D'VAR TORAH BY: CHRIS HARRISON AND RABBI DARA LITHWICK
The book of B’reishit is, in essence, one big, messy story about family. While the relationships discussed in this book are imperfect, they matter because people matter. Imperfect as these families are, they’re still sacred because God exists as the connection between them.
However, as this book’s final portion, Parashat Va-y’chi, points out, in order for these families to heal and eventually become , there first has to be an act of reconciliation.
This theme goes all the way back to Abraham and his immediate family. After Isaac and Ishmael have a messy break, they come back together to bury Sarah. One generation later, Jacob and Esau reconcile after Jacob wrestles with an angel (possibly with himself?), becomes himself (Israel), and is now able to both face his past and look to the future. Parashat B’reishit ends with Parashat Vay’chi and, once again, another messy family relationship: Joseph and his brothers.
Once Jacob/Israel dies, his son Joseph has him embalmed in Egypt and gets leave from Pharaoh to bury his father in the cave of the Machpelah, the burial site purchased by Abraham, along with his forebears. Joseph and his brothers and their families then return to Egypt, where they settle. Rightfully so, Joseph's brothers are afraid he may still bear a grudge against them for what they did so many years ago, throwing him into the hole and selling him as a slave.
But something interesting happens in Genesis 50:15-21:
Joseph’s brothers, seeing that their father was dead, now said, “Perhaps Joseph [still] bears us enmity and intends to repay us for all the harm that we inflicted upon him!” So they brought a charge to Joseph, saying, “Your father left this charge before his death, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: Please, I beg of you, forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, though they inflicted harm upon you’; yet now please forgive the transgression of the servants of your father’s God.”
Joseph wept as they spoke to him. His brothers also prostrated themselves before him and said, “Here we are, your slaves!” Joseph said to them, “Have no fear, for am I in place of God? 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. Now, therefore, have no fear—I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus did he comfort them and speak straight to their hearts.
Joseph demonstrates that he has learned the power of peace and forgiveness. He has gained the ability to look back on past events in the light of new insights and experiences, seeing past his own hurt to grasp the bigger picture. He doesn’t deny his own pain, but it no longer controls him. Therefore, he is now able to fully connect with his family whom he still deeply loves, despite the immense pain they caused. As the amazing language in verse 21 says, Joseph is able to “speak straight to their hearts,” without any cover or artifice.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes about this in Likutei Moharan 34:8:
This is also what is written in connection to [Joseph]: “that my own mouth is speaking to you” (Genesis 45:12). Rashi explains: “As my mouth is, so is my heart.” In other words, he shone his nekudah into his vav; he shone “My mouth utters wisdom” into “and the meditations of my heart are understanding.” And it is written of him (Genesis 50:21), “and he spoke to their hearts,” which Rashi explains: words that calm the heart. That is, he shone his encompassing nekudah into all [their] hearts.
The nekudah, or “point,” is that spark of God that we all have within us, no matter our differences. As Reb Nachman explains, Joseph is able to shine his nekudah – his God-spark – to those of his brothers, reconciling their differences in the process. As part of this big, messy family, we as the Jewish people must do our best to emulate Joseph if we have any desire to connect across difference. It can be very hard to access our own internal God-sparks, let alone others’, but we must try, for that is how we can ultimately be reconciled and redeemed.
As noted by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l):
"[Va-y’chi] is moving in itself, but it also resolves one of the central questions of the book of Genesis – sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Can brothers live peaceably with one another? … [F]or if brothers cannot live together, how can nations? And if nations cannot live together, how can the human world survive? Only now, with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, can the story move on to the birth of Israel as a nation, passing from slavery to freedom."
B’reishit ends by giving us some of the key tools to engage into create a place where we can all live. May we use these tools, the God-sparks within us, to engage in the work of connection and reconciliation that our world so desperately needs right now and bring about transformation and redemption.