Isaac Bashevis Singer, in an interview granted around the time of his 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, said this about why he wrote in Yiddish, a language with an ever-shrinking pool of speakers and readers: “The language is ailing, yes. But in Jewish history, the distance between sickness and death can be a long, long time.”
So there’s dying, and then there’s dead. And on the flip side, there’s living, and there’s alive. This week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, includes a curious exchange between Joseph and his brothers (Gen 43:27-28) which viewed through the lens of our Tradition, illuminates this point. Hearing the words this year, I find myself reflecting on the question, “In what ways am I merely living, and in what ways am I truly alive?”
A quick review: It is a time of great famine, and Egypt has storehouses of food. Jacob’s sons (except for Benjamin, the youngest) go to Egypt at their father’s direction. They meet a high Egyptian official in order to negotiate the purchase of sustenance, not recognizing the official as Joseph, their brother whom they’d sold into slavery years before. Joseph sends them back to Canaan with food…but without Simon, whom he imprisons as a bargaining chip in an effort to be reunited with Benjamin. Jacob objects strenuously to the idea that Benjamin would leave him, very nearly refusing his sons’ insistent pleas. Ultimately, he relents, and the brothers – Benjamin included – return to Egypt.
And now, the curious exchange: Upon seeing his brothers again, and still with his identity masked, Joseph asks, “הֲשָׁל֛וֹם אֲבִיכֶ֥ם הַזָּקֵ֖ן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲמַרְתֶּ֑ם הַעוֹדֶ֖נּוּ חָֽי׃ — Is your aged father of whom you spoke well? Is he still alive?” Their reply: “שָׁל֛וֹם לְעַבְדְּךָ֥ לְאָבִ֖ינוּ עוֹדֶ֣נּוּ חָ֑י” Your servant, our father, is well; he is still alive.”
What makes this exchange curious? It’s the order of the questions that is all wrong. Think about it: some living beings are well, but all well beings are living. Why does Joseph first ask if Jacob is well, and only then if he is living? Logic dictates that Joseph ask, “Is your aged father of whom you spoke still alive? And is he well?” Joseph gets it backwards.
Before delving into the spiritual reading of this exchange, it is only fair to note that an idiomatic reading makes the problems go away. Chai, “alive,” can also mean “hearty and healthy,” and that is the plain-sense meaning here. But we never let an obvious solution get in the way of a good lesson, and so let’s turn to Moses Alshich (1508-1593), one of the luminaries in that circle of teachers who flourished in sixteenth-century Tzfat. Alshich’s moral and allegorical approach to the Torah has made him a popular commentator across the ages. On our verses, he teaches:
To understand these words properly, we must look ahead in Torah to the moment when the sons tell Jacob that Joseph is alive, וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם, and the spirit of their father Jacob lived,” which is to say, it was revived. To be truly “alive” is to have the Divine Spirit within. Jacob’s sadness over Joseph’s disappearance all those years before had left him without that spark, spiritually dead. And so Joseph’s first question referred to Jacob’s physical well-being – “is your father well?” The follow-up question referred to his spiritual well-being: “Yes, but is he alive?”
It’s a good question, one that any of us might ask of ourselves. Are we well? Are we alive? What is the state of our spirits during these final days of Kislev, as the moon wanes and the winter solstice approaches? What is the state of our spirits during these final days of 2017, a year that has felt, for many of us, like a series of defeats. Where is the ruach amidst the darkness?
It’s all around us, truth be told. It is known by many names to many people. Twenty-five hundred years ago the Daoist teacher Zhuangzi called it qi. Of it he wrote, “Human beings are born [because of] the accumulation of qi. When it accumulates there is life. When it dissipates there is death… There is one qi that connects and pervades everything in the world.” Around the same time the Upanishads spoke of prana, the inward-moving energy that sustains life. And on this special holiday weekend of all weekends (and I don’t mean Chanukah!), it should be noted that much earlier, and much, much farther away, a great sage described it as “an energy field created by all living things [which s]urrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” To him it was simply “The Force.”
But one doesn’t need to turn to the Daoists, or a Yogi, or Obi Wan Kenobi to name that aliveness. We call it chiyut, the vital force, and conceive of it as a shefa, or a flow, moving about the body, moving about the universe. In touch with that chiyut, that “aliveness,” we grow stronger, kinder, more loving, more grounded. In touch with that chiyut, we find peace within and generate peace all around.
On this holiday weekend (this time I do mean Chanukah) may we experience the glowing, dancing candles as pictures of our glowing, dancing selves. Not just living, but alive.