Jacob is going to die. He puts his affairs in order, conveys his wishes and breathes his last. The Age of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is over.
In this week’s parshah, Jacob instructs his sons to bury him in the Cave at Machpelah, tomb of his wife, parents and grandparents before him. His sons, now dutiful, obey.
In his book “Underland,” Robert Macfarlane explores the depths of our planet: caves, caverns and tunnels.
“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. … Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save,” Macfarlane wrote.
Caves and pits function in precisely this way in the Joseph saga. This week, at the conclusion of the story, the body of our last patriarch — both deceased and precious — is placed in a cave, to be honored. At the beginning, by contrast, the body of his son, Joseph — both living and despised — is cast into a pit, to be gotten rid of. And that same body, valued at 20 pieces of silver by the slavers, is redeemed from the depths.
But the depths are not mere repositories, places of refuse and treasure. They are also sites of transformation. In the darkness, bodies transform from flesh to dust, and seeds germinate. It is the ultimate transformation: life into death into life.
The pit is the place of Joseph’s transformation. There, below the surface, he begins to change from the bratty teen he had been to the man who would save the world. He was placed into the pit to be gotten rid of, but emerges from it not long thereafter, valuable.
Joseph’s pit makes a staggering reappearance in this week’s parshah.
As they return home from the burial, Joseph’s brothers remember their crime against him and consider: “If Joseph bears resentment against us, he will surely pay us back for all the evil we caused him” (Gen. 50:15, Alter).
The rabbis ask: What prompts this realization, and why at precisely that moment? Reb Yitzchak answers in a breath-taking midrash that understands the power of place: “They feared because he had gone and looked into that pit” (Bereshit Rabbah 100:8).
As he makes his way from Canaan to Egypt once again, according to the midrash, Joseph retraces the journey of his life, the path that made him who he is. He visits the pit, the scene of the crime, the site of his rejection and his shame, the place where his humanity was stripped away and his destiny first beckoned.
It was there that he was sold into slavery, sent down to Egypt. If he had returned to the pit, as Reb Yitzchak imagines, what might Joseph have seen? I picture him alone, his retainers dismissed and his regalia abandoned. He stands unadorned, his essential Self revisiting the point of no return on his life’s journey.
Looking both down and back through time, he might have caught a glimpse of the boy he had once been: alone, frightened and proud. And he might also have seen his own reflection, too, peering back at him from the inky depths — the image of the powerful, actualized and whole man he had become, a man familiar with the road. Both Josephs had inhabited that pit, but only one emerged from the darkness.
If you could find yourself again at some crossroads of your life, when you stood blinking and uncertain, what would you do? What words would you whisper into your own, younger ear — words of encouragement or of caution? What wisdom did you need then that you now have? Thinking back, what should you have done? JN
Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe.