Last week we looked at Joseph’s question of his brothers, avichem hazaken, ha’odenu chai? Is the elderly father of whom you spoke still alive? And using a quirk of the sentence structure as the hook on which to hang our lesson, we talked about the difference between merely living and being truly alive. Our Tradition names that quality, that animating force that turns living into Life, chiyut. I suggested that when we cultivate an awareness of the chiyut around us and within us, “we grow stronger, kinder, more loving, more grounded…we find peace within and generate peace all around.
If Joseph’s question, “is he still alive?” carries a hint of the metaphorical, so too perhaps does a moment in this week’s exchange between Judah and Joseph. To set the scene: Judah is speaking up in defense of his younger brother Benjamin, who has been accused of stealing Joseph’s goblet. He is innocent of the charges, a fact which Joseph knows to be true. He had, after all, planted the evidence of the crime. Judah’s impassioned speech goes beyond seeking to clear Joseph. He actually insists that Joseph enslave him, and let the boy go free. Why?
וְעַתָּ֗ה כְּבֹאִי֙ אֶל־עַבְדְּךָ֣ אָבִ֔י וְהַנַּ֖עַר אֵינֶ֣נּוּ אִתָּ֑נוּ וְנַפְשׁ֖וֹ קְשׁוּרָ֥ה בְנַפְשֽׁוֹ׃ וְהָיָ֗ה כִּרְאוֹת֛וֹ כִּי־אֵ֥ין הַנַּ֖עַר וָמֵ֑ת וְהוֹרִ֨ידוּ עֲבָדֶ֜יךָ אֶת־שֵׂיבַ֨ת עַבְדְּךָ֥ אָבִ֛ינוּ בְּיָג֖וֹן שְׁאֹֽלָה׃
Now, if I come to…my father and the boy is not with us—since nafsho k’shura b’nafsho—when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and [we] will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief.
Some of the commentators sense that Judah is describing a sort of spiritual deadening that will come upon Jacob if he loses Rachel’s other son; others imagine him literally dying of his grief. Such things do happen. The long-wedded couple who die within weeks of one another, the survivor unable to muster the will to live without their partner. But more often than not, the loss of a close friend, or the ending of a relationship, brings not physical death, but a weakening of strength, a deadening of spirit. And those words left untranslated amidst Judah’s speech tell us why. Remember, they are Nafsho k’shura b’nafsho.
Let’s begin with nafsho, or “his nefesh.” If you’re a bit familiar with the Hebrew, you might know that nefesh is often translated as “soul.” But that understanding came into play after the bible was written, and we’d come into contact with Greek notions of a body/soul dichotomy. For our biblical ancestors, nefesh meant “person” or “life,” holistically. Body and Soul.
The word that connects the two instances of nefesh is keshura…which as it so happens means “connected” or “bound together.” In context, Judah is saying that Jacob and Benjamin’s lives are so bound up with each other that Jacob would experience the loss of Benjamin as a loss of his own self. And while Judah doesn’t say so explicitly, his words make it plain that he too is connected at a soul level to his father and his brother, willing to give up his own freedom for the benefit of those whom he loves.
Kesher, connection, is an interesting word. The Maharal of Prague notes that it is made up of three letters — Kuf-shin-reish — that appear consecutively in the Hebrew alphabet, making the medium the message in a way. The closeness of the letters hints at the closeness that is required for that sort of soul-connection to endure.
Judah’s moment of truth becomes the moment of redemption. Joseph is overcome with emotion upon seeing his brother do for Benjamin what he’d failed to do at that pit near Dothan all those years ago. And so he sobs, he clears the room of the Egyptians, and switching to his native Hebrew for the first time in his brothers’ presence, says “ani yosef. Ha’od avi chai? I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The brothers are speechless, but Joseph draws them close. He connects. And in that connection, there is healing, and there is life.
May we all be blessed with kesharim connecting from our souls, our lives, to the lives and souls of others. May we mind them, mend them, tighten them. May we never take them for granted.