The happiest picture that I can imagine portrays an entire family sitting around the dinner table. One of the saddest pictures is of that same family with one empty seat, with one family member missing. And the most tragic picture of all is when that absent member is dead, ill, or imprisoned.
A good family does not forget its absent members.
The Jewish people are a family. This is the obvious lesson of all of the narratives which we have been reading from the book of Genesis these past several weeks. We began our history as a family and have persisted throughout the generations to appreciate the connectedness which exists between us all.
If we are to be a good family, we must not forget our absent members.
There are two kinds of absence. In the first instance, the absent member wants very much to be present, but he is prevented by circumstances beyond his control from joining the family.
A painfully relevant example of such an absent member is the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. He is one of several soldiers missing in action, but unlike the others, he is known to be alive, his captors admit that they have him in their possession, and even his whereabouts are known.
How are we, his family, to react to his empty chair?
This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, provides us with a model of how one brother behaves when the other is missing. That model is Joseph’s brother, Benjamin.
Jacob’s entire family is aware of Joseph’s empty chair. But Benjamin feels Joseph’s absence more profoundly than the others, so much so that as Benjamin matures, marries, and has children of his own, he names each one of them after some aspect of Joseph’s character and fate.
The Bible lists the names of the ten sons of Benjamin. The Talmud demonstrates that each of their names in some way represent Benjamin’s missing brother, Joseph. One child, for example, was named Bela, the Hebrew word for “swallowed up”, for Joseph was swallowed up by another people. Another son was called Chupim, because, as Benjamin says, “I did not see his chupah (marital canopy), and he did not see my chupah.”
Imagine Benjamin’s life, raising these ten children. Not a day could go by, not even a moment, when he was not vividly reminded of his lost brother Joseph. Every time he addressed any of his children, some aspect of his imprisoned brother would confront him in the very name of the child he addressed.
In the case of a missing brother like Gilad Shalit, we may feel impotent, convinced that there is nothing we can do. But Benjamin teaches us that the least we can do is to keep him in mind, to be aware of the empty chair around our family table, and to never forget our missing brother.
There is a second kind of absent family member. This one can easily choose to join the family but is unwilling to do so. This one has rejected his family, for all kinds of reasons. This is not the imprisoned brother; this is the alienated one.
To this kind of missing brother we all also have a responsibility. We must keep a door open, a light in the window, and an outstretched, welcoming hand. We cannot tolerate an empty chair around the table, be it for a brother who cannot join us, or be it for a brother who will not join us.
I recently read of a rather well-known rabbi who, thinking that he was addressing a traditional congregation, and speaking to them of Jewish peoplehood, discovered that the congregation was quite liberal. He assumed that such an audience would not appreciate the notion that we Jews are a people. He assumed that his audience would find such a concept chauvinistic and outdated.
How surprised this rabbi was to discover that his audience was intrigued by this notion! They were accustomed to think of all Jews as sharing a common religion, but not necessarily as comprising one people.
After reading this account, I found myself contemplating the fact that although we are a people, there is an even more powerful bond than our nationality which holds us together. We are a family, a mishpacha. And as a family, we must emulate Benjamin’s lesson and perceive the emptiness of the empty chair, the lacuna of the missing family member.
I often wondered why the Holy Temple was placed in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, and not in the territory of the neighboring royal tribe of Judah. I have come to the conclusion that this was Benjamin’s reward for being a good brother, for assuring that the missing Joseph not only couldn’t be forgotten, but his memory was imprinted in the very names of each of his children.
I call upon you, dear reader, to consider the missing brothers of whom you are aware, if not in the names of your children, then in your prayers, in your conversation, and in every practical way that you can creatively imagine.