Parshat Vayigash: Do We Ever Heal From Trauma?

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Ellen Holtzblatt:

For more about Rabbi Bronwen Mullin:

Piece Description, “As One That Found Peace” by Ellen Holtzblatt:
In the parshah, Vayigash, Joseph reunites at first with his brothers and then with his father. “As One That Found Peace” is an ink drawing of the artist’s mother that explores the struggles of family relationships through imagery and the art making process, which includes tearing paper and pulling away layers. Although this creates an impression of transparency and fragility, the paper and drawing maintain their underlying integrity and essence.

Discussion Questions:
1. Ellen Holtzblatt depicts Jacob in the image of her own mother. How does reading biblical narratives from a deeply personal place serve as an effective interpretive tool? Who would you replace Ellen’s mother with if you were telling your own Joseph story?

2. In studying the story and looking at this piece, what do you think the main subject is clasping onto? What do you imagine are the thoughts running through her head?

3. How do you interpret the phrase “As One That Found Peace”? Is there dissonance between this title and the image it depicts?

4. The emotional tenderness of this piece is accentuated through several artistic techniques. How do the tearing, shading and line techniques enhance the meaning of the piece? Meditate on one line, tear or shadow and describe it. What does it evoke in you? How does it interact with the rest of the piece?

Parshat Vayigash פרשת ויגש, by Rabbi Bronwen Mullin

Is Teshuvah (repentance) really possible? Perhaps a blasphemous question to come from a rabbi. The possibility of teshuvah is so essential to the very fabric of our existence that our tradition teaches its creation the formation of heaven and earth (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 39b). The power and possibility of teshuvah are so fundamental that Rabbi Eliezer advises his students to repent through teshuvah, even on the final day before one’s death (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 153a). In fact, the Rambam (Maimonides), the revolutionary medieval codifier of Jewish law, dedicates an entire section of his master work, Mishneh Torah, to what he calls “Hilkhot Teshuvah”- The Laws/Pathways of Repentance, upon which countless works of Jewish law are founded until today. And yet, in this marvelous, heart-opening and mind-expanding hevruta with visual artist, Ellen Holtzblatt, who I now also call my friend and rabbi, I find myself questioning the possibility of true teshuvah through our close, psychodynamic and bibliodramatic study of Parashat Vayigash.

Parashat Vayigash (meaning “and he approached”) serves as the penultimate chapter in the unfolding saga that is the tumultuous relationship between Joseph and his brothers. In this chapter of the story there is a dramatic moment of encounter between the brothers and Joseph, who now holds their very lives in Joseph’s hand who is the 2nd-in-command of all Egypt. Leading up to this moment, the brothers have come to Egypt in search of food amidst a raging famine. Upon recognizing his brothers, Joseph has orchestrated a test to see if they have 1) recognized their wrongdoing lo those many years and 2) changed their ways in the present (which are the two requisite behaviors to achieve teshuvah). The test involves the justified ransoming of their youngest brother, Benjamin, in exchange for a stolen goblet which Joseph has secretly planted in their possession. Judah explains to Joseph, oblivious to his true identity, that they cannot possibly return home to their aging father without their youngest brother, for:

“if I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, since his own life is so bound up with his, when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant, our father, down to Sheol in grief.”
(Genesis 44:30-31)

Judah further explains that he has borne the responsibility of returning the na’ar, young lad, safely. Benjamin being the youngest of his father’s beloved wife Rachel and subject of his dotes. Judah even begs Joseph to take him as a slave in Benjamin’s place (Genesis 44:20, 44:32-34). It is no wonder that the rabbis of our tradition saw this as a moment of great teshuvah, for now Joseph’s brothers, represented by Judah, are willing to sublimate their own egos for the safety and wellbeing of their most vulnerable kin – the youngest and favored child. Clearly the brothers have changed their ways (the second criterion of teshuva), but have they fully owned up to their egregious acts of the past? When Judah recalls that moment in their family history, he merely quotes his aging father’s concerns about allowing Benjamin to be brought down to Egypt:

Your servant, my father, said to us, ‘As you know, my wife bore me two sons. But one is gone from me’, and I said: ‘Alas, he was torn by a beast! And I have not seen him since. If you take this one from me too, and he meets with disaster, you will send my white head down to Sheol in sorrow.’ (Genesis 44:27-29)

In fact, Judah retells the same lie, and perpetuates the same deception that has irreparably torn Joseph from his family, and perhaps even from himself. This fallacious narrative is what deteriorates Joseph’s core sense of security and belonging in this world; from being a na’ar– a young lad. Once Joseph’s boyhood is stolen from him by the members of his very own family, he is never a na’ar again—he is forever changed. A humbled Joseph keeps his head down in order to survive in Potiphar’s house. When the egoism and cruelty of his masters cast him as a criminal, he must conjure his cunning and resourceful side to get by in the house of Pharaoh. Despite all odds he picks himself up by his sandal straps and rises to great power and prestige because of his self-described “God-given” talents, but his deepest wounds remain raw and unhealed. Where was God then, all those years ago?

In this moment of encounter with his brothers, what healing can he take from this, when his test has proven that, actually, his brothers have fallen terribly short of true teshuvah? And what does it say of our rabbinic tradition that this is so readily overlooked? Have we spent centuries apologizing for the, at best, emotional limitations or, at worst, moral ineptitude of our tribal ancestors?

I often feel discouraged at moments of confrontation with a text like this. I feel that our tradition actually is not transcendent, but simply mired in the same human muck that I feel in the day-to-day of life. I wonder to myself, “Is this holy? How is this different from the mundane? Do we not believe in a God that distinguishes these two energies from one another; how does a text written to draw upon the sacred, come up so short? Or is it a false dichotomy, and is the truth a dreaded realization that the holy and transcendent do not exist. If it is there at all, it is random and quickly fleeting, and if we are lucky to experience it for but a moment, it is certainly not to be expressed by the hands of man, but rather polluted.”

It is here that my hevruta, my new friend and teacher, Ellen, taught me something of an eternal truth that I often forget, especially when caught in the thicket of these Joseph narratives (which have always been my least favorite and relatable to my personal experience, well, until now). Ellen shared with me her process as an artist, saying that she always begins her creative process from her personal experience, and that so too when she relates to narratives of any kind, she feels no choice but to enter them through the realm of the personal. She then took me through a generous and vulnerable journey through her own work, especially through a series devoted to depicting her mother. Every line on the page was a delicate, careful and instinctual response to memory, the intersections of joys and sorrows, trauma and survival. It was from this exploration of her work that a new pathway emerged for me into this story of the flawed brothers of Joseph, and how the rabbis might have imagined Joseph as one who constructs teshuvah with a radically new framework.

When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, he cannot hold back his tears for he is so overcome. He then says the most remarkable thing to his brothers:

“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 for the preservation of life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:4-5)

Joseph recognizes the burden that his brothers carry and says what they cannot, and could not, ever say. How could they ever admit this wrongdoing to their aging father? Would it not have killed Jacob? And how could they confess this thing to the one in power, the disguised Joseph, upon whose mercy they rely? Even as we will see in the following parasha, the brothers cannot even fully ask for forgiveness from Joseph themselves, but rather their father’s memory serves as an intermediary (Genesis 50:17). What’s remarkable in this moment is that Joseph actually recognizes his brothers’ limitations—he sees them for who they are, and accepts them for who they aren’t. Joseph sees beyond the harm done to him, not despite but because of his intersecting with it, like fine lines drawn on a page, he has been placed where he is now, before them, in this position with purpose. This is where the transcendence that I so deeply needed is couched. He has been placed here in order to not only preserve their lives and the lives of so many at risk of starvation, but to preserve his own life, his need to survive in full recognition of the truth of his own trauma, and to have one final chance to reunite with his beloved father. Ultimately, the prospect of this resolution, unsatisfactory as it may be, makes the reconciliation worth it.

This is the pivotal importance of entering the text, and the creative process, from the personal. For those of us who have known personal trauma within our families, as Ellen and I both were able to share with each other, it is so evident that our rabbis saw Joseph and this unyielding confrontation with his brothers as a mythic portrait of how teshuvah often is not clear-cut, and the process of full recognition does not always come from the perpetrator. The absence of a “archetypal teshuvah is actually what most of us will ever receive, and most of the time can ever offer. Evenso, we must thrive and do what we were meant to in this world, whether that is as the 2nd in command of Egypt, or as a visual artist forging her own destiny or a rabbi wrestling, as described in Yentl – less with God and more with the neighbors.

Through the eternal truth, that we do not approach anything from outside the lens of our personal experiences, Ellen has helped me see the deeply personal artistry of this chapter of the Joseph episodes, and of the rabbinic traditions’ understanding of this story. The situation is both mundane and transcendent, much like Ellen’s work—it is both of flesh and muck, and captures the ephemeral in ink and tarnished paper, like a Torah scroll written before words, reminding us of feelings before we were, perhaps, created as adults, when we are all na’arim– youths. Sometimes the stories of our lives sever us from the memory of that time, but as we pray “Chadeysh Yameinu Ki’Kedem”/ “Renew Our Days As Of Old”—perhaps in recognizing the ways that God has been with us and placed in this world, we can aspire to a pure teshuvah, from the root “shuv”- to return, to a self and a world that is more whole.