In Parashat Vayechi, we read the story of the death of Jacob. Following his death, Joseph and his brothers return to Canaan from Egypt to bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah which Abraham had bought for a family burial plot.
We read in the parashah that on their way back from Canaan, the brothers tell Joseph that their father Jacob had instructed them to tell Joseph to forgive them. There is a beautiful legend which teaches that they told Joseph this becuase they had seen Joseph slip away from the caravan as it passed the pit into which he had been thrown as a young man. According to the story, Joseph stood over the pit and said a silent prayer of thanks to God for having delivered him from the pit. The brothers, fearing that Joseph was standing in silence planning his revenge, concoct a story that their father had told them to tell Joseph that he should forgive them.
The story of Joseph standing over the pit and thanking God for his salvation is a beautiful story indeed. It is a story which many of us can relate to. For many of us, we can easily think of a place in which we faced or overcame a great challenge or turned a negative into a positive. To return to that place with the satisfaction of having survived and thrived since leaving is a moving experience. To return to a place of pain and know that life has taken a more positive turn since we were last there is truly worthy of a prayer of thanks to God.
But, some can not return to such a place. Some were not rescued from the pit. Some did not find salvation and had no ability to return.
We are all too familiar with stories of this kind and we immediately consider the 6,000,000 who could not go back to the site of their pain.
In June, 2011, I had the opportunity to travel to Latvia, the birthplace of my paternal grandfather. Just a few months before, we had learned that one branch of my grandfather’s brother and his children and grandchildren were killed in the massacre of the Jews of the town of Preili at the hands of the Nazis in 1941.
I felt a need to go to the site of that massacre and stand at the memorial that had been built to the victims. As I stood at the monument, two feelings came to mind.
I felt such deep sorrow and pain for my great uncle Shael and his family who suffered so horribly, who died al kiddush hashem. They never had the opportunity that Joseph had to celebrate coming out of the pit.
But the other feeling that I experienced was thanks to God that my grandfather had, in fact, left Latvia and came to this great land of freedom.
As I stood at the memorial, I said a prayer of thanks as Joseph must have said, for being saved.
I have written extensively on my trip and you can find some thoughts on this website. But, the one thought that always has risen above the others and which I consider again as we read Parashat Vayechi this year is that thought about standing at the place of the deep pit my family members were thrown into and realizing how fortunate I have been.
The feelings are the same this year but with more than a bit of concern. We are all justifiably worried about the rise of Anti-Semitism in America in recent months but we can never lose hope that this land will always be that place of freedom and safety that it has been for our people.
As I said in concluding the sermon I gave on Rosh Hashana following my return:
While I will never forget and never abandon my great-uncle and his family’s memory and will tell their story to my children, and God willing my grandchildren, I will always be guided by the sunshine that has graced my life because my grandfather came here.
And I hope and pray that all of those who have been as fortunate will be grateful to God for the sun that shines on us and will find ultimate meaning, Jewish self definition, obligation and challenge in that blessed light.
May that light continue to shine.