This week is an end. This Shabbos marks the end of Sefer Bereishis, and this past Thursday marked the end of 2020. It has been a most turbulent year. A pandemic, raucous presidential election, and racial tensions are just some of the major issues which have made this year challenging and overwhelming. It comes as no surprise that many feel relieved that 2020 is coming to an end; January 1, 2021 can only pave the way for something better and brighter. But as Jews, we look at “endings” a bit differently. When we conclude a Book of the Torah (Chumash), we recite the words, Chazak Chazak V’Nischazeyk, Be Strong, Be Strong and let us be strengthened. We understand that “endings” are an incredible opportunity to take stock and evaluate the past while simultaneously planning for the future. An “ending” allows me to learn from the past, from both my achievements and mistakes, and do better going forward.
This week’s Parsha is not only the conclusion of the book of Bereishis but also the end of the story of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and their children. The story ends with the death of Yosef.
And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him, and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:26).
The Tosafists in their commentary explain, “Misaymim B’Tov, we conclude (a Book of the Torah) with good (some piece of positive or upbeat information). But what is the “good” in this conclusion? Yosef died and with his death, Egyptian persecution and enslavement begins.
The great Chassidic master, Rav Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov (1783-1841), in his sefer Bnai Yissoschar, provides an incredible explanation.
“… On the caskets of kings, they would inscribe the royal name of the deceased monarch. However, on Yosef’s casket they did not write Tzafnas PaNeyach (his Egyptian name), rather, they inscribed the name Yosef …”
The Rebbe is teaching us a profound lesson. Yosef was known by many names. He was a son, a brother, Hebrew, slave, adviser, servant, husband, father, and viceroy. But at the end of his life, the name inscribed on his casket was Yosef. His many names represented the many identities he had to assume at different times. Yosef had to change and evolve. He never intended to serve a gentile master, but when the circumstances called for it – he did it. He never intended to be an Egyptian king – but when he was needed, he rose to the occasion. He never thought he would be sold like a piece of property, but when it happened, he accepted and navigated this new reality. But after all that happened, he reclaimed his primary identity, Yosef. After all that occurred, he found the ability to be a simple Jew in a complex world. At the end of the day, he remained a man committed to growth and self-actualization in every situation.
Our circumstances are not as turbulent as Yosef’s – but life is life. Things happen, and we change. At times we change because of tragedy and adversity, and at times we evolve because of our life circumstances and surroundings. These changes can be positive and conducive to growth and accomplishment, or they can represent the loss of certain positive qualities and attributes I once possessed but have now lost along the journey of life. If the changes are positive, I must reinforce them, but if I realize that I have lost vital parts of self, I must figure out how to reclaim them.
Perhaps, this is our avoda (lifework) at this end of 2020 and Sefer Bereishis. Although it is overused, it is still true. We have lived through unprecedented times, and we have all changed in some way. The only question is – are the changes good or bad? Perhaps, over these last 9 months, we have discovered incredible strengths and abilities we never knew we possessed. Perhaps, I have created a stronger bond with my family and have come to appreciate my home life like never before. Perhaps, I have figured out how to be comfortable being alone and have used my time to introspect and think. Or perhaps, I have been riddled with stress. Perhaps, as a result of pandemic and politics, I find my relationships and ability to deal with others strained. Perhaps, I lost my rhythm of learning and davening and find myself spiritually listless. We must end the year and Sefer Bereishis with “tov, good.” Let us identify the positive steps and strides and bring them with us into this new chapter. Let us take these newly discovered strengths and utilize them to create new realities. And if we have lost valuable pieces of self – let us reclaim them. What have I lost? And where did I lose it? Yosef lost and reclaimed, and now, we can do the same.
Chazak Chazak V’Nischazeyk.