Memorials of Healing
On the surface, Parashat Vayehi, the concluding Torah reading of both Genesis and the Joseph narrative, is about death. Both Jacob and Joseph come to their respective ends; and the haftarah that we read turns to the final hours of King David’s life. And although this parashah ostensibly throws us a “curve ball,” the essence of this reading is found in the title, vayehi, meaning and “he (Jacob) lived.” Vayehi is more about life, than it is about death. Jacob’s blessings to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, as well as to his children, underscore this sense of life. Even though the shadow of death spreads over the text, Torah orients us to life, to the future of the Israelites.
Accordingly, Jacob’s death and burial open a wound for Joseph’s brothers. Now that their father is dead, they are concerned that Joseph will exact revenge. No doubt, it is their overwhelming sense of guilt that leads them down this path. Rather than confront Joseph directly, they send a message to their brother, “Before his (Jacob’s) death, your father left this instruction: so will you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father” (Genesis 50:16–17). Joseph is moved to tears by the brothers’ fear and distrust. What then is the one moment that sparks such concern on behalf of the brothers?
Genesis Rabbah, a collection of midrashim on the first book of Torah, offers one insight into this critical moment of brotherly panic:
As the brothers 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 of us felt.” But in fact Joseph’s motive was a pious one—he wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle that occurred for him in that place. (Genesis Rabbah 100:8).
The midrash is at once profound and overflowing with emotion. On the journey “home” to Egypt, Joseph passes by the pit into which his brothers cast him. Rather than flee from his past, Joseph embraces the moment. Psychologically, this is not unlike an American soldier returning to Vietnam, a Holocaust survivor journeying to Auschwitz, or an Armenian–American visiting a decimated village in eastern Turkey. The victim returns to grasp the reality of the past, to exercise control over the chaos that ensued, and to tell the story. Or perhaps the survivor has another agenda as described by the midrash. Such a return can be a moment of reconciliation and thanksgiving. It has the potential to be a moment of gratitude for having pulled through the darkest of times. For Joseph, the metamorphosis from powerless Israelite to powerful “Egyptian” makes this episode all the more dramatic.
More than sparking feelings of anger and vengeance, memorials have the power to heal. While the brothers’ fear in the midrash is understandable, they fail to appreciate Joseph’s intimate moment of connection. They fail to acknowledge another possibility — that of healing. The pain of the past can never be erased. It waxes and wanes through one’s life, urging the victim to tell the story, and more importantly, to continue on the journey of life.