Avi Chai?

Joseph recognized by his brothers, by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers
Joseph recognized by his brothers, by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers

Parsha Vayigash
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Shabbat, Saturday, December 31, 2022

This week, the Torah parsha is spiritually efficient. The topic sentence, to me, is only two words: “Avi Chai?” If you know it, hear why it resonates so deeply to me. If you are not familiar with it, fasten your seat belts, as they say. “Avi Chai?” sits with “Bo” (Go again to the Pharaoh) and “Lech Lecha” (go forth from where you are) as a streamlined route to deep meaning.

As this week’s parsha opens, patriarch Jacob is home in the Holy Land, l’vado, existentially alone. Jacob has sent the sons he still knows down to Egypt. Jacob’s neighborhood has famine. Word has reached them that Egypt anticipated the famine, has grain in storage, and perhaps, just perhaps, Jacob’s sons can persuade the viceroy in Egypt to sell them some of the grain. And so the sons journey to Egypt.

Unbeknownst to all, the viceroy in Egypt, who has the power to sell them the grain, also has the power to nourish their souls. The viceroy is Joseph, the son Jacob has been taught to accept as deceased, and the brother to the travelers who also thought their brother had died, through their own actions.

Without proof, Jacob cannot be sure son Joseph has died. Professor Pauline Boss, of the University of Minnesota, calls this “ambiguous loss,” grief trying to connect the head and the heart when there is no body, no visual proof. Joseph, the son stranded in Egypt, is in limbo with no information on his father … for twenty-two years, a very, very long time in those days, despite Biblical hyperbole.

Estrangement was an open wound then, and is an open wound now. It is truly a “tale as old as time.”  In its rawest form, estrangement reflects people whose genealogy says they are related, where morals, ethics, and the law say these people should care for each other, and they couldn’t care less … on the surface. They know exactly how long it has been since they have last spoken to each other. They, too, might not even know who is still alive.

Surveying reports 27% of Americans today say they are estranged from at least one person in their family. As a statistician, I truly feel the number is higher.

More than one hospital patient over my career has remarked to me that family drives right past their hospital but does not stop. More than once, I have had to place estranged families in separate comfort rooms for the doctor to break the same bad news, twice, that a family member has died.

Take another perspective, from American survey research in October 2022 in anticipation of the upcoming holidays which used to focus on families getting together. One thousand

Americans, split evenly into moms, dads, grandmothers, and grandfathers, were asked what they really want this holiday season. The two biggest choices were “Time with Family,” and “Gift Card.”  Surprise?  or No Surprise?  “Gift Card” was always consistently preferred over “Time with Family,” as much as 2.7 times higher among the moms surveyed.

The obsession of the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, is loneliness, the pandemic that was there before the Covid pandemic and has returned to the number one position. Estrangement correlates with loneliness.

Vayigash teaches that reconciliation can overcome estrangement. First, consider how it happens, the set-up, as they say in drama. You can go through therapy, you can go through mind rehearsals of what you are going to say if and when you meet this estranged relative again. However, as is often the case, HaShem has another plan in mind, a plan where reconciliation is possible through a spontaneous encounter, and, in those spontaneous encounters, your true feelings emerge in an unrehearsed script.

The late Dr. D’arcy Sims used to teach conferences of bereaved parents, “the head may know, the heart may know, but there is a moment when they both connect.”  This is the moment best expressed in hugs and tears. Tears are the lubricant of the soul. Native Americans teach, “The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.”

In the parsha, the brothers have arrived in Egypt seeking grain. Viceroy and Brother Joseph first appears as a stranger, perhaps because of the way he looks or dresses, perhaps because the 22 years of estrangement has changed appearances, perhaps because the brothers do not expect the viceroy to be Joseph, and we might have mistaken identity.

Vayigash, means, “And he approached.”  Here, Judah approached Joseph, who is in disguise. Joseph asks Judah about his family. As Dr. Sims would teach, Joseph’s head and heart are connecting, faster for Joseph than for Judah. Joseph knows his family is in front of him. How to handle this moment?  How to handle this opportunity for reconciliation? 

Joseph lets his heart lead his head. Joseph becomes farklempt, Yiddish for choked up and about to cry, so Joseph sends his own team of servants away from him quickly. Then, Joseph spontaneously wept so loud that his primal scream was heard all the way into the house of Pharaoh.

Joseph’s startled brothers had no time to ask why he was screaming and weeping because Joseph immediately decided to reveal himself. What words were locked inside Joseph yearning to be spontaneously freed at this moment?  Were the words going to be, “I am your brother, nice to see you?  How are you?  Did our father die? Is our father alive?”

The actual words are, “I am Joseph, your brother. Avi chai?”  Avi chai is usually translated, “Is my father alive?”  

I prefer a different translation. My chaplain’s translation of Avi Chai becomes, “Does my father still have life in him? “Is my father alive?” moves us towards the scientific answer of vital signs, e.g., pulse and respirations. Yes, they might still be there. Yet, estrangement can still suck the life out of you in other ways. “Does my father still have life in him?” opens the door to the emotional set of vital signs.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar offered, “Ha’od avi chai, does my father live?”

After that, in this parsha, Joseph fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. This is more than a Hollywood ending,  It happens in real life. I have seen it. My neck has felt it.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, taught that when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, Joseph reinterpreted the past by telling his brothers not to be distressed and angry because they sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt.

Rabbi Sacks taught, “We cannot fully understand what is happening to us now until we can look back in retrospect and see how it all turned out….We are not held captive by the past. Things can happen to us, not as dramatically as to Joseph perhaps, but nonetheless benign, that can completely alter the way we look back and remember. By action in the future, we can redeem the past.”

Therapist Joshua Coleman, writing on his specialty of estrangement in The Atlantic, January 10, 2021, commented, “However they arrive at estrangement, parents and adult children seem to be looking at the past and present through very different eyes. Estranged parents often tell me that their adult child is rewriting the history of their childhood.”

Instead, may we and they be blessed to apply the Friday evening teaching from the 1978 edition of the Reform Prayer Book, Gates of the House. After the Shabbat candles are lighted, we pray together, “Blessed is the house in which the hearts of the children are turned to the parents, and the hearts of the parents to the children.”

Kein Y’hi Ratzon – May it be God’s Will.

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