In my own practice, I have several different processes for writing a dvar Torah, depending on what my goal is.
This week, I want to explore a long-forgotten event in my life, and I hope the parasha will give me some insight. I thank you in advance for listening, because this is a very, very personal dvar Torah.
Here’s the step-by-step process I use for this kind of dvar Torah.
1. I freewrite about what’s going on in my thoughts, feelings, and dreams.
2. I read the parasha.
3. I focus on the section or the question that moves me the most.
4. I read some commentaries and essays, to find out what others think.
5. I come to some conclusion about the question.
6. I relate the insight into the Torah question to my own life wonderings.
What am I thinking and feeling about this week?
Parents knowing their child is at risk, but not knowing where the child is.
Remembering what is was like for a few slim hours on September 11, 2001, not knowing if my own brother was alive or dead. Perching on the edge of something transparent, and very fragile. Looking out over an abyss, an abyss filled with scenes of a normal life, but with all motion suspended. Knowing that a glass floor under me could shatter any second, and forever crack a chain of lives with it.
What it is like for the main character of David Grossman’s new novel, To the End of the Land. The main character, mother of a soldier, cannot bear living every day not knowing if her son is alive or dead. And she hopes that if she runs away from home, she can run away from her perch on this abyss.
What it was like for our family friend Mildred, who told us, in every conversation, “My nephew is in Viet Nam.”
Or 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.
This knowledge breaks my heart.
Why didn’t this daughter try to contact her mother?
I can’t get the question out of my head.
When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, his exact words are, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
You can see the tear stains in my chumash (Torah) at home.
And when the brothers tell their father 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 – those are the words of Torah. 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 me a song, “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.” And I would cover my ears and shout “stop!” and I would cry, because I couldn’t imagine loving anyone so much. And my mother would laugh, because she could.
And then God comes to Jacob in a dream and says, “Yes, Go down to Egypt. I will be with you. And then Yosef 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.
I can’t get the questions out of my head.
Why didn’t Joseph try to contact his father? Ramban (Nachmanides) 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 answer.
Later commentators take issue with Ramban’s negative portrait of Yosef. 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 bitter family experience led someone to that interpretation?
Here’s an interpretation, from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, that might at first seem a bit more upbeat: Joseph wanted to contact his father, but he did not know how to tell his father 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 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.
It breaks my heart to imagine living like this, perched always on this fragile floor. Living a normal life, but with something suspended. Hoping, yet with anxious terror not hoping, that something could shatter and reconnect a broken chain of lives.
You may know that last week I had a dream about a crow of an impossible age. It had the downy feathers of a nestling and the flying ability of a fledgling. The baby bird sat in my hand and I felt so good, and then it flew around the kitchen for a while and nestled back in my hand. And I thought: the bird of impossible age is like a teen; it’s a child and a young adult at the same time. We parents of teens want our children to grow up, and take flight, but please, stay in touch and come home safely.
That’s how my elder relative felt about her daughter, who finally learned to fly, but not how to come home.
But the more I reflect on this dream, the more I recognize that I am the bird of an impossible age. I’m an adult, I have some wisdom, I understand some things. And I’m also a tiny baby, because lots of things I don’t understand at all. I think I know, and I fly off with confidence, and then I bump into the refrigerator or the stove and I realize I’m just a baby.
But then again, that’s what it means to have a spiritual life. To always live on some kind of edge, to fly off, really to want to fly high as a person, in our understanding and our wisdom and our passion for life. To connect with God as St. Anselm defined God, “that being greater than which no being can be conceived.” To push at the boundaries of what we can conceive. But also to know that, in our physical and emotional lives, we stand on a really delicate floor. Sometimes things shatter, and we have no conceptions of what to do, but we still have to find our way.
And this is the essence of the elder I’m remembering today: a woman who flew so very high in many parts of her life and in other parts, simply stood suspended, waiting.
May her memory be a blessing.