Year after year the Torah portion, Mikketz, ends with a cliff-hanger. And year after year the mysteries are cleared up in the portion Vayigash. As the truth is revealed it touches our hearts. The tears that come to my eyes, though, are not just from the chanting of the Torah. They also come from a memory of my father from eight years ago.
For those not familiar with these Torah portions Yosef was sold into slavery, falsely accused of attacking his master’s wife, spent twelve years in prison, was released and taken to Pharaoh’s palace, and then became second-in-command to distribute food during the seven years of famine. At the zenith of his career, ten of his brothers, the ones who sold him into slavery, appeared before him. He was gruff, hid his identity, and put all sorts of harsh conditions on them. At the close of the Torah portion he accused Binyomin of stealing his goblet and demanded that he become his slave. No one else, he declared, could take the place of his youngest brother, the beloved son of his father’s old age. How could the brothers leave Binyomin behind in Egypt? How could they go to Yaacov, their father in Canaan, without him? How can the portion end with such tension?
In Vayigash the brothers, headed by Yehudah, refused to leave Binyomin behind. Convinced that they were truly regretful for selling him Yosef could no longer restrain himself. He sent all of the Egyptians out of the room and revealed his identity to his brothers, telling them that he was Yosef. It is this verse that makes me think of my special memory of my father.
Just a few weeks had passed since he’d had two emergency surgeries, was diagnosed with cancer, and come to spend his last months with us in Israel. Once he’d recovered from the operations and rested up from the jet lag it was a pure blessing to have him living with us. The highlight of our week was our Shabbat meal Friday night. On that particular Shabbat, Shabbat Vayigash, we sang together, made the blessings over the food, and as we began eating the fish we discussed the weekly Torah portion. Suddenly my father joined the conversation but the words that he uttered were a surprise to all of us, including him.
Ich bin Yosef! Lebt mein Vater noch? (I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?)
Those words came from his after-school Talmud Torah class in Jesberg, Germany where he was born and grew up. Although he hadn’t learned Torah in German in years and years the lessons he learned as a boy must have been deeply ingrained inside him.
I hadn’t heard him speak German since my grandmother died almost thirty years earlier. Every so often over the next months he’d remember a rhyme or Torah verse from his childhood, share it with us, and we’d welcome his memories. It wasn’t until the day before he died, though, that he really spoke in his mother tongue.
He ranged from English to German and back again as he laid in his hospice bed in Hadassah Hospital. And then my father, whose Hebrew name was Yaacov, spoke in Hebrew. He recited Shema Yisroel, HaShem Elokayanu, HaShem Echad. (Hear O Israel, The Lord, our G-d, the Lord is One.)
Our oral law on the Torah portion, Vayigash, teaches us that when our forefather, Yaacov, finally met his beloved son, Yosef, after mourning for him for twenty-two years, he recited the Shema. Many commentators wonder why Yaacov picked that exact moment for saying the prayer and not concentrating on greeting his son. The Sefat Emet explains that Yaacov understood that although he was reuniting his family by going down to Egypt he was also beginning the exile, and that exile would foreshadow all the persecution his children, the Jewish people, would suffer throughout history.
There’s a Midrash that teaches when we recite Shema here in this world HaShem recites it at the same time in the heavens. However, whereas we concentrate on One G-d, He concentrates on one people. As Yaacov was entering exile he was praying for us, praying that we would be united and able to merit redemption as a united people. Now, more than two thousand years later we still need that prayer.
My father’s life spanned three continents. He died leaving seven grandchildren. All have, thankfully, married and they have Jewish spouses whose grandparents have come from all over the world: Russia, Yemen, Romania, Iraq, Poland, Egypt, Switzerland, Morocco, Germany, and Iran. Despite our different customs and languages we have been able to become one family, perhaps in the merit of my father’s Shema.
As we read of Yaacov’s reunion with Yosef let’s remember all of the Jews world over. And as we recite Shema let’s pray that we can, indeed, become one family and one people.
Thanks to the exceptional Torah classes from Rebbetzin Rickie Rabinowitz which inspired this article.