December 3, 2004
these cold days and nights before we light our Hannukah flames, it is fitting
to ponder the darkness. The Zohar says that there is not light that does not
come from darkness. That only when we make the descent into darkness, is new
light born. There are many ways to understand this.
Earlier this week I had the dark and wrenching experience of
burying one of my closest family members, Aunt Lillian. Aunt Lil was the one
relative who had stood in the fire for me. She dared to part company with
the family and maintain a relationship with me after I married a Christian.
She dared to come (and be uplifted) by my terribly sacrilegious rabbinic ordination 12 years ago, and
once again, it was Aunt Lil who was the one family member who showed up to
my wedding five years ago and
proudly escorted me down the aisle to meet my beloved David under the chuppah.
The death was touched by a component of mystery
because Aunt Lil . had just been here last week, and we had the most glorious
time together. It was the very night she returned home that she died. She left
this world quickly and quietly. It's fair to say that she had come to say
Aunt Lilly to rest deep in the wintering earth, raised all sorts of buried
family memories. It is amazing how
the psyche works, holding onto these ancient events like a fireproof vault.
Especially the sticking points, the injuries that we incur growing up. Tonight so fresh from being with family, and
the power of life and death, I'd like to talk about this idea that our injuries
(our dark places) are always with us,
holding the key to our redemption.
This is why, try as we might to forget our
wounds, or leave our past behind,
the point of incision remains
with us and within us. We can move
away, change our name, pretend we have no family, manage to get disowned, or
simply never go home again. (I tried all of these.) But life will nevertheless bring us back to the
craggy crux of our innermost wounds.
Our Torah portion, Vayeshev, bursts with these
wounds from our family of origin. Who among us does not relate to Joseph and
his brothers? Joseph the special sibling, who seems to come into the world
shining, Ruach Elohim Bo,
with the Spirit of God all over him. His father, (Rashi) seeing his own clear
beauty reflected in Joseph's face, becomes infatuated with this boy, utterly
enmeshed, and everyone in the family can feel that a dangerous boundary is
being crossed in their relationship. Father gives son a gift of a Ketonet
Pasim, a colorful striped silk
jacket, and Joseph wears it haughtily, relishing his father's favoritism and
exalting himself in his talent for vivid nocturnal voyages.
Joseph's mistake is a common one: he is gifted but
he is green, and he misappropriates his gifts, confusing his ego for his Higher
Self. We cringe at his over-the-top good looks, and how he mindlessly parades
his dashing, colorful couture, flaunting his family status just as he flaunts
his dreamed true drama queen. His brothers, of course, are nauseated; they
will not stand for it. One day, as father's pet comes to visit them in the
field, likely to spy on them for daddy, the moment of incision occurs:
Vayiru oto may'rachok... VaYitnaclu Oto l'hamito. They see Joseph swaggering his way toward them, his colorful silk jacket
billowing in the breeze, and they can't take any more; they conspire to kill
him. Stripping Joseph of his garment, they throw him into a dry desert pit
and, finally free of him, they sit down to enjoy lunch.
story has its props. When I went
home this week to bury Aunt Lil, I was
amazed to find the objects in her home talking to me, telling me stories
unloading their memories: Going home means encountering the props with
which the dramas of our history was enacted. The furniture where we sat,
the dishes we ate from, the pictures on the walls that we stared at, are all
infused with memories. Going home makes you realize that The stuff in your
family's house is stuffed with your family. Things are just things, but
because they absorb our feelings, they become more than just things. They
become us. So it was with Joseph's jacket.
just a cut of silk, an article of clothing, but it was invested with so much
meaning. It was the object of so much love, pride, hatred, depending upon who was
handling it. We know what happened to Joseph's striped jacket: It was stripped
off him and dipped in a goat's blood by his brothers who then brought it back
almost maliciously to their father Jacob's:
"Haker na haKetonet bincha? Hi im lo?
"Hey dad, Recognize your boy's jacket? Is this the one you gave him, or not?" Of course Jacob
remembers the jacket, and seeing it now drenched in blood, is seized with
inconsolable anguish.(The goat is not
coincidental, for it is the very animal Jacob had used to deceive his own
father years earlier,)
Interesting to note that someone else in the Torah
had that same jacket, or at least, wore a jacket described in the same exact
words: Ketonet Pasim, and that was the daughter of King David: Tamar. Like Joseph, Tamar also wore a colorful
striped jacket that marked her specialness, as a princess.
By using the exact same wording for two different
stories, we know that the Torah is equating the two. What do Joseph and Tamar
have in common? Both of them are violated by their siblings. In Samuel
II:13, we learn that Tamar is violently raped by her half brother Amnon, and
then cast out like so much garbage. She leaves his quarters, wailing and
ripping her royal jacket in anguish. These Technicolor coats carried some heavy
karma. In both stories, the jackets are the props spelling specialness that
ends in sibling violence.
Does the pain in our families ever stop?
The Torah has some answers and many of them are in
this very parshah, which is some
of the greatest literature imaginable. (Highly recommended: Genesis 37-41.) At
first, the Torah says, the pain does not stop. It haunts us. It repeats itself,
in waves, it comes looking for us, knocking on our door: They appear to us
as the old familiar feelings in the pit of our stomach, the nausea that comes
when we feel rejected, the unbreathable
fear that comes when we feel excluded or abandoned, the exhaustion that
sweeps over us when we feel unseen or unacknowledged. You might call these our
somatic props: We don't leave home with out them: Wherever we go, they look us
up, and come knocking:
The Torah goads us: do we ever change? After
answering the door and falling into the same soup again and again, Do we learn
our lessons? Yes, it seems to say.
But first we have to remove our Ketonet Pasim, that beautiful garment of our specialness to which we have become attached.
Then things change.
The Ketonet Pasim is our outermost story, and
we must finally be done with it. It is the garment of our identification,
our story line. Our story might be about our greatness; it might be about how
much we have suffered or the way in which we have uniquely suffered, it doesn't
matter, These identities like the ketonet passim, keep us special and hence, keep us separate.
Joseph was stripped of his specialness, but he didn't
let it go. Even in the dungeons of Egypt, Joseph clung to his ego's story,
to his special status and he stayed down there for a long time. It is only
after years of suffering that he gets it: that his beauty, charm, specialness
are killing him.
Potiphar's wife has her eye on Joseph, and chooses
him to be her lover. But he has finally had enough of being chosen and
he doesn't fall for the complement. In seducing him, she actually grabs
Joseph by his cloak, and maybe this repeated gesture is what turns the
key for him: He finally gets it that his outer garment, that is, his
glamorous self image, is going
to betray him again: The Torah hints at this by calling his cloak a begged, another word for garment which also means to
Joseph heads out the door and his outer garment is literally
peeled off of him, Potiphar's wife is left holding it, "Vay'aazov
bigdo b'yada." Once again, Joseph must descend down into the dungeon, but this time,
he doesn't remain long. Stripped
of his specialness complex, Joseph rises in the Pharaoh's courts like the
true star that he is. He has shifted from ego identification to Higher Self-identification,
His heart is open now, and he is ready to be a servant of God.
As for Tamar, we hear nothing more about her, but
there is another Tamar and her story is in our parshah. Like Joseph,
she too strips herself of her outer garments, her widow's robes . But these
garments also betray her true identity, bigdei almenuta, She is not meant to be a barren widow. It
was an identity forced upon her by her family, She is meant to be a mother
of a royal family. So Tamar dresses up as a kadesha, a sacred prostitute,
and in this costume, turns her fate and the fate of our nation. To get the
full outlandish tale, palls read the parshah.
The Torah's point is this: Our innermost
wounds can indeed heal when we are willing to confront them, be humbled by
them, let go, layer by layer, first of who our family thinks we are, and then
of who we think we are. We change when we
relinquish the colorful garments of our outer story, to become no one in
particular. Only then can we become the Someone we were destined to
Standing at the muddy graveside this Tuesday, with
snow pouring down, I felt another garment came off my back, another layer of my
drama, and thus of my identity. I looked down into the deep hole that would
receive Aunt Lil's plain pine box. And you know you cannot look into a kever without seeing it as your own. To get to the point
that we can be laid into the earth at peace with life, all of our layers, all
of our stories, all of the garments that betray us, will have to be
In the end, I delivered the most loving eulogy for
Aunt Lilly that I could create. And so I was both rabbi and child that day. As rabbi, I spoke to Aunt Lilly's soul and tried
to help her and all present
recount and treasure her days, and as a child, by allowing myself to
break down, to weep as I spoke, to feel the tidal wave of loss and gratitude
swelling within me, for this love of a lifetime that I was granted, a love that
saved my life more times than I can count.
I began by quoting the Zohar: it is only through
descent into darkness that true light can be born. With the help of the Torah,
maybe now we understand this more. The work of encountering our wounds, is the
work of deep darkness, but it is so fertile and it yields incredible light.
This winter, may we have the
courage to make the descent into our own fertile darkness. This Chanukah, may
we give each other and ourselves one gift: the permission to take off our ketonet
passim, the outer layers of our specialness
so that the vulnerable yet
beautiful light of our truest selves can shine more clearly.