I hope that many of you are loyal readers of “Torah from Sinai” each week. I try to share some practical insight, bit of wisdom, or profound teaching that is relevant to people’s lives and connected to what is going on in our world.
This week is the last of our calendar year. Much of what concerned our lives last year will carry over into next year, on both the macro level (the politics here in the US and with great intensity in Israel, the rising threat of antisemitism, climate change, crises for refugees and conflicts throughout the world, homelessness, etc.) and on the micro level (issues of our health, relationships, livelihood, the challenges and opportunities and struggles we encounter on the way to becoming our best selves, etc.).
Sometimes it feels like anything one could say which is not directly focused on these immediate issues-of-the-day will necessarily be a non-sequitur.
Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, contains what very well might be the Torah’s biggest non-sequitur…or not:
Here is Joseph, the ruler of all Egypt, whispering in Hebrew to his brothers that in fact he is their long-lost brother whom they sold into slavery and gave up for dead twenty years ago. Then they hug and weep and trade stories about their adventures in life, show pictures of the family from their wallets, kvell – all that kind of good stuff.
Eventually the now-reconciled brothers get down to business and make arrangements to move the whole clan down to Egypt for the remaining years of the famine. Joseph reassures his brothers about the Goshen school system, they get a health care provider for their aged father Jacob and a nurse who does home-care. The brothers call their people just to check that their shepherd pension plan can be paid in a foreign currency.
In short, they set everything up, Joseph provides food for the trip for them, Jacob, and the kids, they say their goodbyes, they’re all set to leave and then…out of the blue, Joseph says to them: “Don’t be quarrelsome on the way.” (Genesis 45:24)
“Don’t be quarrelsome on the way.” What is he talking about?! Where does Joseph get that from—haven’t they just had a wonderful reunion, everyone getting along just great? What does he mean by this? Why does he say it at that moment?
Now, if the statement were truly a non-sequitur, these questions would have no answers. I think of my favorite random quotes from James Joyce’s Ulysses — and many scholars think that Ulysses is second only to the Bible in terms of greatness: “And what is cheese? Corpse of milk.” There is absolutely nothing to investigate on that profound statement. It is a true non-sequitur.
In the Torah, though, it’s not so simple: Our tradition holds that the Torah is complete, perfect. Every single word, in fact, every single letter and the shape and decorations affixed to every letter, have meaning. There is nothing extra or unnecessary. And if a letter, a word, or a statement seems out of place or random, then there is a deeper reason for it: perhaps it hints at a new idea, or contains a concept waiting to be discovered.
The whole point of the Torah, then, is that everything has a point. And if there is a seeming non-sequitur, our job is to find out what it is trying to tell us, how it links into the context just before or just after it. And when we think about it long enough, it begins to lose its out-of-the-blue quality. We make it make sense: hafoch ba v’hafoch ba, dekula ba —’turn it and turn it again—everything is found in it’.
It’s no surprise, then, that our tradition has several comments about why Joseph all of a sudden says “Don’t be quarrelsome on the way.”
Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, suggests that Joseph was thinking that each brother would blame the others for having sold him into slavery—after all, they now have to tell their father what really happened 20 years ago, and they have to face the consequences of their actions. Who is going to take the blame?
Joseph, the former slave, the former prisoner, now the chief officer of Egypt, has had time to do a lot of reflection on life, has become wise, and so he understands how guilt and denial afflict us in our relationships: We tend to remember the past in a way that makes us look best. We forget those things about ourselves that make us uncomfortable with who we are and what we’ve done.
Too often, we and our family members end up disagreeing about the meaning of something that’s happened, or even about the facts themselves. Such conflict can make us forget the desire, the need to be part of each other’s life—how many siblings, or parents and kids, go for weeks, months, or even years without so much as speaking to one another?
Joseph anticipates that his brothers will try to blame each other for their crime against him, and so he instructs them not to engage in recriminations about the past. He wants to preserve the newfound unity of the family. Joseph suggests that it may be best simply to agree to overlook the past, to start afresh in the present.
Our Rabbis have expanded on this idea, taking the reconciliation of the 12 specific sons of Israel and looking on a wider level to the need for peacemaking between all the Jews of the world. The need for unity among the Jewish People – among all the people on the globe and for humans with our precious planet and all life on it – is a value as well as a practical requirement for survival.
“Don’t be quarrelsome on the way.” Good advice. On every level, maybe it isn’t such a non-sequitur after all….