Intended for Good (Parashat Vayechi)
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
This week’s Torah portion concludes the final readings from the Book of Genesis. In these chapters, we encounter the last days of both Israel and his son Joseph. This is a portion full of blessings (including a few that feel more like condemnations), as well as a reversal of blessing order among brothers and unexpected grace between brothers (both of which feel like rather familiar narrative devices).
The familiarity of this portion can also be found in its relationship to the opening chapters of Genesis. Weeks ago, at the start of the Jewish year, we read in Bereshit how G-d creates from darkness. When his brothers fear he will punish them for selling him into slavery as a child, Joseph not only rebukes them with grace but reminds us of this initial alchemy of creation:
Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of [HaShem]? You intended to harm me, but [HaShem] intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Genesis 50:19-20 (NIV)
If we were to sum up the thematic messages of Genesis, we might list off words like reversal, irony, serendipity, mercy, and resilience. Over the last several weeks, we have encountered story after story of characters whose lives are seemingly blown completely off course only to find themselves reset in a position upon which they were perhaps always intended to land.
Darkness, defeat, suffering, and existential dread pervade the lives of these people.
And this is the substance from which G-d transmutes His chosen people.
Recurring in these stories, I note too how often brothers seem to completely misread one another’s feelings towards the other. We might unpack some sort of communication issue there if we really wanted to, but I think the more insightful read of those situations is that G-d is working at a level deeper than the mundane.
Our protagonists, our Josephs and Israels, are the kind of people so attuned to the presence and workings of G-d that their behavior at times transcends not only the social expectations of their time and culture, but even their awareness of the mundane world is impacted. So immersed do they become with the metaphysical, that the reality of people’s emotions, grudges, feelings, and anxieties around them are unknown.
I wonder how much of that aloofness Genesis intends to teach us as a godly quality.
To put it another way, what does G-d think of our prayers (particularly when we pray for very specific outcomes in a given situation)? Do we sound like Joseph’s brothers there at the end of Genesis?
Are we perhaps like Jacob on his way to meet his own brother, wrestling with G-d on the shores of the riverbank?
If we understand the alchemy of G-d shown to us in the very beginning–the process of making light out of nothing, of drawing creation out of the darkness–what else could we expect from any challenging situation but a good intention directed from a level of awareness exponentially greater than our own?
This week’s reading reminded me of how I spent much of the last year planning a move to Vienna in order to better study the old countries of my Jewish ancestry (and hopefully a bit more of Chassidic culture while at it). For the longest time I prayed very specifically for the outcome of finding the money and all the pieces to get together in order to get over there. Until finally, at the urging of my aunt, I reframed my prayers to be about allowing G-d’s will to be done.
When Vienna fell through, at first I was quite upset. It felt like to some degree a part of me, of my ancestry over there, would be forever off-limits, gone even. I didn’t resent G-d or my prayers, but it took me until months later, watching videos of German-speaking police demanding papers from people leaving their homes in Austria, for me to understand the great mercy I had been shown not being put in that environment to try and reconnect to my pre-WWII Jewish ancestors.
The Book of Genesis repeatedly shows us that G-d works in these ways, reversing expectations for the better, pulling light from darkness, and strengthening us through the trial of it all.
There’s an unconventional idea of faith there then that I think we are being invited to explore. It’s not just faith in the sense of believing in G-d or believing in a Divine plan that engages our lives. It’s an active awareness of the metaphysical mechanics enacted by G-d’s hands. It’s the aloofness that shines through characters like Israel and Joseph.
Genesis is trying to teach us to let go of the anxiety brought on by social circumstances and expectations, and to allow ourselves to, like Noah, drift into the protection of G-d’s name and G-d’s hand moving the pieces in a way beyond what our linear, subjective perspective can comprehend.
Darkness, defeat, conflict, and suffering–these are only stages in a grander process. G-d, the Alchemist, will accomplish so much more with all of it.
The Scripture quoted in this passage is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.