Understand: we sat shiva.
Every moment of that week
I ached with what we had done.
Our father began moving slowly
as though he no longer trusted his feet.
His hair paled and thinned.
Remorse settled on my heart
like a clenched fist
constricting every beat.
Mine is the third generation
estranged, brotherhood buried
beneath years of angry silt...
When the vizier sent his courtiers away
I thought he was going to kill us
and my heart flew to our father.
But now our sons and Joseph's sons
will play together
on the stony Egyptian sands.
In this week's portion, Vayigash, Joseph's brother Judah appeals to him not to seize Benjamin. My father, he pleads, will die if he loses his second-most-beloved son (the subtext being, of course, that he has already lost his most beloved.) Take me instead, Judah says.
And Joseph is overcome with emotion, and sends his attendants out of the room so that he can make himself known to his brothers -- who are so dumbfounded that they cannot speak. Not until he kisses his brothers and weeps upon them are they able to respond to this revelation.
This year I've been struck by how dysfunctional the families of the patriarchs seem. Abraham's two sons led disconnected lives; Isaac's two sons had a troubled relationship at best; and Jacob's sons sold one of their own into slavery. The families of the patriarchs are -- sometimes troublingly -- recognizable as flawed human families, for sure.
But I'm struck also by the way this story encapsulates the teaching that teshuvah and tikkun -- repentance/returning and repair -- are always possible. Maybe Joseph's children were able to repair the pattern of alienation that had been passed down in their family since their grandfather's generation. In that sense, the text continues to speak to us today, no matter what our own family structures may be.
I've always wondered whether Joseph's brothers truly didn't recognize him. Maybe they knew to whom they were speaking, but never expected him to acknowledge them, much less rescue them. Or maybe they really were shocked to discover that their brother yet lived -- that they could stop beating themselves up for their rashness and their cruelty, which Joseph has put long behind him.
This week's poem arises out of all of those thoughts. No recording this week; sorry, folks, life is just too chaotic in the last days of the old year! (If any of you wants to record it, feel free.) I'll hope to return to recording my poems next week. Wishing everyone a happy end of December and of 2008.