Parshat Vayehi: A God of love

In this week's Torah reading, the rabbis of the Midrash attempt to explain why our portion begins without the empty space that usually announces a new subject. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The last two portions of Genesis poignantly describe two moments of reconciliation between Jacob and his children - the first when Jacob is reunited with his beloved son Joseph after 22 years of alienation, and the second when Jacob must be reassured by his sons that they will continue in his footsteps. Fascinatingly, in both instances, the rabbis of the Midrash insist that the Shema - "Hear O Israel the Lord Our God, the Lord is One" - plays a critical role. Let us analyze each meeting to understand in greater depth the nature of parent-child relationships. The Bible records that when Joseph hears that his aged father has succeeded in reaching Egypt, the Grand Vizier "harnesses his chariot... and goes up toward Israel his father and appears before him. And he falls on his neck and weeps on his neck very much" (Genesis 46:29). Who falls on whose neck, and who weeps? Rashi cites the Midrash that it was Joseph who fell on Jacob's neck and wept. But then what was Jacob doing? Our rabbis explain that he was reciting the Shema. There are many possible interpretations of this central declaration of faith, and many possible explanations of why Jacob used that precise moment to share this particular verse with his son. One thing is certain: Joseph had been separated geographically, emotionally and culturally from his father's house for more than two decades; he looked like an Egyptian, spoke like an Egyptian and acted like an Egyptian (at least externally). I would imagine that at least one of the reasons Joseph had not gotten in touch with his father was because he feared that too great a gulf separated them, that his father would not be able to accept such an "Egyptian" son. So Jacob reminds his son of the essence of Judaism: "Hear O Israel, The God of Love, our Lord of Justice, are (both in actuality) the One God of Love." Jacob is emphasizing that although God may sometimes appear as a God of strict judgment, the essence of the Divine is accepting and unconditional love. And if God loves His children unconditionally, Jacob will certainly love Joseph the "Egyptian" - and even his brothers the deceivers - unconditionally. The beautiful paradox is that when we love freely and unconditionally, our children often respond in the way we would have wanted them to in the first place. And so Joseph not only resumes his place as an integral part and even savior of his family, but also teaches Pharaoh about the God of Abraham who directs the world, and even makes his final request to be buried in Israel. In this week's Torah reading, the rabbis of the Midrash attempt to explain why our portion begins without the empty space that usually announces a new subject. I would suggest a special twist to the talmudic commentary (Pesahim 56a). Resh Lakish maintains that Jacob's eyes were clouded with fear and anxiety as he looked at the Egyptian-appearing sons around his deathbed. "Perhaps invalid and improper fruits have emerged from my loins, just as Ishmael emerged from Abraham and Esau emerged from Isaac," thought Jacob. The sons replied: "Hear O Israel, the God of Love, Our Lord of Justice, are the One God of Love. Just as you love Joseph unconditionally, so do we hope that you will love us unconditionally. And then the result will be that, despite external appearances, just as in your heart there is only One, so in our hearts will there be only One." And so it was: the 12 sons, including Reuben, succeed in establishing the 12 tribes of Israel. A personal postscript When I first arrived in Efrat 22 years ago, and had more free time, I began to visit the Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle every Thursday. The first time I taught the prisoners Bible, I was amazed to participate in an evening service, led by one of the inmates, which turned out to be one of the most soul-filled, inspired and inspiring prayers I had ever experienced. In a private conversation afterwards, he told me his story. "Although my grandfather was a famous sage in Morocco and my father is an observant Jew, I committed just about every sin imaginable. I got married and had a baby daughter. I was not really faithful to my wife, but supported my family by stealing a few hours each day and serving as a night watchman for a factory. I arrived home unexpectedly one night to find my wife in bed with our next-door neighbor, our baby daughter between them. I was enraged. I took my gun, determined to murder my wife, her lover or both. But I only succeeded in killing my child. My parents stopped talking to me. Completely alone, and condemned as a monster, I attempted suicide but failed. I was imprisoned for manslaughter, and felt as if I was living in Joseph's black pit, surrounded by snakes and scorpions. "And then a sage came to visit me. He told me that God describes Himself to Moses as God, God, which means He is God of Love before one sins, and God of Love after one sins; the God who loves unconditionally. He told me that God loves each of us no matter what we have done, because God knows that since we are made in His image, each of us has God within us, and each of us can do better! "Suddenly I felt myself worthy of being loved. He continued to explain that this world is fleeting and temporary; only the world to come is eternal! The only point to this world is to prepare for the next one, and that can be done even in prison. And he told me that even if no one comes to visit, God is always ready to visit; all I have to do is open my mouth in prayer and God will be right there. Now do you understand why I love to pray so much? Now do you see why I can help bring others closer to the God whom I love and who loves me so much?" The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.