see the potential for miracles ahead. As I write these words on Chanukah, it seems appropriate to imagine us adding a little light to any darkness we may perceive, seeing the glimmer of hope and even miracles to come.

And as we read these words three weeks after their composition, I pray that on this Shabbat of Parashat Vayyechi, these words will greet us in the right time, the right frame of mind — to illumine our souls, as devarim ha-mitkab’lim al ha-lev — words that enter our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the rabbi at Adath Israel in Merion Station. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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