The Great Storehouses of the Soul

Parashat Vayigash 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Great Storehouses of the Soul

‘Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!’ – ‘strength, strength, may we be strengthened!’

Every time we complete the reading of a book of the Torah, we ritually chant this after the Torah reading. Isn’t it a peculiar thing to say? Of course, there is the impulse to celebrate the conclusion – the siyyum – of the reading of a book of the Torah, and it is traditional in Judaism to celebrate the things we finish as well as the things we start. Yet, we could have imagined another idiom. Maybe something that speaks to the holiness or the meaning of the text, something that touches upon the momentousness of Revelation or our covenantal relationship with our Torah. Yet, the traditional formula is ‘chazak, chazak v’nitchazek’.

There are a number of Jewish idioms that speak to strength, sometimes in unexpected ways. ‘Ometz lev’ denotes the brave heart, like that of Joshua. ‘Yasher koach’ (shkoyach, or in Dutch Ashkenazi: shkouch) and ‘kol hakavod’ respectively translate as ‘may it be for strength’ and ‘all the honor’. Both are ways to denote not just a compliment or a well-wish but to impart a sense of strength, weightiness or resilience to the recipient.

This season has me thinking on the deeper meaning and significance of resilience.

These days around the Winter Solstice are the darkest and shortest of the year and it is no coincidence that we have just completed our Festival of Lights around this time: the heart of our Chanukkah celebrations center on the transition from Kislev to Rosh Chodesh Tevet: the darkest phase of the moon during the shortest days of the year. In fact, the Talmud, in Tractate Avodah Zara (8b) shares a fascinating Midrash on Adam’s despair when he saw the days darken:

“As the days passed into winter, Adam noticed in terror that the days were becoming shorter.  He thought the world was being destroyed because of his sin.  He fasted for eight days until the solstice. Then he saw the days becoming longer and understood with relief that it was the way of the world.  As the light grew, he made an eight-day festival, and the next year he again celebrated his reprieve.’

It is tempting to focus on the natural phenomena in this Midrash: the waning and waxing of the light, the importance of acknowledging the rhythms of our natural world. All that is true and important but there’s something else: this is also a story about resilience. Adam proves courageous not because he ignores his fears but because he confronts them, contextualizes them and works through them through patience, observation and trust.

Judaism doesn’t value brute force or obstinate ignorance; rather it cherishes resilience; a hybrid between endurance and hope, a matter of emotional flexibility and existential perspective. Resilience has an intelligence about it that has carried our People through the ages. The true act of resilient resistance of the Maccabees in the Chanukkah story as we tell it today, was not physically fighting off their foes but to rededicate the Temple and invest their trust into that final cruse of oil.

As we turn to this week’s Torah reading, we witness Joseph’s resilience. Perhaps Joseph is one of the most resilience characters in B’reishit, the Book of Genesis. After a twenty-two year gap, he reconciles with his brothers and it is one of the most stunning narratives in Biblical literature. Through a moral deception, Joseph seeks out his brothers privately and reveals his true identity. There is pining and yearning for what was lost and for what could have been but also an eagerness to move the fraternal relationship into the future. ‘Vayomer Yosef el echav, ani Yosef ha’od avi chai?’ – ‘And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph – does my father live?’’ (Gen.45:3)
What is remarkable about the Joseph story is that Joseph’s resilience isn’t just instrumental; if it were only that, the narrative could have ended on the high point of Joseph’s ambitions: his appointment of Viceroy of Egypt. Instead, the arc of the story bends towards an emotional resolution with his siblings and Joseph’s resilience turns redemptive.

Vayishlacheini Elohim lifneichem lasum lachem she’erit ba’aretz ul’hachayot lachem liflitah gedolah.’ – ‘God has sent me before you to place the remainder of you on the land [to ensure your survival on earth] and to save your lives in a great deliverance.’ (Gen. 45:7) These words of Joseph illustrate his emotional intelligence and are a foreshadowing of what he would say five chapters later as his brothers humbled themselves before him: ‘Vayomer aleihem Yosef al tira’u ki hatachat Elohim ani? V’atem chashavtem alai ra’ah Elohim chashavah letovah l’ma’an oseh kayom hazeh l’hachayot am rav.’ – ‘And Joseph said to them, ‘do not be afraid for am I in place of God? For you intended harm for me but God intended for good, in order to do today and preserve the lives of many people.’ (Gen. 50:19-20)

Joseph was able to gain perspective on his checkered and often traumatic life. From the crucible of his experiences, he was able to forge hope, kindness and empathy. He used his great power and leadership for good and was able to reconcile with his estranged family. He, in a sense, foreshadowed Moses and the Mosaic deliverance that would set the Israelites free.

We are only two parshiyot away from Shemot, the Book of Exodus, where we will face the dehumanizing consequences of disempowerment and enslavement. What are the leadership qualities that we need in our lives as individuals and as a community?

I don’t think it is coincidental that the Joseph narrative is the last great story of Genesis; it is to show us that character matters, that resilience matters, that kindness and perspective matters, that t’shuvah – repentance – always remains a possibility. That even when we cannot alter the broad strokes of history, we can still control our responses to the great events in our lives. It is through this resilience that the Israelites made it out of Egypt, into the Wilderness and eventually into the Promised Land.

We live in times that call upon the great storehouses of the soul. We need to be resilient and we need to empower and encourage those around us who are in need of compassion and resilience. During these dark days – whether you choose to interpret that literally or metaphorically – we need to trust that the sun will cycle round again, that our faith and values will see us through, that there is a ‘machshavah’ – a thought – towards hope, goodness and a ‘liflitah gedolah’: a great deliverance.

Each of us is charged to find our own way, to write our own Joseph story, to reflect on the relationships in our lives and to embrace the redemptive call to justice in whatever way we can. ‘Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek’ – may we be strengthened to cross the threshold and find so much more.


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