Mother and Child Reunion

Mother and Child Reunion

Sermon Saturday Morning

Parshat Vayiggash


Shabbat Shalom

Commentators on the Bible look at the reunion of Joseph and his brothers and they raise an interesting point to ponder. Joseph was away from home for 21 years before he was reconciled with his family. Why is it that he never sent a message home to his father telling him what had happened and where he was? You would think that a young boy far from home would want to get in touch with his worried father. But for 21 years, Joseph makes no attempt to contact his family. Why?

To be fair, when he was a slave in Potifer’s house, he probably did not have the freedom to send a message home. Why would his master allow him to contact his family? And for the years he was in prison, it certainly was impossible to send a message to anyone. But for eight years, he has been the second most powerful man in Egypt. Why would he not send a message to his family through one of the many servants he had in his household?

Rambam and many other commentators are puzzled by this failure of Joseph. Joseph knew that his father loved him and must have been heartbroken when Joseph disappeared. Joseph must have surely missed his father and he would want to be reunited with his father as soon as possible. And yet, this is clearly not the case. Joseph seems to not care at all about his father, his family and the life he left behind.

Suddenly, in this week’s parsha, Joseph breaks down crying and finally admits his real identity to his brothers. What happened that suddenly he has such strong feelings for the family he has cut out of his life? Clearly it is something that Judah says, in his long speech to save the little Benjamin from the accusations of theft at the end of last week’s parsha. It is interesting to note that Judah mentions the word “Father” 14 times in 17 verses; all intended to invoke pity and compassion in the heart of this cruel Egyptian viceroy. I don’t think any of this worked at all on Joseph. It was something else Judah said, that triggered Joseph’s tears.

Why did Joseph forget his family? I think that from the moment he was sold into slavery, he expected his father would do what any father would be expected to do. Come looking for him. Interviewing travelers, sending word to distant cities, riding across trackless deserts to find his missing son. But the years went by and nobody came looking for Joseph. What could be going through Joseph’s mind? How many years did he watch the horizon thinking that any moment his family would arrive and save him from his slavery. How long did he wait for the father who never came? Finally Joseph came to the only possible conclusion; his father was in on the plot. Jacob had sent Joseph to find his brothers. Jacob must have known and approved Joseph’s sale into slavery!

For 21 years he believed that his family had thrown him out. Joseph had no need to contact his family. They didn’t love him or care for him at all. We, the readers know the full story but Joseph only knows that nobody at all came looking for him. Nobody cared.

Suddenly, in Judah’s speech, Joseph hears, for the first time, that Jacob believed that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Suddenly the whole picture changes. Of course Jacob loved Joseph. Of course he would have turned over every possible stone to find his lost son. But Jacob thought Joseph was torn apart by a lion or a bear. Jacob had buried what he thought was the remains of his son, so he never thought to go looking in Egypt or anywhere else. Joseph had jumped to a conclusion that was plain wrong, and quickly the tears well up in his eyes. “I am not dead, I am Joseph, does our father really still live?” In just a few sentences the family is reconciled and the hurts of the past are all forgotten. Jacob will die with ALL his sons around him. All is forgiven and all turns out to be a blessing.

I sometimes wish I could teach this lesson to everyone who comes to see me with a tale of a family broken by perceived slights and dishonor. Sometimes it is a parent who “dares” to remarry after the death of a spouse and the kids are unforgiving. Sometimes it is a parent who feels that the children don’t sufficiently honor the very parent who gave them life and raised them from an infant into the ungrateful adults they are today. Sometimes it is words spoken in anger that hurt so much, a family is torn asunder. Sometimes brothers and sisters just drift apart, neither one prepared to call the other to find out what went wrong.

I know, I really know. Family divisions run deep and are hard to heal. It is not for me to judge at all why there is a wedge between members of a family. I have heard the stories of the pain, the hurt, and the ungrateful slights. It is not for me to say that one side or the other is “really” at fault. Many times parents have said to me that if I had ungrateful kids like their children, I would write them out of my family too.

I also know, however, that families can be reconciled. And when they do reconcile, they often discover that, like Joseph, much of what they remember as painful, was not really true at all. And if it was, at one time, very hurtful, time can heal that wound and the love that draws us together seeks to reunite us with those who are estranged. When families are reconciled, they cry over the love that has returned, and they cry over the lost years, when they could have been close had they not wasted the time in what has turned out to be a petty feud.

Please don’t be mad at me if I ask you, as we rapidly approach the end of one secular year and the beginning of another, to try once more at reconciliation. It may not make a difference. There still may be too much pain and hurt to be reunited. I can’t promise that it will make everything better, but I feel that it is always worth it to try. Don’t think that I don’t understand what it means to extend a hand and have someone turn their back on you. I know that heartbreak. I know that hurt. But I also know that reconciliation often does not come easily but it is, in the end, always worth the time and effort. It may take a while to reunite a family, it may take years. It may take us to our dying day. We can’t and shouldn’t make ourselves crazy chasing after something impossible. In spite of all of this, I believe that it is important to remember, every day is a new day, and life is a long time. Reconciliation can come in a moment, in the blink of an eye. It is important that we should always be ready, to open our eyes, open our hearts and open our arms to the love we long for.

If Joseph can forgive his brothers, and he does forgive them for all that happened, we too must find our way to restore our family ties. Maybe something we will say in 2010 will be the key to unlocking the love that seems so far away and we too can be reconciled with parents, siblings and children.

My prayer, as we see the light of day once again push back the darkness of night, that we too will find our way through the darkness of anger and pain, and try once more to restore light to our lives and to the life of our family. May God bless us in the New Year with light, life and love as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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