February 28, 2020

Torah Portion VaYigash – The Ghost of Rachel in the Nile Bar and Grill

A swirling eddy of pain, love, loss, regret, resentment, hope, reconciliation – core experiences of human beings – forms into the vortex of this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash.
Joseph was the uneasy object of his father Jacob’s devotion, a devotion itself rooted in the tragic passing of Joseph’s young mother, Rachel. Jacob lived with unending heartache and loss with Rachel’s death. That loss was symptomized onto the striped jacket he had sewn for his son Joseph. Perhaps the loss of Rachel was also symptomized into Joseph’s grandiose dreams. All grandiosity is accompanied by hidden inner self-loathing, an inner loathing that perhaps was rooted in Joseph’s having no mother, only a doting father, topping a family of likely resentful step-mothers and a brew of half-siblings filled with hatred. Perhaps Joseph’s being sold off into Egyptian slavery by his brothers was not the worse way for him to grow up. Better than being at home, perhaps.
Joseph made good through his gift of being able to interpret dreams, a gift perhaps honed by a drive for self-preservation – a drive to understand himself and what had happened to him – a tragedy. Like the tragedies most of us bear – not initially of our own making, but our part in it revealed far too late.
The brothers grew up in the tragedy of Rachel’s absence. Perhaps they could not even name what was not present – haunted by a ghost who had not yet appeared. Rachel’s ghost drove Jacob’s sewing, and perhaps drove Joseph to check up on his brothers, to exact some sort of petty revenge by catching them lollygagging. He was sold into slavery instead.  We can imagine their watching the caravan wind into the distance, as the intended murder of Joseph turned into the lesser crime of selling Joseph into the certain suffering of Egyptian slavery. Did they feel regret when the caravan of slavers had disappeared over the horizon? Or did their regret morph into guilt in their own dreams – night terrors, not grandiosity.
Rachel’s death, it seems, had killed this family, and it remained a family in name only – a collection of people tied by blood and marriage, but infested with pain, loss, guilt and a ghost. The murderous rage had dissipated, for sure, but it had been replaced, as with most tales of revenge, with emptiness. Many people die this way.
Some don’t. In some lives, in some families, there are miraculous moments of reconciliation and redemption. Joseph was the person who had discovered his agency, his will. Perhaps because of his station as the viceroy of Egypt. Perhaps because of the love of his wife, Asenath. Perhaps because the love of his own children, named Forgetfulness (Menashe) and Fertility (Ephraim). Perhaps the ghost of Rachel. All of them combined, but in my mind, there was some catalyst.
I think it was the bartender, who was grateful to Joseph for foretelling his being forgiven by Pharaoh. Perhaps this unnamed bartender thought that somehow Joseph’s foretelling Pharaoh’s change of heart had caused it. In any case, in my telling of the story, they developed a friendship. In my Midrash (The Midrash of the Bartender, yet to be written), Joseph stops by the Nile Bar and Grill on his way home from work (saving the known world from starvation). The bartender asks his main man Joe – any new dreams? Joe, sipping on mead, suddenly recalls a dream – he hasn’t remembered many lately. He tells the bartender – “I dreamt my brothers are coming down to Egypt”. (“The ones who sold you to slavery?” the bartender asks, a bit incredulously”.  “Yup, them ones”, Joe replies, flatly. A plan is hatched, at midnight, in the Nile Bar and Grill. The cupbearer loans Joseph a cup. Rachel’s ghost hovers nearby).
Menashe and Ephraim. In forgetting his past, Joseph could be fruitful in his present. The time had come to remember his past, for attempting to bring the fertility of his present into the past.
Joseph’s plan culminates in a frame-up, like many plans conceived at midnight in a bar. But this frame-up is a test. Judah (whose name in rooted in the Hebrew word for acknowledgment, confession, and gratitude) passes the test. Joseph cries. Jacob cries. Everyone cries.
The family is reunited. All is forgiven. The ghost of Rachel passes on.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mordecai Finley

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