For six weeks now, the Torah has been recording aspects of the life of the third patriarch, Jacob. In the earlier parshiyot, Jacob’s role and presence was the central focus of the narrative. Over the last few weeks, Jacob’s life story has been superseded and now takes second place to the experiences of his most beloved and treasured son, Joseph.
From the time that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery to the narrative depicted in Vayyiggash 22 years have passed. Joseph is now known to them only in disguise, as Tzafnat Paneah, the second most powerful leader in Egypt. But, the time has now come for Tzafnat Paneah to reveal himself to his brothers, and so he says, “Ani Yosef ahikhem asher mikhartem otee haynah” ““ I am Joseph your brother whom you have sold here. (Genesis 45:4) This is truly an emotional moment. With this piece of information the brothers have to come to terms with the newly discovered reality that Joseph is alive. The news must have brought back many memories for all dozen brothers, mostly painful ones at that, reminding them of the years when they lived together in their father’s house and hated Joseph to the point of wanting him dead.
Yet, as difficult as it must have been for the brothers to absorb Tzafnat Paneah’s disclosure, that must have been the easy part! At this point, one key member of the family is still unaware not only that Joseph is still alive, but that he has risen to such a position of prominence. That, of course, would be Jacob! The challenge facing everyone would be how to let the aged patriarch know? The brothers had already lied and inferred to their father that Joseph was dead. Would their lie of so long ago now be exposed? The greater question as suggested by Avot de-Rabbi Natan is, once someone is exposed as a liar, how does the liar get anyone to believe that what is now being said is the truth?
The brothers’ task was challenging. The Torah states that when Jacob is informed that Joseph is indeed alive and is a ruler in Egypt his heart stopped momentarily for he could not believe his children. Yet, Jacob was eventually convinced, and he made his way to Egypt for an emotional reunion with his son.
Jacob was separated from his son for a generation. Throughout that time he was unable to be comforted in his loss. His loss was overwhelming and all encompassing and he believed that at the time when his life would end he would still be mourning his loss of Joseph (Genesis 37:35). A parent’s pain and suffering at the loss (or even perceived loss) of a child is the most difficult situation that can be confronted. Today it is nary impossible to go a week without learning of a parent who has lost a child, the child having made the ultimate sacrifice and paid the highest price in service of his/her country. In those cases, like Jacob, the parents will live the rest of their lives mourning for their child.
Tragically, one family in particular, (unfortunately they are just one of many) can relate to the narrative that has been unfolding these weeks in the Torah as the family bewails the loss of their child, knowing that their child is in captivity in the hands of enemies and oppressors. With great frequency we hear about the possibility and perhaps the imminent release of Gilad Shalit from captivity. We all know – or certainly should know – his plight. But of course even as our hopes are raised from time to time, they become dashed, as another impediment arises preventing his release. Gilad has been held in captivity for more than 1,000 days. He (and the other Israeli captives, too) should be at the forefront of our minds, and we should do whatever is in our power (namely, prayer and publicity) to help him through his predicament and enable him to be released.
In essence, Jacob had one advantage over Gilad’s parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit. During those 22 years, Jacob’s hopes were never raised and then dashed. He was never led to believe, as the Shalits and the Jewish community have been, that his son might soon be freed, as they have been led to believe on so many occasions. Though we live thousands of miles away, we must not allow ourselves to think that we have no role to play in freeing Gilad and enabling him to be reunited with his parents as Jacob and Joseph were reunited. As Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun and the Ramaz School has urged, we should publicize on an ongoing basis the number of days Gilad continues to be held hostage. We should pray for his release. Who could disagree with that? So, collectively, may our prayers ascend on high, to work together to bring this modern day separation and tragedy to a happy conclusion. If by the time we read Parshat Vayyiggash Gilad Shalit still remains in captivity, that day will mark 1,280 days since he was kidnapped.
When Shalit’s release does come, perhaps our hearts, too, will go faint when we hear the news and we will be skeptical at first as Jacob was when he heard that Joseph was still alive. May that be a happy problem that we and the Shalits will soon have to confront, seeing Gilad a free man, even as Jacob confronted his initial doubts and was enabled to have a glorious and happy reunion with his son.