Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Parashat Miketz: North-Flowing River

The Sudbury River flows north, from its headwaters at Cedar Swamp Pond in Westborough to its confluence with the Assabet River and the head of the Concord River in Concord. From my favorite spot above the river, I can rarely tell the true direction of its current. The day must be still, with little or no wind for me to discern the water’s movement, and then only the clues from bits of wood or feathers floating on the water’s surface make it possible to be certain. The wind generally blows out of the north or west and even the slightest breeze makes it appear that the water is flowing south. I’ve been on this slow-moving river on a canoe. Much more than a light headwind means that canoeing downriver can require one to paddle in order to keep moving.

The river’s current moves slowly enough that in winter it often freezes across at the spot I frequent. I’ve watched leaves skitter across the ice, the direction of the river’s flow then, too, hidden from view and impossible to discern.

I’ve been to the river this week of Hanukkah, as we continue with the Joseph story in Parashat Miketz. Always during the Festival of Lights we read how Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams and subsequently becomes his right-hand man. We read how his brothers, who had thrown him into a pit as a youth and then sold him to passing merchants who delivered him into slavery in Egypt, go down to Egypt themselves in search of food during the famine that Joseph foretold in his dream interpretation. We read part of the complex story of Joseph’s taking revenge by hiding his identity and setting up his brothers for accusations of theft.

Two interesting things jump out about this story. One is a single verse after Joseph’s brothers, during their first appearance in Egypt, acknowledge their youthful guilt when they are in Joseph’s presence: “They knew not that Joseph understood them, for he spoke to them by an interpreter.” (Gen 42:23) During the entire story, the text is written as though the brothers are speaking the same language, and we are not told immediately about the language barrier – only at this moment when the brothers speak in a way that touches Joseph’s heart and he must turn aside so they won’t see him weep. The story then continues, and throughout we have the impression they are speaking directly to each other, if we forget what we read in this telling verse. And in next week’s parashah, at the dramatic denouement of the story, when Joseph at last reveals himself to his brothers, the text does not tell us that he suddenly speaks in the language of his childhood. We must decide for ourselves how we think he addressed them at that emotional moment.

The second notable point is the absence of G!d in the story. G!d’s name is invoked frequently by Joseph and other characters, including to identify G!d as the player behind all that is happening, but the narrative line does not mention G!d at all in this parashah or the previous one. G!d only makes an appearance near the end of the story next week, when Joseph’s father Jacob, identified at this point as Israel, offers a sacrifice as he is about to leave for Egypt, and G!d appears to him in a vision.

The language barrier exists in the story but is not manifest in the text, yet Joseph understands his brothers. G!d does not speak or have a role, and yet is named by the characters as being present and active. We must search to find both. We must paddle hard against the wind in order to flow with the current.

The Sudbury River flows north and always has done so. Hidden beneath the southerly headed ripples on the surface is the truth and the reality of this river, that even when it looks like it is flowing south, it is flowing north. No matter how hard the wind blows, or how thick the ice, underneath that hidden surface, the water always flows north.

Joseph’s connection to his childhood self through language is hidden most of the time from the reader, yet it is ever-present. The need for and presence of the interpreter is easily forgotten. We cannot tell that Joseph understands his brothers but that they do not realize it. We are not even told this until they have been present with him for three days. And yet, that powerful truth of shared childhood language, a shared mother tongue, is part of the story, and the emotions that overcome Joseph because he can understand his brothers are deep and primal. They are his truth and his reality, underneath the work of the interpreter.

G!d’s role in the Joseph story is not named by the text. Even G!d’s presence is not named by the text. The players, however, trust that G!d is present. As we watch famine enter the land, we readers may wonder. As we watch Joseph’s revengeful behavior, we may wonder. And yet, the story keeps moving forward. Next week there will be reconciliation. Throughout, Joseph’s deep emotions of love and connection to his brothers arise unbidden to the surface more than once. His deep truth of knowing G!d’s presence in his life reveals itself through the emotions he tries to suppress. G!d’s presence is the truth and the reality in the Joseph narrative, whatever role we may believe the Divine to play in the forward movement of the plot.

Deep and hidden truths. What are our own? Winds around us may blow, covering from sight and mind G!d’s presence in our lives and our own connection to our innermost voice and needs. But they are there. The river within us has its own unique current and it never stops flowing in the same direction. Our truth and our reality of who we are may be covered with thick hard ice that may take a lifetime to scrape away, but it is there, underneath the layers we may have grown to protect ourselves from a bitter cold reality that surrounded us or surrounds us. Little by little through our lives, and sometimes in intense leaps of transformation, we can uncover that inner truth and reality. The Psalmist teaches: “If Your Torah had not sustained me with delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” (Ps. 119: 92) The Torah is a gift of our tradition; greater still is the Universe, the handiwork of the Creator – the rivers, the sky, the trees and the grass, the mushrooms and the mountains, and the human beings with whom we share this Earth.

If I had not delighted in the Torah, the Psalmist is telling us, in the sky, in the person beside me whom I love – if I had been so totally self-absorbed that I didn’t notice the sunrise or respond to the touch of a baby, I would have perished from my affliction, I would have lost myself in my suffering, I would have suffered spiritual death. Blessed am I that the Torah sustained me with delight.

The Sudbury River flows north and as long as it exists, it will, for its headwaters are south of its confluence with the Assabet. Our mother tongue and the pure soul with which we were born will exist within us as long as we are alive. G!d is present in our lives and in the narrative we live out every night and every day, and always will be. These are our truths. Our job is to use the tools around us, the sacred people, sacred texts, sacred Universe, to help us stay connected.

May the ever-increasing light of the Hanukkah candles remind us with increasing certainty that the Divine is present and at work in our lives, and in the face of life’s uncertainties a source of strength, courage, and peace.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and spiritual leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope and a chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

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