Thank you, Rabbi Address, for your January 2 commentary on Vayigash, and how it resonates with you as your Bar Mitzvah portion and for its parent-child lesson. I would like to expand on that as that one phrase, ha’od avi chai…is my father alive? is, to me, one of the most important Chaplain lessons in the Torah.
Many Torah commentaries posted recently bypassed that line to talk about the theft of the ritual object. TheTorah.com discusses four other highlights of the Joseph narrative (exile, favoritism, theft of ritual object, and dreams) and skips the family reconciliation attempt.
One of the ironic tragedies of life is that professionals in health care, from doctors to nurses to chaplains and to a whole range more, do not acquire immunity from what we treat, except, perhaps, where vaccinations are available. There are no vaccinations for emotional disconnects. We have to work through them. The story of Joseph in that one question is the story of what we chaplains deal with all too often. The fancy, technical term, is “estrangement.” For whatever reason, those who could be morally, ethically, legally, genealogically involved with us, broke away. Day after day I hear, “My daughter has not spoken to me in … years,” “I have a son but he does not speak to me,” “I miss my granddaughter so much …” and on it goes, sadly. I have it in my family also. We Chaplains do not acquire immunity.
I tell my nurses, “I pray for a Hollywood ending.” In nearly three years as a Staff Chaplain at the two hospitals in my current group, I actually had one “Hollywood Ending.” I approached a robust male patient who resumed crying when he saw my “Chaplain” badge. He and his adult son had been estranged a long time. It seems that the longer two people do not speak with each other, the easier it is to continue not speaking to each other. Days turn into weeks, into months, and into years. This patient was approaching surgery and his wife had asked if she could contact the son and tell him about the upcoming surgery. When I entered the patient’s room, the son had just called or texted that he was coming to see his father before the surgery.
I don’t know what the father and son said to each other, or what the mother and son said to each other to bring about this reconciliation attempt, but this one question in the story of Joseph teaches us a very major lesson in how to make the attempt at the reconnection.
Joseph and his brothers, Joseph and his father, have been cut off from each other, estranged, for a long time. Joseph has an opportunity to reconnect with his father. That is his very first question in revealing himself to his brothers. Joseph, like my patients in the parent-child estrangements, could ask: a) Did my father die?, perhaps a pessimistic approach; b) Is my father still alive?, perhaps an optimistic approach; c) How is my father?, a complex question implying his father is alive but unsure of his health; d) Is my father well?, a JPS Tanakh and Etz Chaim translation with which I disagree; or perhaps something else.
Joseph poses his query so fast it is like an instinct stored and ready to pounce: “Is my father still alive?” I feel that this teaches us that, in order to make an honest attempt at reconciliation, erasing estrangement, take an optimistic approach.
As they say in infomercials, “Wait. There’s More.” Perhaps, as is always the case, The Torah gives us bonus meanings. We tend to look at Avi Chai? as “Is my father still alive?” in the biological sense. What if we looked at it as “Does my father still have life?”, perhaps another way of translating avi chai? Then, we see the reality that, in the midst of estrangement, we may be alive biologically, but, in many ways, the estrangement has sucked the life out of us. And it does, all too often. It is one of the many forms of anger and its cousins, depression and despair, we deal with, and they can suck the life out of us.
If we choose to age in a healthy way, then, we will look in our virtual mirrors and ask ourselves about our “unfinished business.” Yes, you should have a legal will. Yes, you should have an ethical will. And you should see what you can do to repair some estrangements. The teachings from Joseph in Vayigash is to keep that desire for repair foremost in your mind and to approach it with hope: “Is my father still alive?” If we approach it with many ways of asking if there is still life, then we will be offering “virtual CPR” for both the body and the soul. The soul may need it also.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.