Vayigash , Genesis 44:18-47:27 - We Are What We Remember


December 21, 2009

Week 319, Day 1

4 Tevet 5770



Vayigash, Genesis 44:18–47:27
We Are What We Remember
Evan Moffic

One of our Reform liturgy's (and Rabbi Jack Riemer's) most beautiful poems begins with the words, "In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them. In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them." Continuing, we read "When we have joys we yearn to share, we remember them. When we have decisions that our difficult to make, we remember them" ( Gates of Repentence: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe , Chaim Stern, ed. [New York: Central Conference of America Rabbis, 1978, rev. 1996], pp. 490–491). Part of the power of this poem comes, I think, from its evoking of memory. Whenever a loved one dies, our hearts and minds fill with memories.
Yet, relationships with those to whom we are close are often complicated and shaped by a variety of experiences. When I meet with children whose parents have died, they often tell me of periods of time when they were not in close contact with their mom or dad. "We had our issues for a few years," they say. In most cases, there was some form of reconciliation and understanding, and the children are grateful for it. Yet, while we do not forget those years of difficulty, when a loved one dies, we try to remember what we loved about that them. We try to see their lives from what Spinoza called subspecies aeterni , from the perspective of eternity. We try to remember the beautiful moments that imbued a relationship with empathy and love. Riemer's poem helps us do so. It guides and affirms our power to choose what we remember, and it frames those memories in a positive and affirming way.

Joseph also illustrates this power in this week's Torah reading. His brothers stand before him. He has decided to reveal his identity. What, then, will he say to them? What will be the future of their relationship? Will he dwell on their past behavior? Will he seek to avenge their wrongs toward him? As vizier of Egypt, he certainly has the capacity to do so. Yet, he chooses a different response. After revealing his identity, Joseph immediately asks about Jacob: “is my father [really] alive?” (Genesis 45:3).

His brothers are in shock. They do not answer. Perhaps they fear that Joseph will now take his revenge. Responding to their disbelief and their probable fear, Joseph then takes a significant step. He reframes their relationship. Rather than remember their hatred toward him and their leaving him for dead, he states that his arrival in Egypt was God's plan all along. We read, "and now, don’t be troubled, don’t be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. There have already been two years of famine in the land, and [there remain] five more years without plowing or harvesting. So God has sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance" (45:5–7).

Except for Joseph's statement, there is no other place in the text that indicates that God had planned Joseph's sale to Egypt so that he could later save his brethren. In contrast to God's revelation to Abraham in verse 15:13 that his descendants would experience slavery in Egypt, there is no indication from God that Joseph's rise in Egypt was part of a divine plan. What, then, motivates Joseph to take this point of view? He could easily have remembered the ruthless way his brothers treated him. He could have recalled the way they ate and drank while he suffered alone in a pit, and then sold him like an animal to a passing caravan. Yet, he also could have recalled his own treatment of them. He might have remembered the way he had taunted them with his dreams of dominance and flaunted his favored status with his coat of many colors. He had a choice to remember the wrongs done to him or those done by him. He had the opportunity to take revenge or seek reconciliation. It depended on what he chose to remember.

We also face similar dilemmas. If a relationship has soured, we can remember the acts committed by the other person. We can recall the words they said or the acts they committed. If we do so, we usually feel vindicated. We might also recall, however, our own actions. When relationships deteriorate, each party has some level of responsibility. If we remember our deeds, we are more likely to be understanding of the other and find a way to fix what has been broken.

As we recall our recent celebration of Chanukah, we can also reflect on what we choose to remember about the historical events surrounding the holiday. Chanukah is not simply about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. It is about a war between a group of Jews known as the Maccabees, who fought both the Seleucids and fellow Jews who were less antagonistic to the policies of the Seleucid king, Antiochus. While not ignoring the military aspect of the holiday, we usually focus on its spiritual and cultural lessons. We emphasize that our Maccabean ancestors sought the freedom to worship in their own way. Rather than blow trumpets or wave flags in celebration of military victory, we emphasize God's miraculous power in keeping the oil going for eight days. Like Joseph, we choose what to remember. 

This power to choose is a tremendous one. It shapes the way we respond to the past and create our future. We are what we remember.

Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.