This week's parsha
I was speaking to a friend whose child had been sick with a life-threatening illness. I asked her about her faith. Did she have questions? Was she angry at G‑d?
She told me that as she was going through her ordeal, she didn’t have time to think. She was too busy fighting for her child’s life, getting treatment, consulting doctors and making medical arrangements. But she distinctly remembers feeling overcome with emotion. Her pain was so acute that she felt as if she was punched in the stomach, doubled over. In those moments -- and there were many -- it was almost humanly impossible for her to continue. “But it wasn’t me,” she said. “I was only able to function because G‑d was holding me upright, moving one foot in front of the other to do whatever was necessary.”
Each one of us is in exile. We are in a cosmic exile, living in a world of fragmentation and disarray, pulling us away from our purpose, our values and our Creator. We are in a collective, national exile, bereft of our Temple where G‑d’s presence was palpably felt in our holy land. We are in a personal exile, carrying a heavy, individual burden of challenge and adversity in our imperfect world.
In this week’s portion, Jacob and his family descend to Egypt, eventually leading to our nation’s first exile.
The portion begins with Yehuda approaching Joseph, the Egyptian ruler, to plead for the release of Benjamin. Several passages later, after witnessing his brothers’ loyalty to each other, Joseph is overcome with emotion and reveals his identity. In that pivotal moment, he declares: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
Throughout the turmoil of our own exile, how often do we question: Father, where are you? G‑d, do you hear me? Do you see my worries? Do you hear my cries? Why aren’t you answering me? Is my Father still alive?!
Soon after, Jacob descends to Egypt “seventy souls” in all. Only 69 individuals from Jacob’s family, however, are enumerated. The Midrash provides one explanation for the discrepancy:
The Holy One, Blessed be He Himself entered into the count and thus it totaled seventy, to fulfill his promise made earlier to Jacob “ . . . I shall descend with you to Egypt . . . ”
G‑d had appeared to Jacob and promised, “I am G‑d, the G‑d of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up . . . ” (Gen. 46:3-4)
The Talmud (Megillah 29a) elaborates: “See how beloved are Israel in the sight of G‑d! In every place to which they were exiled, the Divine Presence went with them. They were exiled to Egypt, and the Divine Presence was with them; they were exiled to Babylon, and the Divine Presence was with them; and when they will be redeemed in the future, the Divine Presence will be with them.”
We don’t understand the purpose for all of our difficult sojourns, persecutions, troubles or ailments. But throughout them all, G‑d assures us that He is with us. We are not alone; G‑d hears and He cares. That may not take away our pain, or our suffering, but it is comforting to know that G‑d is by our side.
In those heart-wrenching moments, when we feel like we cannot continue, G‑d is holding our hands, holding us up and helping us to take one step after another.