Asking for Help in the Aftermath of Death

joseph-and-pharaohIn this week’s reading, the time for Yosef’s redemption finally arrives. Pharoah has dreams, his sommelier (wine butler) suddenly remembers Yosef, and Yosef is hastily pulled from jail, given a haircut, and sent to interpret the dreams of Pharoah.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about the need to make our own efforts, while knowing that in the end it is G-d who determines the results. But I closed with a question: what was wrong with Joseph’s efforts? Why was he punished for asking the sommelier to remember him?

It’s clear that is what happened. Last week’s reading concludes with the verse, “and the sommelier did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that he did not remember him that day, and forgot him afterwards — because Yosef had placed his trust in the sommelier rather than G-d. That is a startling indictment of the only one of Yaakov’s sons who was the forefather of two tribes. For someone of his exalted standard, we are told, what Yosef did was wrong. But why — what was wrong with trying?

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Commentary on Chanukah and Torah Portion Mikeitz
Director, Project Genesis

2 dead after shooting at Las Vegas hotel Gunman Wounds 3 at Ala. Hospital 28 Dead, Including 20 Children, After Sandy Hook School Shooting

Brent Spiner on twitter

I am angry/disgusted. Amazing that some think the solution is more guns. Madness. Even NRA members want more control. LLAP

Leonard Nimoy on twitter

Late Friday I said a prayer for the victims of the horrible shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On the same day, 22 school children were attacked by a man with a knife in China but thank God, none of them were killed. As Actor Brent Spiner’s “tweet” on the micro-blogging site twitter indicates, there have been other tragedies in the world as well. Actor Leonard Nimoy laments the response to these events among some elements of our society to take control, in this case by replying to gun violence with gun violence.

And according to midrash, Joseph condemned himself to additional prison time by desiring to take control of his situation (asking the “chancellor of cups” to remember him to Pharaoh, King of Egypt) rather than relying solely upon the King of the Universe.

But as Rabbi Menken asked above, what’s wrong with trying to take control of a situation with our own efforts, especially when the situation, the world we live in, seems to be totally out of control? Rabbi Menken’s commentary continues.

I saw an interesting explanation attributed to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a world-renowned religious leader who passed away barely 25 years ago. He said that Yosef’s high standard was very much part of the issue. Yosef, being who he was, should have recognized immediately that the peculiar circumstance of his being imprisoned together with Pharoah’s personal sommelier and baker, and them having dreams, and him knowing exactly what to tell them — all of that was clearly not coincidence. It should have been obvious to him that G-d’s Plan was already in motion. As we see this week, he was rushed from prison to tell Pharoah that fat cows mean times of plenty, and starving cows mean times of starvation, and was instantly appointed second in command over the whole country. With “20/20 hindsight” it’s obvious that this was all planned out — and enough signs were there that Yosef should have seen it coming.

But we, alas, are not Yosef. Very rarely could we be confident that we are in a situation where our efforts aren’t needed, before the gift of hindsight. We always have to do our best. When should we be idle? When we have done everything humanly possible.

reading-torahWe can read last week’s Torah portion and as we review each word, we know in advance what’s going to happen, because we’ve read and studied these pages many, many times over the years. The story of Joseph’s redemption and rise to Messiah-like authority and position is like an old friend to me. But while Joseph, at his exalted spiritual level (according to midrash), should have known better than to forget to rely on God alone, as Rabbi Menken wisely points out, that is hardly ever the case for you and me.

We are faced with an insurmountable problem, a terrible tragedy, children have been injured and murdered, and what are we going to do about it? The blood of the victims cries out to us, demanding that we respond. Should we ban private ownership of all firearms in this nation? Should we pour more tax dollars into mental health research and treatment? What can we do to prevent this from ever happening again? What could we have done to prevent the deaths of those 20 small lives in Newtown, Connecticut?

Experts of every type, from political pundits, to psychologists, to the clergy are all weighing in with their opinions. Some people feel that the strict separation of church and state in our nation, which “bans God from our schools” is to blame, but for others, that response seems cheap, shallow, and hurtful. Other people and groups want to arm school officials with firearms so that, should such a situation happen again, teachers and school counselors could fire back, protecting the children.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t the faintest idea what to do. I don’t know if these sorts of attacks are happening more frequently or if we just react as if they are every time something like this happens.

Joseph’s situation and Rabbi Menken’s commentary on it doesn’t seem to help, but then again, neither one was facing what we are facing right now as a nation…as a world. It is said that everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven. Christians are fond of saying that God is in control. Tell that to the parents of the 20 dead children in Newtown and see how they answer you…if you dare.

No one knows what the right thing to do is but everybody has an opinion about what they think the solution should be. We people of faith rely on God but it is a bitter thing to lose a child and if I were the father of one or more of the dead children, I would be asking where God was when they died. Rabbi Menken reminds us that faith is not blind, but while that makes for interesting intellectual discussion, how does it help when a parent’s heart is being torn to shreds as they cry bitterly over the loss of a son or daughter?

Don’t look for my opinion or my answer to this disastrous mess. I don’t have one to give. I’m still too angry and too sad and too miserable to render one, and even when I manage to tame my emotional response, my intellect and wisdom will still fail me here. Like Joseph, I want to take control. I want to do something. I want to prevent even one more child from dying. I don’t have the power to even begin to make such and effort and as I’ve already said, I wouldn’t know what to do if that power were mine.

school_shooting_in_connJoseph rose to a position where he had power to save a starving world. His authority was second only to the greatest King who ruled over the most civilized and prosperous nation of his day. Joseph saved Egypt, and he saved Canaan, and he saved everyone who came to him, and he saved his family. He finally reunites with them, provides for them, takes care of them, and sees his aging father before he dies.

And yet, Joseph died just like all men must.

And none of us is like Joseph…or like Jesus…or like God.

God is in control but He rules over a broken world. We broke it. Only God can fix it. But as I’ve mentioned numerous times over the years, according to Jewish thought, human beings are partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world. That may mean our human desire to want to act when disaster strikes is built into us by God and part of who we are as His “partners.”

God, what can we do to help? What can any of us do in the face of such an unimaginable pain? I don’t know. All I know how to do is ask for help. Help us. I’m not the only one asking for help.


4 thoughts on “Asking for Help in the Aftermath of Death”

  1. “I’m not the only one trying to help”

    James, this whole situation is sickening…

    I’ve noticed the media is calling this an act of the devil… even freely calling it an “evil” act among folks who typically don’t acknowledge such things like “evil”, or the devil.

    I truly hope and pray that whatever action is taken, and something NEEDS to happen, disarming law abiding-citizens isn’t it.

    If that guy, hell-bent on “evil”, as ALL previous shooters have been, didn’t have access to a gun, would he have quietly calmed down and gathered himself?

    If he suddenly found out it was “illegal” for him to posses a gun because he was too young or even “weird” (yes, I heard someone last night advocating to force “weird” kids into evaluation, medication, and monitoring) would he have abided by that law?

    I think not.

  2. If he suddenly found out it was “illegal” for him to posses a gun because he was too young or even “weird” (yes, I heard someone last night advocating to force “weird” kids into evaluation, medication, and monitoring) would he have abided by that law?

    I saw one statistic that said the shooter violated 41 laws in murdering those 27 people (including his mother). Connecticut has one of the strictest gun control laws in the U.S., and yet his mother owned the semi-automatic weapons used in this crime.

    Most “weird” kids are routed into evaluation and treatment, usually once they’re identified by the school district, and the shooter was no exception. I understand that his mother, a school teacher, pulled him out of public school and home schooled him for several years due to some sort of problem he was having at school.

    Sadly, we can spin any number of scenarios as to what might have prevented this tragedy, but it doesn’t change the fact that the victims are still dead. It’s also sad that it takes an event as drastic as this to get the American public’s attention. How many thousands of children die around the world every day due to war, starvation, murder, and abuse? We never or almost never hear about them in the news and most of us don’t react or barely react on those few occasions when their deaths are “recognized” by CNN.

    The twenty children who died Friday morning in Newtown just happened to be murdered in our own “backyard,” so to speak. Their deaths are no more or less significant than the death of any child, in China, in the Congo, in Afghanistan. The grief of the parents of any of those child victims around the world is no more or less agonizing. If we really followed the age old advice poet John Donne penned in No Man is an Island, then everytime a child was killed anywhere in the world, we would feel the same national outrage that we are feeling now because of the deaths in Connecticut.

  3. If Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki claimed that Yosef continued to suffer because he had placed his trust in the sommelier rather than G-d, the rabbi was blaming the victim for his victimization. This is foreign to Jewish concepts of justice (just ask Job), and it is too reminiscent of those rabbis who refused to support the return to Israel and its modern re-establishment as a sovereign state, expecting the Messiah to arrive and sweep the Jewish people back into the Land miraculously (while assuming that continued Jewish suffering in exile was HaShem’s doing to effect moral purification in the Jewish people). The re-establishment and re-population of Israel were quite miraculous by any terms, and the Messiah himself could probably not do any more or any differently than the State of Israel has done in regathering the exiles. If there is any lesson to be drawn from Jewish history, it is that HaShem expects human cooperation as well as trust. Despite all that Yosef needed to learn about humility, he did not suffer solely for his own shortcomings. Much of his suffering is rightly and justly to be blamed on others, including the sommelier, whose own guilt for forgetting his promise only caused him to emphasize all the more how talented Yosef was, when the right time came about. After all, would Pharoah ordinarily accept advice about wise men or dream interpreters from his lowly sommelier, if that servant were not especially vigorous and insistent that this one was someone really special? Yosef’s trust in HaShem merely needed to be maintained despite the sommelier’s failure to keep his promise immediately. This sort of long-suffering is also a Jewish value that has had to be honored repeatedly across the centuries.

    As for the atrocity in Connecticut, I know far too little about how the event unfolded to offer any recommendations that might have prevented it or mitigated it while it was in progress. In general, prevention methodologies could include greater security awareness in the general culture (not to diminish the role of widespread moral instruction), as well as security procedures at a site such as a school. Mitigation measures might have included teachers or security professionals on site trained in the use of weapons or even weaponless martial arts to be able to overcome the evil perpetrator. Who knows if it might have been possible to overcome by use of something as benign as a high-pressure fire-hose? I certainly don’t know. I wasn’t there. I don’t know if there was sufficient time to call for police professionals armed with various means. All that remains to be done now, after the fact, is to comfort the afflicted and to seek whatever remaining justice may be done. The blame does not rightly belong to G-d, nor to the 2nd amendment of the US Constitution, nor to the existence of deadly weapons that may be obtained legally or misused illegally, and trying to lay it upon any of these is not a suitable means to attempt to comfort those who must cope with their loss. It is certainly no comfort to anyone when opportunists attempt to exploit such an event as an excuse to propose reductions of human liberties, as if tyranny could somehow prevent tragedy.

  4. It is true that Jewish (or for that matter, Christian) commentary sometimes artificially slants circumstances one way or the other when a less “spiritual” analysis can find plenty of human beings and human weaknesses upon which to rest the responsibility for the troubles we see in the Bible, including Joseph’s extended stay in prison.

    But in trying to understand Joseph’s imprisonment and the deaths in Newtown, human beings impose their personalities into tragic situations in order to reduce our anxiety and at least pretend we have the ability to control what otherwise seems like an out-of-control world. We have faith in God. We trust God. And you’re right, we’re expected to do what we can do to the limits of our human ability to promote justice and enact mercy. I think that’s what Rabbi Menken was trying to say, and at the time he wrote his commentary, the events in Connecticut had not yet occurred, so he couldn’t possibly been addressing them.

    But it’s times like these when, no matter what we do and no matter how much faith we place in God, no amount of effort and faith seems enough.

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