The Middle East Cycle of Life
The cycle of life. Those four simple words soothe us with their implication that there aren’t really any endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur; your story is part of your sister’s story, and her story is part of many others. And there is truly no telling where any of them may lead, or indeed where they began.
Earlier this week, Elijah the Prophet was greeted by a tiny baby, who informed him that there would be no blood spilled at his Brit Milah. As he was laid to rest, a mere 72 hours after being born by an emergency C-section, his grandfather named him Amihad Yisroel – “my people Israel will live forever”. His parents couldn’t be at his funeral as they were still in a critical condition in hospital after being shot in cold blood whilst waiting for the bus home from a Chanukah party. Amihad Yisroel was to be his grandparent’s first grandchild; never could they have imagined what their first job as grandparents would be. His paternal grandfather, Rabbi Raphael Ish-Ran, addressed his grandson in his eulogy and said: “don’t be confused, we are crying but we are strong”. And today his maternal grandfather, Chaim Silberstein, relayed the promise that his daughter made as she briefly held her son: “I will bring many more babies into the world, with God’s help, and the people of Israel shall live”. He further declared: “the grandson we did not have the privilege of raising; we felt the completion of a cycle, that we could bring him to eternal rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem”.
Is it just a coping mechanism? Are these words anything more than a soothing balm for a crushed and torn heart? Or is it something that has been part of our Judaism, our heritage and psyche for millennia?
At the critical moment in this week’s Sedra, Yosef has revealed himself to his brothers and told them that he is their brother. He isn’t a despotic Egyptian ruler, intent on destroying their family, but is in fact their long lost brother: the brother they had thrown into an empty pit to die, their brother whom they had sold to a band of marauding Ishmaelites, the brother over whom they had watched their father mourn for the last 22 years!
Now here he is, second only to Pharaoh – the most powerful man in their known world. Their little brother now viceroy of Egypt. The left him to die and now he is to be their salvation during the famine gripping the land. They sold him to strangers and now he holds their fate in his hands.
The conflicting emotions spinning through their minds.
Then Joseph invites them to settle in Egypt. To bring back their father as well as the rest of their families and to live under his protection. Joseph says that he will provide for them, וכלכלתי, which Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out is a derivative of גלגל, to roll. Joseph was, in essence, telling his brothers that the cycle of life includes our feelings and emotions towards each other. Whereas they had previously plotted to kill him and had indeed sentenced him to death, he now was their lifeline! Understandably he had credited Hashem’s Hand in this twisting plot, but now he places himself front and centre in the next stage of their epic story.
Declaring that something is part of the cycle of life without recognizing our individual part in that story (it’s past, present and future storyline) is indeed simply an empty platitude. The Jewish view of the cycle of life is about playing our part within that cycle, be it with our actions or attitudes.
Rabbi Chiyya advised his wife, “when a poor man comes to the door, be quick to give him some food so that the same may be done to our children.” She exclaimed, “you are cursing our children with the suggestion that they may become beggars”. Her husband replied, “there is a wheel which revolves in this world…” Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 151b