Vayeshev: The Danger of Nothingness?

The Journey to the End of the Earth by paolosdala, on Flickr. Used under creative commons license.

Vayeshev, this week’s portion contains a wealth of issues that speak to our world and lives. The portion contains two powerful stories that, I am sure, many colleagues will speak about this weekend. In Genesis 38 we read of the tale of Judah and Tamar and then immediately, in 39, find Joseph in Egypt and being involved with the wife of Potiphar. These two stories speak, in many ways, to current issues that are being expressed and revealed regarding sexual abuse, the role of power and perception. These are not “easy” stories, but once again, Torah speaks in its own way to events that touch our lives today.

There is another aspect, however, of this portion that intrigued me as I reviewed. In 37 we read the famous story of Joseph and the encounter with his brothers which ended in his being sold to a wandering caravan into Egypt.. Still upset over Josephs’s dream (37:5f), his brothers conspire to throw him into a pit and debate his killing Joseph and, as a result, he is cast in to a pit. when Reuben returned to the pit to get Joseph, he found ein,nothing. Joseph was gone and he reported back to his brothers “The boy is gone, what am I to do” (ha yeled ainenu, v’ani ana vah?) (37:30). 

He is gone! How many of us have confronted the reality of sudden loss? There is a sudden emptiness, a sense of nothing (ain). Aviva Zornberg, in her “The Beginning of Desire” writes on this passage :The word ein (is not) conveys the sudden disappearance, the reverberation of absence. Reuben plays poignantly with the word, with its hollow resonance–einenu va’ani ana ani–(“he is not–and I, whither am I”). Identity, direction, being itself–are put into question by this mysterious disappearance.” (p.293) We sometimes, in  these instances, find that we too have been cast into that “pit” (bor), from which there is no escape. We even use this image of being “in the pit” to describe an aspect of feeling lost, out of touch or depressed. This ein is a powerful image, a speaks to a sense of nothingness, of feeling erased, not counted, total alone in a psycho-spiritual world. And, like many instances of sudden loss, Reuban’s reaction rings true. He carries with him this feeling of “if only I had  done more”. The “what if” of life can be challenging. Reuben and his brothers try to deal with this new reality in fabricating a cover-up which is only resolved chapters later as they re-unite with the brother they though was gone forever. But that is for another Shabbat.

What can we take from this small aspect of the Joseph cycle? Many of us will deal with the issue of a sudden loss. We cannot prepare. It may leave is shaken and questioning , as was Reuben. In our lives, the power of community can help ease the journey through this “valley of the shadow”. Questions remain, the “why” will always be present, but, one hopes that the comfort and strength of community and memory will help each one who travels this path to find healing. As in life, Torah sometimes presents us with issues  but provides no answers. Again, that search is ours to make, each in our own way.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Richard F Address

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