05 Jan 2023 Parshas Vayechi: Remembering One’s Humble Origins
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayechi, we learn of the death of Yaakov Avinu at the age of 147 years. We read of the brachos he bestows upon his sons before his death. We learn of his burial in the Me’aras Ha’Machpela. We cry over the tension between Yosef and his brothers, as they fear his wrath in the aftermath of their father’s death. And finally, we emotionally, movingly and longingly close the book of Bereishis with the passionate plea of Yosef to his brothers, that when G-d surely remembers them, and takes them out of the land of Egypt, they are instructed – under oath – to take Yosef’s remains with them (their descendants) for reinterment in the land of Canaan.
After the brothers journey back up to Canaan to bury Yaakov, the pasuk tells us that the brothers feared Yosef would now take revenge for their misdeed so many years ago. וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי–יוֹסֵף, כִּי–מֵת אֲבִיהֶם, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לוּ יִשְׂטְמֵנוּ יוֹסֵף; וְהָשֵׁב יָשִׁיב, לָנוּ, אֵת כָּל–הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר גָּמַלְנוּ אֹתוֹ – and the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died, and they said: ‘Perhaps Yosef will now hate us, and avenge himself upon us for all the evil that we have caused him’ (Bereishis 50:15).
Though Yosef had treated them with kindness and benevolence since they moved – the seventy souls in the family of Yaakov – down to Egypt seventeen years prior, now they are worried since Father has died. Perhaps Yosef was only treating them well because Yaakov was there, but after his demise, would he turn on them?
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z’l teaches, “The peace and harmony of the House of Israel was threatened all over again. Now, this is a disturbing report… Of people of higher moral caliber, of shivtei Yisrael (the tribes of Israel), we expect a continuation of brotherly feeling… The Medrash reveals a superb insight not only into Yosef and his brothers, but into the universal dimension of human relations. The Sages tell us that on the way back from the burial of Yaakov in Canaan, they passed the very pit into which the brothers had cast Yosef and from where Yosef’s long adventure began. When they passed the pit, the rabbis teach: רַבִּי יִצְחָק אָמַר הָלַךְ וְהֵצִיץ בְּאוֹתוֹ הַבּוֹר – Yosef ‘went over to it, and stared and gazed into it’ (Medrash Bereishis Rabbah 100:8).
“The pit revisited! One can only imagine what the brothers thought as their faces reddened with shame and humiliation. No doubt Yosef’s long look at the pit made the brothers believe that surely now he would recall the terror they visited upon him, and he would now take revenge which he had held back for so long. It was the incident of visiting the pit that aroused their dread and struck paralyzing fear in the hearts of the brothers.
“However, we know otherwise… A Yosef ha’tzaddik, a righteous man such as Yosef, is not moved to revenge by such an experience. On the contrary, he was impressed by the contrast between his condition then and his condition now. He surely thought: now I wear the purple robes of royalty; then my coat of many colors was ripped off of me, soaked in blood and presented to my grieving father. Now I wear on my head the crown of Egypt; then I was sold as a slave, a piece of human merchandise. Now I have majesty; then misery. Now honor; then horror. Now I sit in splendor; then I shuddered amidst serpents and scorpions. Now I am rich; then I was wretched. I have come a long way in the world! Joseph surely thought.”
And what is the lesson from gazing into the pit? The moral learned from Yosef’s many contemplations and deliberations?
Yosef, a man as wise and discerning as he, would certainly have gained a humbling and sobering lesson. Yosef would have considered all this and then thought to himself, “I have come a long way in the world! I must always remember my origins. I must never submit to delusions of grandeur, I must never let my good fortune go to my head. Remembering my miserable and impoverished beginning, I shall retain my humility and my humor, my sense of proportion and perspective.
“…This, then, is what the pit revisited did for Yosef. It kept him human and humble, restrained his ego, and controlled his sense of self-importance. The pit reinforced his sympathy for the poor and the wretched, the anguished and the humiliated everywhere” (Derashot Ledorot Genesis, p.251-253).
This sympathy towards the poor (and poor in spirit) included, first and foremost, the shame, regret and degradation of his very own brothers. To the very ones who hated and cast him away, he showed tremendous sympathy and love. When they worried that now Yosef would hate them, Yosef reassured them that his entire life was orchestrated by G-d, and no revenge would be taken. וְעַתָּה, אַל–תִּירָאוּ—אָנֹכִי אֲכַלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם, וְאֶת–טַפְּכֶם; וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם, וַיְדַבֵּר עַל–לִבָּם – and now, Yosef says to them, do not be afraid, I will sustain you and your children, and he consoled them and he spoke to their hearts (Bereishis 50:21).
Is there a lesson here for generations? What does ‘the pit revisited’ mean for all of us? R’ Dr. Lamm concludes, “The problem that confronted Joseph is one which none of us, in our society, can escape: how to attain affluence without forfeiting faith; honors without losing honor; prosperity without abdicating perspective. Like Joseph, we must each revisit the pit, the symbol of any initial lowliness and (financial, spiritual, social or religious) failures. And like Joseph, we must each thank G-d and acknowledge that He alone is responsible for all of our triumphs.
“The Jewish response to G-d’s blessings in life is to bless G-d. The Jewish way is to recognize that our successes impose moral obligations upon us. In the timeless and eternal words of Joseph: For G-d sent me before you to be a provider of life (45:5). Our function must become: to enhance life, to restore and sustain peace amongst brothers, and to advance the cause – and Name – of G-d in the world” (Derashot Ledorot Genesis, p.256).
And how to achieve? By remembering our humble origins, our first failures, and that the road to success often begins in a dark ‘pit’ where of success, like Joseph, one can only dream.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,