One of the beautiful things about Torah, something that comes around every time we turn to the Joseph story, is what might, on the surface seem like a young adult novel, with a dash of the Divine, a complicated story of descent and personal return.
Joseph is not set up for success, nor were his brothers or sister, nor was their father. And here we are, again, witness that sometimes the universe has not conspired to make our hearts happy.
And yet, when we begin with that kind of cynicism, earned through the knowledge that this story is a painful one, we might give up hope. But that’s only if you don’t open your eyes to the story itself.
Joseph begins at the pinnacle, the height of heights, with a beautiful coat his father gives him as a token of overwhelming love.
And he lords it over people, including his family. The gifts given Joseph, including his incredible, prophetic power with dreams — all of that, in his eyes, belong to him. And in a flash, in a flash, it goes away.
He didn’t see the warning signs. His brothers couldn’t even say ‘hello’ to him, the Torah tells us. And his father didn’t intervene. Then one day, his father sends him out to the field to check on his brothers, to be a tattletale. And he finds them, and they hate him. And they hurt him. They throw him down into a pit. And from the pit he gets sold as a slave, and from there, he gets thrown down into Egypt. From there he ascends just a bit, to be the chief servant of Potiphar, because he has such gifts, but from that position of privilege, he is thrown down yet again, this time to a dungeon, far from any light. He is at the bottom of the bottom, the lowest point, in every way.
Today is a very complicated day. As we journey with Joseph to the lowest possible point, ten years to the day after the Sandy Hook Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where we were at the lowest of lows. That day, I was very far away from the events, in Berkeley, California. But that day changed my life forever.
We must return there, for a moment. How else can we remember the 26 souls, ripped from the fabric of life? Needlessly, stupidly. We haven’t words, really, for the intense emotions connected with this tragedy.
On this journey with Joseph, sometimes we are at the very bottom. It might be a gift the Torah gives us, to bring us right there, and for it not to be the end of the story. But, if we are open-eyed and honest, grounded and alive, then we go with the Torah on this journey, not with joy, but with honesty.
Grief is an honest emotion, perhaps the most honest one. It doesn’t come when invited, it doesn’t go when told. And it doesn’t just visit once. The Torah gives us space for this. It doesn’t begin the Joseph story with, “Don’t worry. It’ll all be OK.” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat does, telling audiences in advance, “We’ve read the book, and you come out on top. Go go go, Joseph!” That’s a gentle way of storytelling. The Torah is not like that. The Torah drags us down with Joseph. Yes, if you’re holding a bible or a Torah scroll, you know there’s more to the story. But if we suspend our ‘outsider’ perspective, forget what we know, a powerful way to read, we are in the dungeon with Joseph, who had it all, treated it like it was nothing, and then had it all taken away. We’re there with Jacob, inconsolable, who vows to go down to his grave in his grief.
And then, the story continues. One thing after another brings Joseph out of the dark, offers him some light. What will you do with the gift this time, Joseph?
I know we’re not there yet. We have multiple weeks with which we continue experiencing Joseph’s journey. But having touched bottom this week, it is so important for us to grant ourselves a glimmer of hope. Not to deny this position, but the promise that there will be light.
Those beautiful children, and those beautiful teachers. All those souls, 40,000 of whom we lose every year to the scourge of gun violence. One percent of that looks like Sandy Hook, and that’s far too much. But it tells us what an incomplete picture we have if on this anniversary of such tragedy we don’t look at the individual lives lost to guns in America every year.
More than half of all gun deaths each year in America are to suicide. Can we do something about that, knowing that if we don’t then we’re all in the dark. Can we actually start to tend to the underlying causes of suicide, which are only amplified by the presence of a gun? Can we talk about the other almost-half of gun deaths, homicides, which are largely perpetrated with handguns, not automatic rifles? Can we look at intimate partner violence, which is only amplified by the presence of a gun? And can we look deep within, and acknowledge that this isn’t something you can legislate away, nor police out of reality?
We cannot legislate back the lives of the 26 souls we lost ten years ago today. But we can do is acknowledge that there are glimmers of light calling hope back into our bodies. Pull it back in.
Joseph, who had it all, and didn’t even notice it, wasn’t grateful for it, had a life that was blessed, privileged, perhaps too much so. He didn’t act modestly, didn’t act for others. Unfiltered, he poured out self-pride. He was brought to a place of wisdom. He was humbled. He lost it all, until every element of his many gifts were channeled for the sakes of others. Joseph saved the world by interpreting dreams, and eventually did so humbly. “It’s not from me. It’s from God,” he would one day say.
Friends, Jewish tradition teaches that saving one life is saving a world. Joseph saved the world, and so can you. We might never even know that we’ve done it, but something we do might bring humanity back into legislators’ consciences, and that shift could save the life of a child, because the blasphemy of bulletproof backpacks will become less real and less necessary.
We can help people understand that, in the best of Jewish tradition, weapons are never beautiful. The glorification of guns is itself part of the problem. Weapons may be necessary for self-defense. The ethical use of force to preserve life is a religious mandate in biblical and rabbinic tradition. Certainly. But we don’t like that. We mustn’t like that. We don’t want to need that. Guns are ugly. All they are designed to do is kill. We will use a gun to save a life. I would use a gun to save a life. But why should we wish to need them? We dare not love them.
Today is a very hard day for countless families. But friends, when you really pay attention to the data, every day in a country with 329 million people and 400 million guns is a very hard day. The problem is not going to physically go away, but emotionally and culturally, it must.
Today is December 14, and we are with Joseph at the bottom. And there’s no promise that the story will get better any time quick. But there is a mandate to not take for granted the life we’ve been given, and to not slow down our efforts to make sure that life remains a blessing.
If you feel helpless, that is understandable. If you feel overwhelmed by grief, that is understandable too. But you will not be overwhelmed by grief forever. It will come, and it will go. That’s what grief does. But powerlessness is not an option. No person, no human being, is powerless. We are created in the Divine Image, “a fraction of God’s infinite power at our disposal,” as the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us.
So friends, what will you do with your power to save a life today, in memory of the 26 sweet children and committed teachers? Powerlessness is not an option. Not only that, but it’s also not a reality. If you and I are breathing, we are so powerful. Speak your truth. Call a friend. Call a nearby school, and say, “I was thinking about what today must mean for you. What can I do to change things just a drop to remind you to have hope too?”
On a day like today, we dare not take for granted the blessing of life. We must fight for it. With the gentlest and fiercest parts of our souls, we must fight for it.
So invite you friends, to allow the grief to take its course. That’s what it’ll do. And, in a strange way, maybe even naming it, maybe even talking to it:
“Oh hi, friend. I remember you. You’re very familiar to me,” I say to grief. “I don’t like when you’re here, but you are a sharp reminder that all is not as it should be. So, you can stay as long as you’re going to stay. I’ll be ready for you to go when it’s time. And when you go, I have good to do. I have living to do. I will remember And, when you come back, maybe I’ll have done something good. I’ll teach you that.”
May the memories of those we lost ten years ago be for an enduring blessing. May they animate us to do great good. And may we know less sorrow.