To Life - L'Chayim!

Over the past couple weeks, we have followed Joseph as his brothers left him for dead in a pit, as he was imprisoned in Egypt, and as he rose as an interpreter of dreams to become Pharaoh's right-hand man. This week, as we continue reading Joseph's story in Parashat Vayiggash, his brothers travel from Canaan to Egypt to procure food for their family in a time of severe famine. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. He tests them, probing to see how they relate to one another, to their father, and especially to their youngest sibling Benjamin.

Over the past couple weeks, we have followed Joseph as his brothers left him for dead in a pit, as he was imprisoned in Egypt, and as he rose as an interpreter of dreams to become Pharaoh's right-hand man. This week, as we continue reading Joseph's story in Parashat Vayiggash, his brothers travel from Canaan to Egypt to procure food for their family in a time of severe famine. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. He tests them, probing to see how they relate to one another, to their father, and especially to their youngest sibling Benjamin.

The climax of the story lies in the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. From Joseph's language and theirs, it's clear that this is not only a narrative about these characters and their familial ties, but, more profoundly, a tale focusing on life itself. The first question that Joseph asks his brothers when he reveals his true identity is "Is my father still alive?" / "ha-od avi chai" (Gen. 45:3). When the brothers return to their father Jacob, he responds to the news they bring about Joseph with an echo, saying, "My son, Joseph, is still alive! I must go see him before I die" (Gen. 45:28).

Powerful language about life is also embedded in the impassioned speech Joseph gives as he invites his brothers to draw close to him, saying: "I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life (l'michyah) that God sent me ahead of you.... God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives (ul'hachayot lachem) in an extraordinary deliverance." Joseph is not only alive, but he has sustained the lives of his family members during the famine. After years of guilt and grief over his presumed death, Joseph recasts himself as a giver of life.

The language of Joseph's speech may sound familiar to us from many places in our liturgy, because the Hebrew root word chai (meaning life) pops up everywhere. The same word Joseph uses to describe the function he has played in preserving life - "michyah" - also features prominently in bracha achrona (also known as "al ha-michyah"), the blessing traditionally recited after eating grain-based foods that aren't bread, where it refers to the life-sustaining function of food. Through Joseph's words "ul'hachayot lachem" ("and to sustain your lives''), we may be able to hear, too, the echo of the she'hecheyanu prayer, as both of these verbs feature the hiphil / causative form of the same root. In that blessing, we express our gratitude to God for sustaining us in life (literally, causing us to remain alive) and enabling us to reach the present moment.

A deep appreciation for being sustained in life is so hardwired into our Jewish tradition that feels almost cliche to name. We often make donations in multiples of chai (the numerical value of which is 18), and we toast "l'chayim" ("to life") during kiddush and on happy occasions! But valuing life isn't kitschy, and goes far beyond being able to sing "To Life" along with Tevye! Judaism insists that the preservation of life is of utmost importance. In Rabbinic literature, this value takes on the name "pikuach nefesh" (and if you aren't already familiar with the concept, I invite you to read more about it here, courtesy of Rabbi Asher Lopatin).

In Joseph's own explanation to his brothers, the life-saving work he comes to do in Egypt justifies -- or at least absolves them of some degree of the guilt surrounding -- the fact that they once cast him into a pit and left him for dead. This may feel extreme, but it is truly no more extreme than the halakhot (Jewish laws) surrounding pikuach nefesh. According to the Talmud and all subsequent Jewish legal codes, pikuach nefesh, the saving of human life, is the highest priority, even if doing so necessitates directly violating Torah law. So, for example, the halakhic system prohibits work on Shabbat; however, the Talmud is explicit that if it were Shabbat and someone were trapped underneath a collapsed wall, onlookers could move rubble and carry out work in any manner necessary in order to save that person's life.

There are many pragmatic and common examples of pikuach nefesh as it plays out in Jewish life today. Although I do not typically drive on Shabbat, I had no qualms getting in a car a few years ago to drive my child to the ER after he fell down the stairs and broke his arm on a Friday night. Almost every year before Yom Kippur, I field questions from Kavana community members who are ill or have struggled with eating disorders, and I always advise them not to fast if doing so might put their health and well-being in jeopardy. And -- one example that feels particularly relevant in light of this week's news -- in any case where a pregnant mother's life is in danger, abortion is permitted (and in some cases mandated) by Jewish law. In our country right now, "pro-life" language has been co-opted by those who seem to care about more about potential lives than about the actual lives of real human beings. Parashat Vayiggash helps to ground us, once again, in this reality: that sustaining human life is paramount in Jewish tradition.

If we are to live up to our own ideals here, we certainly have our work cut out for us today! Every child in this country deserves to go to school and come home again at the end of the day, without fear that their classroom experience will be a setting for gun violence. Judaism is unequivocal here, that the value of a human life must take precedence over all else, including, of course, second amendment rights. As in the parasha, preserving life can also mean ensuring that everyone has access to food, and that material wealth is distributed fairly, so social and economic justice questions too can fall under the category of pikuach nefesh.

Joseph's story is truly a tale of life and death... and the way he chooses to tell his own narrative emphasizes the high premium placed on saving and sustaining human lives. May we take inspiration from God, the ultimate Giver of Life, and from Joseph, the sustainer of his family's lives, as we too work to sustain the lives of those around us.

To life / L'chayim,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum