Imagine yourself perched on the edge of an abyss, filled with scenes of a normal life, but with motion oddly suspended. Imagine yourself standing on a glass floor that could shatter any second, forever cracking a chain of lives.
Imagine what it was like for one beloved elder of our family, who went to her grave not knowing if her youngest daughter was alive or dead. The daughter, at times a person at risk, had not been in touch for several years. But she showed up at her mother’s funeral, well-dressed, and exuding success.
Why didn’t this daughter try to contact her mother?
I can’t get the question out of my head.
It haunts me as I read this week’s Torah portion.
When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, his exact words are, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
When the brothers tell Jacob that his beloved son Joseph is still alive, Jacob’s heart stops, because he cannot believe it. Only when he sees the signs of Joseph’s wealth and success does his spirit come alive. And then he says, “It’s amazing that my son Joseph is still alive. I’ll go see him before I die.”
When I was a little girl, my mother used to sing Vernon Dalhart’s The Prisoner’s Song to me at bedtime. “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I’d fly. I’d spend one moment in the arms of my beloved, and then I would gladly die.” I would cover my ears and shout “Stop!” And I would cry, because I couldn’t imagine loving anyone so much.
And then God comes to Jacob in a dream and says, “Yes, Go down to Egypt. I will be with you. And then Joseph will be with you when you die.”
I wonder if my elder relative had such a dream. Or if her daughter had any idea how much she was loved.
Why didn’t Joseph try to contact his father? Ramban asked this question in the thirteenth century. His answer: “Joseph’s first objective was to fulfill his dreams of being successful.”
I can begin to imagine what bitter family experience led Ramban to ask this question and offer this cynical answer.
Later commentators take issue with Ramban’s negative portrait of Joseph. So they offer a different answer to Ramban’s question.
Why didn’t Joseph try to contact his father? Joseph did not know his brothers told their father he was dead. He thought his father knew he had been sold into slavery. So, for years, Joseph wondered, “Why hasn’t anyone come to rescue me?”
Can you imagine what cold family experience led someone to picture Joseph believing his father did not even try to find him?
Here’s an interpretation, from 19th century thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, that at first glance seems a bit more upbeat. Joseph wanted to contact his father, but he did not know how to tell that he had been sold by his brothers. If he let his father know where he was, the truth would come out, and the family would be even more fractured.
But to me this is the saddest interpretation of all.
One family fracture, and no one knows how to heal the family. Everyone is paralyzed. No one has any idea what move to make. Not even Mr. Dream Analyst, Political Behavior Specialist, Self-Reflective Psychologist extraordinaire, Joseph.
I think this is the truth about this little branch of my family, and the truth about many families. Without an accidental meeting in a time of crisis, no one will make a move, and death may come before the opportunity for healing comes.
Friends, the Torah begs you: please don’t wait. Make a move now.
An earlier version of this essay appeared on this blog in 2010. Image: illustration by Katharine R. Wireman, public domain.