Vayeshev: Heading home, renewing old relationships


Genesis 37:1-40:23

Amos 2:6-3:8

"Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time…You don't really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don't have, or haven't been able to find."

This comment in John Cheever's "The Bella Lingua" captures the yearning many people feel, a longing occasioned not only by distance from home, but also triggered by sweet, precious reminiscences or the sadness of unfinished business.

Sociologist Barbara Myerhoff detected such longings in the recollection of an elderly woman of Eastern European birth: "When I make the movements, circling the Sabbath candles, calling their holiness to me, covering my eyes, then I feel my mother's hands on my smooth cheeks."

An elderly man's memory is comparable: "Whenever I say kaddish…I chant and sway, and it all comes back to me. I remember how it was when my father, may he rest in peace, would wrap me around in his big prayer shawl. All that comes back to me, like I was back in the shawl, where nothing bad could ever happen."

In contrast to the sweet yearning to return to a home that is no more, some people's memories haunt and disturb them. Author Cherie Burns wrote of her ongoing relationship with her dead father:

"He still intrudes on my happiness, haunting my marriage…But I try to rig my childhood memories so I can put them to rest…I am learning the hard way that we are never done with our parents, even when they are done with us."

Joseph, the lead character in this week's Torah portion, Vayeshev, is no different from these individuals who recall with joy or sadness moments from their formative years. In this powerful example of unfulfilled longing, Joseph's brothers' disposal of their arrogant sibling set into motion a yearning that haunted the entire family for years:

When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped him of the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph out of the pit. They sold Joseph for 20 pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 37:23-28).

Later, the famine that brought Joseph's brothers to Egypt provided the opportunity for their longing to be resolved. They stood before an unrecognizable, Egyptianized Joseph. Vayegash, an upcoming Torah portion, provides a picture of a resolution of this lifetime of longing when Joseph cast aside past hurts and revealed his identity to his speechless siblings:

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!" So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear him.

Joseph said to his brothers, "Come forward to me." And when they came forward, he said, "I am Joseph. Is my father still well?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.

"I Never Sang For My Father," a film about a tumultuous relationship between a father and his son, ends with this postscript: "Death ends a life but it doesn't end a relationship which struggles on and on toward some resolution which it never finds."

Some people are not as fortunate as Joseph and his brothers; their longing has no end. However, this holiday season provides an opportunity to fulfill deep longings. By picking up a relationship where it may have left off many years ago, seizing the moment while there is still time may result in being home, at long last.