Parshat Vayechi has always been a special Parsha for me as it was my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah portion. I was in 4th grade for the weekend spectacular at the Washington Hotel (may its memory be for a blessing) in Belle Harbor, Queens, New York. I distinctly remember that I was promised a Game Boy if I behaved the whole weekend and got to take several special trips to the infamous “Juravel’s” basement store in Baltimore that specialized in opulent late 80s simcha dresses for girls AND matching headbands in honor of this grand event. On those drives to Balimore, my parents would frequently chat about how “lucky” it was that my brother’s parsha was “the shortest one.” That is as deep as it got.
I always look for “hooks” in the biblical text that help my students connect more deeply.
Over 30 years later, I found myself working with a special needs Bar Mitzvah student myself, who happened to live in Queens, New York on this very same parsha. As a career Jewish professional who specializes in the unique nature of of adolescents, adolescent psychology, anxiety reduction and incorporating mindfulness practice into my pedagogic methodology, I always look for “hooks” in the biblical text that help my students connect more deeply. As Aaron and I went through Vayechi, word by word- making sure that he truly took it all in, we came to a very interesting piece at the tail end of the parsha — after Yaakov had finally passed. At this exact point, the “story” is over. Yoseph has already verbally expressed his acceptance of his brother’s acts of teshuvah (repentance) and promised to take care of them and his sons Ephraim and Menashe have received beautiful final blessings from their grandfather. Yaakov uses his last breaths to give his other 10 sons final words of wisdom, some of which were rather quite harsh. What a perfect time to close up the book of Bereshit and tie up the entire saga of the “Avot and Imahot” with a beautiful nice bow.
After all, how could anyone truly forgive siblings that had lured a brother to a secret place with the full intention of killing him, only to be “convinced” that selling him into slavery would be a “better choice?”
However, the text does not do that. Rather, for just a moment, the Torah tells us that following Yakov’s death and subsequent burial at Maharat HaMachpelah, the tomb of our ancestors, Yoseph’s brother’s are suddenly now worried that Yoseph has truly not forgiven them, and, now that their father has passed, perhaps Yoseph will finally feel emotionally free to seek revenge for the unforgivable and inexcusably acts of premeditated abuse/violence they committed against him as a boy. From this remiergent fear alone, we know that Yoseph’s brothers, at this point, were fully cognizant of just how “bad” their behavior was. Yoseph may have embraced them and treated them kindly in the previous parsha, but nonetheless, the worry is there. After all, how could anyone truly forgive siblings that had lured a brother to a secret place with the full intention of killing him, only to be “convinced” that selling him into slavery would be a “better choice?”
This is where we see the true lesson of this story, a lesson that all of us can use in our daily lives when we know that we have been mistreated or even victims of abuse and trauma.
In Genesis 50:18 – 20, the text reads, “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves. But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.”
In response to his brother’s final plea for forgiveness, Yoseph wisely responds (and I paraphrase) “Yes- what you all did to me was really awful and- make no mistake- there is no doubt that you intended to hurt me- BUT, at this moment, I’m going to choose to release myself from holding on to this negative energy…
In response to his brother’s final plea for forgiveness, Yoseph wisely responds (and I paraphrase) “Yes- what you all did to me was really awful and- make no mistake- there is no doubt that you intended to hurt me- BUT, at this moment, I’m going to choose to release myself from holding on to this negative energy, I’m going to make the choice to leave the judgement here up to G-d, and move on with my life. I will treat you all well, you have nothing to worry about.” In the infamous words of Salt N Pepa’s classic hit “None of Your Business”-”There is only one true judge and that’s G-d, so chill, and let my father do his job.”
There is so much in life that we cannot control. Bad things WILL happen, people will treat us poorly and worse, people will purposefully take action to harm us. At those moments, it is our human instinct to be reactive, to defend ourselves, to seek revenge. Of course, no one wants to be a “doormat” and just allow others to freely harm them. After all, Rabbi Hillel famously teaches us in Pirkei Avot, 1:14: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
However, in the end, how does holding on to that negativity help us? In the world of mindfulness practice, one of the hardest, yet most powerful concepts to embody is the wisdom that while we do not have the power to control others, we DO have the power to control ourselves and our reactions to others.
However, in the end, how does holding on to that negativity help us? In the world of mindfulness practice, one of the hardest, yet most powerful concepts to embody is the wisdom that while we do not have the power to control others, we DO have the power to control ourselves and our reactions to others. We DO have the choice to either hold on to our resentment and anger, to the point that our headspace is fully consumed by this negativity, affecting our daily functionality, relationships with others, our work and family life, etc.
OR we can allow ourselves to take a moment to feel the hurt and the pain, recognize it, and then- after taking that moment, simply allow those emotions to float away- just as all thoughts and feelings naturally flow in and out. This is not to say that negative or reactive feelings should be repressed or ignored- in fact, as modern psychology teaches, the suppression of emotions can almost always cause more harm than good. Rather, we pause, allow ourselves the discomfort of feeling this negative emotion- and then allow it to pass.
The Torah knows that this is NOT an easy or even a natural response to adversity, and therefore that is why before closing this book filled with stories of complex family and human dynamics, we are reminded that at the end of the day that we, as humans, are gifted with the ability to choose what we allow to remain present in our minds. Yes, God is is control of so much, but we are still given bechirah chofshit– free will, and that free will extends to our minds as well as our actions.
Shoshanna Schechter, MA is the Director of Jewish Life at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. She is the former Executive Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and has served on the faculty of Randolph-Macon College, University of Texas- El Paso and Virginia Commonwealth University. She is thrilled to be back in her hometown of Silver Spring, MD is currently completing a doctorate in Jewish Education from the Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the proud of mother of 3 amazing daughters, Netanya, Elianna and Kinneret.
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