My car is a philosopher; yours is too. I am certain I am not the first person to look into my passenger side-view mirror and ponder the existential meaning of the message inscribed at the bottom of the frame, “Objects in (the) mirror may be closer than they appear.” In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Joseph does essentially the same thing. The midrash imagines the moment:
“When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they grew frightened and said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us!’ (Gen.50:15). What did they see that made them afraid? As they returned from burying their father, they saw that Joseph had turned off the road and gone to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him.” (Tanchuma, Vayechi 17; B’reishit Rabbah 100:8)
His brothers thought that Joseph was dwelling on the terrible deed they had done to him years before. But what was Joseph thinking as he peered into that fateful hole? In what way did he remember that bleak moment? The midrash answers:
“Joseph stood up and prayed, ‘Blessed is God who performed a miracle for me in this place!’” (ibid.)
There, gazing into a barren crater, the place he experienced great danger and fear, Joseph sees his life reflected in that pit. We can imagine the hole filled with water to provide an actual reflective surface. Joseph stares into the abyss and sees, indeed, that the harrowing moment is much closer than time and circumstance would suggest. It looms large over everything that has happened in his life, the life of his family, and that of his people. We certainly would excuse him for thinking it cast a dark shadow, but instead, Joseph sees rays of light that herald a new dawn.
In retrospect, he is able to piece together the harrowing events of his life into a story that reveals God’s intent:
“Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, in order to accomplish what is now the case, to keep alive a numerous people.” (Gen. 50:20).
How many of us have lived through desperate and confusing moments only to look back years or days later and see within them blessing, or the seeds of who we’ve become? The episodes become steps in a journey we could not have predicted.
None of us likes to fall. None of us likes to find ourselves at the bottom of a pit. The Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, wrote:
“The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected. … What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.” (Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning [Boston: Beacon Press, 1963], p. 157)
We stand on the cusp of not only a secular new year, but also a new decade. As we look back in the mirror our memories are close and poignant. We greet those that brought obvious blessing with appreciation. But what about those whose lessons are more painful, the blessing — if it is to be found at all — hidden or delayed? We can’t help remembering those too – and we are fools if we force ourselves to forget.
Mark Twain is credited (perhaps erroneously) with the maxim, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Similarly, writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, 1905). Both statements suggest that we would be wise to heed the lessons of history so we won’t repeat the failures of the past.
The objects in our mirror of memory are closest when we allow them to teach us how to see what is right before our eyes or, maybe, looming over the horizon. That is Frankl’s point and Joseph’s great example: Joseph didn’t allow the bleak memories of the past to be destructive or corrosive, but rather he found blessing and insight in them. For Joseph, the past was prologue. He looked into the pit and, remembering his past, he appreciated the present and dreamed of a future.
With the insight of our own history as daughters and sons of Joseph, we have to ask, “What is our meaning in this moment? What are we here to do?” As Mordechai said to Esther as he spurred her to action at the brink of disaster, “Who knows if it was just for this moment that you arrived at majesty?” (M’gillat Esther 4:14)
The Jewish people, like all human beings, are products of a collection of experiences, some desired and many foisted upon us. The strength of our people and of all resilient human beings is to look in the rearview mirror and learn from the past, but not be consumed by it. If Joseph’s imaginary car had a bumper sticker, perhaps this phrase would be displayed proudly on its fender, “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why it’s called the present” (based on a cartoon in The Family Circus, 8/31/1994).
In this new secular year — and decade — we can look back with curiosity and the wisdom that comes only from experience. But we can also drive forward with purpose, as Mordechai teaches, “Who knows if it was just for this moment that you arrived at majesty?”
In his teaching about Parashat Vayechi, Rabbi Moskovitz discusses the importance of remembering our history. The lessons of the past should inform our perspective on the present, shaping how we feel and how we act.
Surprisingly, earlier in the portion, our patriarch Jacob seems to ignore this wisdom. Many of the stories of Genesis are characterized by strife between siblings, catalyzed by parental preferences. In the world of the Bible, the firstborn child ordinarily received special blessings and privileges, including a larger inheritance and the leadership of the family. But throughout Genesis, parents elevate a younger child over an older one. Abraham chooses his younger son Isaac to carry on the family legacy over his older son Ishmael; Isaac gives the preferred blessing to his younger son Jacob instead of the older son Esau; Jacob loves his young son Joseph more than any of his ten older brothers. The younger child repeatedly takes precedence over the elder. In each generation, this displacement of older siblings leads to strife, dissension, and tragedy. Ishmael is banished from his family’s camp; Esau vows to kill Jacob, causing Jacob to run away from home; and Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. Over and over, we see the choice of one sibling over another leading the family down a painful and destructive path.
In this week’s portion, we come to the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph and his brothers have finally reconciled, and they and their families all live in Egypt together with Grandpa Jacob. As the portion begins, with Jacob about to die, Joseph brings his children Manasseh and Ephraim to visit him, so they can receive a final blessing from Zaydie (Grandpa, in Yiddish). Joseph positions them properly, so that Manasseh, the firstborn, can get the appropriate blessing. He places Manasseh on Jacob’s right side and Ephraim on Jacob’s left, so that Jacob’s right hand, the good hand of blessing, will go on Manasseh’s head. Reading about this setup, we might breathe a sigh of relief, as it seems like the pattern of usurping younger brothers leading to sibling conflict is finally going to be broken.
But then we watch as Jacob — like a car crash in slow motion -— crosses his hands and places the right one on Ephraim’s head! He intentionally puts the younger Ephraim before the elder Manasseh. Then, he formalizes his choice in the words of the blessing. He says to the boys, “By you shall [the people of] Israel give [their] blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.’” (Gen. 48:20)
To this day, that’s how the blessing goes. On Friday nights and holy days, when Jewish parents ask God’s to bless their children, they say “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Jacob insures that Manasseh, the elder, will always be second to Ephraim, the younger. He has forgotten, or ignored, the lesson of his own personal history and that of his family.
As much as this scene could make us fear the future of the relationship between these two children, a related question arises: “Why does Jacob say that Jews should ask God to bless their children by making them like Ephraim and like Manasseh?” Why these kids? We know very little about them: they do not seem to be extraordinary; there is nothing special about them in Torah; there are no further stories at all about these children. So why would we want our children to be like them?
I believe that it is exactly because there is nothing else written about them that we make them the model of the blessing. Every other sibling pair has had other stories — descriptions of their quarrels, distrust, and hatred. But Ephraim and Manasseh do not: they are the ones who break the chain. Even though there is preference for one over the other, they do not let it sever their relationship. They rise above their history of family favoritism to create a new present and future, an apparently peaceful, loving sibling bond.
What better blessing could there be for us? Every family has its dysfunction; every family has its patterns of problematic behavior; every family has its baggage that gets passed from generation to generation. But Ephraim and Manasseh show us that it does not have to be that way; we can create new, improved, peaceful, healthier stories in our families too. Let us begin, this week, to move past our own history, to break our own chains, and to become our own blessings.
Vayechi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 281–304
Haftarah, I Kings 2:1–12
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 359–360; Revised Edition, pp. 323–324