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Parashat Miketz 5778: Conquering fear

There is a guru that teaches that disappointment is a more fertile ground for spiritual work that dreams. Indeed, even if the dreams of Parashat Miketz offer a lot of material for a spiritual interpretation, it is the disappointment of an elderly father what will be studying this week.

Parashat Miketz is the heart of Joseph’s story, but it is also the story of Jacob getting old. At the beginning of the Parashah, he still sounds strong and full of authority, he evaluates the gravity of the hunger in the land and orders his children to go to Egypt to buy some food. But when his sons come back with the news that their brother Simon is a prisoner in Egypt and that they were considered spies, we can see that the past strength of Jacob was just a cover, it was not real. Jacob is angry and has pity on himself:

“Jacob their father said to them: “You have robbed me of my children! Joseph is gone, Simon is gone, now you’re taking Benjamin away — it all falls on me!”. He refuses to send Benjamin to Egypt with them because: “His brother is dead, and he alone is left. If anything were to happen to him while traveling with you, you would bring my gray hair down to Sheol, the Netherworld, with grief.”

What happened to the confident and impulsive boy that took the rights from his brother and cheated his father to get his blessing? Just a few chapters ago we were witnesses to the reconciliation between him and Esau and the strategic preparations he did for this encounter. These stories are from a previous stage in Jacob’s life, the stage before he lost his beloved wife Rachel and his beloved son Joseph. This Jacob that we meet in Miketz suffered the pain of loss and his heart broke. Even if he is still the leader of the clan and presents a face of confidence, he is actually paralyzed with fear, the fear of experiencing loss again.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, an American rabbi and scholar, wrote a feminine interpretation of the Torah. She wrote there that the idea of closing yourself to mourning is simply an illusion. We mourn and life continues and we give one step, then another and we face every new day one at a time. After a loss, we will be forever different, as Jacob. As Jacob, if we find ourselves in a situation that reminds us of this fear, of this loss, betrayal or trauma; we will refuse to move, to go that place, to risk finding ourselves again in there.

So what do we do when we must face the thing that scares us so much? As Jacob, sometimes we just don’t have a choice. “But the famine was severe in the land”. There is no food, there is no choice. He orders his sons to go to Egypt again, but Judah reminds him that there is no point in going without Benjamin. Jacob, as many of us, reacts with accusations: “Israel said, “Why did you bring such trouble my way by telling the man you had another brother?”. At the end, he gives in and gives us the beginning of a spiritual lesson: “Israel answered them: “If that’s how it is, do this: take in your containers some of the land’s best products, and bring the man a gift — some healing resin, a little honey, aromatic gum, opium, pistachio nuts and almonds.” He presents a plan to “bribe” the Egyptian lord, Joseph, with presents. He finishes with a prayer for mercy and an acceptance of the situation: “May El Shaddai give you favor in the man’s sight, so that he will release to you your other brother as well as Benjamin. As for me, if I must lose my children, lose them I will.”

Is there a psychologist in the room? We see the different stages in Jacob’s decision: first refusal, then accusations, then he gave in with a plan that provides the illusion of control in a situation impossible to control, then prayer, because he does realize that he cannot control the outcome of the situation, and finally acceptance.

So what enables him to go from paralyzing fear to action? Nachmanides understands the words of Jacob as rooted on a broken heart. “Jacob says that he cannot add more suffering because he is already in pain. He comforts himself by the great pain he has over Joseph”. A broken heart makes us stronger, enables us to dig deep inside ourselves in order to comfort ourselves and deal with the challenges of life knowing how much we already survived, how strong we are and that we will deal with the next challenge as well.

Rabbi Glazer reminds us that we are capable to deal with our pain, that even if we don’t want to, life goes on and involve us with new feelings, situations, challenges and changes. In the middle of a story about dreams and a happy ending, to study how Jacob our father deals with new situations while having a broken heart remind us the words of the philosopher Bertrand Russell: “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”.

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