The ending of this week’s Torah portion, which is also the completion of the entire book of Bereishit, is very perplexing. Here is what the verse says: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; they embalmed him and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.”
Why doesn’t the book of Bereishit conclude on a more inspiring note? Why must it finish with a gloomy and despairing ending — Joseph’s death and burial? For thousands of years, the classical Jewish sages have made a special effort to conclude their written works and talks on a positive note. Even if the subject matter was not upbeat, there would always be an effort to have a conclusion that would invigorate readers and listeners with a message of hope and promise.
Even if the Torah felt compelled to culminate with Joseph’s death, it could have ended with the penultimate verse of Bereishit: “Joseph told his brothers: ‘I am about to die, but G-d will indeed remember you and bring you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob … You will bring my bones up out of here.” At least that would have ended the book with a promise for future redemption.
This question becomes even stronger upon considering the Jewish custom that when the reader of the Torah concludes each of the Five Books of Moses (as will occur this Shabbat morning), the entire congregation thunders out loud: “Chazak! Chazak! Venischazak! — Be strong! Be strong! Let us be strengthened!”
But how can one gain strength, never mind triple strength, from this despairing end?
In January of 1987, in a very moving talk on the Sabbath of the portion of Vayechi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe addressed this very question. He suggested it is precisely this ending that grants us a deeply moving and comforting message.
Unfortunately, we cannot live life without pain and every life comes with challenges. What a person must know is that they are empowered to deal with the pain and that they are not alone in it.
“Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; they embalmed him and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” In these seemingly uninspiring words, one may sense profound inspiration. The Jewish people are about to become enslaved and subjugated to a tyrannical government that will attempt to destroy them. This new Egyptian genocide program will drown children, subject all Jewish men to slave labor and crush a new nation. What will give the people of Israel the resolve they will desperately need? What will preserve a broken and devastated people from falling into despair?
But then, when Bereishit chooses its final words, they provide us with a message that perhaps served as the greatest source of strength for an orphaned and broken Jewish family: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; they embalmed him and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.”
Joseph’s sacred body is not taken back to the Holy Land to be interred among the spiritual giants of human history — Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; his father Jacob or his mother Rachel. Joseph’s spiritual and physical presence does not “escape” to the heavenly paradise of a land saturated with holiness. Rather, Joseph remains etched deeply in the earthiness of a depraved Egypt, together with his beloved people.
Joseph insisted that he remain in Egypt with his people to act as the ultimate symbol of survival, for it was Joseph who was able to thrive even as he was torn away from his family and sent down to Egypt. If the Jewish people ever despaired, they could look at Joseph’s model and gain tremendous inspiration from his remarkable life.
The Jews may be entrenched in Egypt and all that it represents, but Joseph is right there with them, in the midst of their condition, giving them strength, blessings and fortitude.
In each generation, G-d plants such “Josephs” in our midst — those inspiring figures who are there with the Jewish people motivating us and lifting us up through our challenges. Some “Josephs,” like the original one in our story, operate on a global level and others on a local level.
This message is very personal to me, as I mourn the loss of my parents, Rabbi Ephraim and Mrs. Miriam Rosenblum OBM. Both of them were legendary figures in the Pittsburgh community and role models or “Josephs” for our family, the community and beyond. They lifted us up and inspired us in countless ways.
Sometimes, even after their passing, if we open our hearts, we can feel the touch of their soul, the richness of their spirits, the faith of their lives. We may be stuck in the quagmire of “Egyptian” exile, yet “Joseph” is present with us. Thus, even in the midst of a dark and bitter exile, we can hold each other’s hands and thunder aloud: “Chazak! Chazak! Venischazak! — Be strong! Be strong! Let us be strengthened!” PJC
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum is director of Chabad of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.