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The Wolf in Your Fairytale

Parashat Vayechi 5783

Let’s begin by wrapping things up. In this week’s Torah portion, we read the final chapters of Jacob's life, as he offers a blessing and reflection to his children, now reunited with Joseph. Before Jacob’s death, he adopts Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, a legalistic action that enables them to inherit property upon their grandfather’s demise.

The charge that Jacob gives to each of his sons is a way to close out both this stage of his life and the narratives that we tell about our ancestors. The biblical authors use the Joseph narrative, and Jacob’s death in Egypt, as a way to foretell what is going to happen in the Book of Exodus, the Israelite’s story of oppression and redemption, which we begin in the coming week.

Scholars have long noted that we do not list Joseph among our patriarchs. When we chant "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” in the Amidah as we did earlier tonight, we do not go on to say ‚"Elohei Yoseph." Rather the story of Joseph and his brothers gives us a family frame by which to understand how the twelve tribes of Israel came to be, and how each tribe is embodied in the character of its namesake. In his final remarks to his son, Jacob dials in these tribal characterizations. Moreover, commentators have argued that the Joseph narrative is a bridge, to move us from the messy family stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs living in Canaan to the communal experience of slavery in Egypt, Moses’s rise in leadership, the Israelite’s redemption at God’s hand, and the beginning of the forty years of wandering through the wilderness, all to get us back to resettle the land of Canaan. Balancing between Genesis and Exodus, the Joseph narrative allows us as readers to oscillate between the physical, communal, and spiritual experience of being a geographically settled people in the promised land that flows with milk and honey, and the embodied and shared experience of exile. If Torah is to be a mirror of our lived experience, the message in the Joseph narrative is this: there are times when we are settled, and there are times when we are not. The question is this: how do we behave depending on the chapter in which we find ourselves?

Bible scholar Robert Alter notes that if all that Joseph’s story is is a narrative to move us from Genesis to Exodus, it sure is a lot of ink to use up to make that happen. The Joseph narrative has to tell us something else then.

And that something else is how to encapsulate a person’s story and a family’s story into one retelling, so that its twists and turns, the interpersonal psychological challenges between siblings, the dynamics of a father who never stops grieving a son, and the possibility for reunification can all play out. By telling Joseph’s story, the biblical authors permit us to tell our own stories, teaching us that our lived experiences are valuable--for ourselves and others.

So, as we have read over the last few weeks, Joseph is Jacob’s special child, who had a coat of many colors. His siblings resent him. When he went looking for them, they cast him into a pit. They pretend he is dead and convince their father that that is true. Joseph becomes a slave and moves down to Egypt. There, he receives an education and rises to power.

And here, I want to pause Joseph’s narrative: I learned a new phrase the other day that I want to share. It’s the way Italians wish one another good luck. They say, “In bocca al lupo!” meaning “In the mouth of the wolf!” When someone says this to you, you are to respond, ” Crepi il lupo!” meaning “Death to the wolf!”

This phrase has its origins in opera. Just as we wish an actor to break a leg instead of saying Good luck Italians say to one another “In the mouth of the wolf!”

By responding ”Death to the wolf!” you are saying that the dangerous things that could happen to you, you hope will not. I wish you well, that whatever you are heading off to do you will be safe and come out on the other side a success. By invoking the death of the wolf, you agree that the things that threaten you should stay far from you as you do this next thing.

The metaphorical meaning is powerful. The wolf shows up all over the place in our stories. Little Red Riding Hood encounters the wolf at grandma’s house. The three little pigs have to contend with the wolf each time he shows up to get into one of their homes. In our house, we have another book that is called The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! By A. Wolf in which he claims he is just misunderstood. He was wolf with a cold who never meant to blow the house down. With a wink, he promises that his intentions were honorable, that he went to their houses, knocking on their doors to do the neighborly thing and borrow a cup of sugar. Still, a wolf is still a wolf, and he could not resist eating those pigs when he sneezed the houses down.

The wolf in the fairytale shows up to upset the protagonist’s journey. We would not have much to talk about if Little Red Riding Hood left her home, went for a walk in the woods, and ended up at grandma’s house uneventfully. A story needs its wolf. You need the challenge to overcome, a transition to go through, a wolf to vanquish.

Returning to Joseph’s narrative, I’ve been wondering, who is Joseph’s wolf? He has several throughout his life story. Mostly, it comes back to his brothers. By the time he is set up as the head of Pharaoh’s court, when the famine hits, when his brothers show up seeking grain, I think that is a powerful wolf moment. Joseph constructed a version of his life that satisfies. Then, his brothers show up, come to seek grain, forcing him to swerve from that path.

Joseph has to make a choice--reunite with family or reject and punish them for their prior sins. That choice is Joseph’s final wolf. It is an emotional and spiritual challenge he must move through. This is what the Musar tradition highlights as a b’chirah, a choice point. When you encounter the wolf, you either say yes or no. You go down one path or another. You stay the course, or you choose the alternative.

Joseph chooses the spiritual path, seeking healing rather than retribution. Reuniting with his brothers and his father, Joseph transforms himself and his life story to say, “God sent me before you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”[i]

Joseph is telling himself a story: a story he believes very well may be true. In all of the dealings between Joseph and his brothers, one might think that where he ended up is a consequence of their actions. Yet, Joseph himself argues that it was all part of God’s design. Joseph chooses not to contend with the wolf of vengeance when he and his brothers reconnect, like his uncle, Esau, a generation before him. He vanquishes the wolf and transforms his tale when he embraces the spiritual meaning of his journey, that God sent him to Egypt ahead of his brothers so they could all survive the famine together.

All of this goes to make me wonder three successive questions: What are the fairytales we tell ourselves about our own lives? What have been the wolves we have encountered along life’s path? And, when we have contended with that wolf, and overcome it, how are we transformed?

Writer Bruce Feiler asks that first question in his latest book: What are the contours of your life? When someone asks you what is your life story, how do you respond? The author of Walking The Bible, Feiler wrote a book called Life is in the Transitions, which argues that each of us meanders our way in and out of different moments, and we make sense of all of that by telling stories of those transitions. To figure out how we tell our stories, Feiler interviewed hundreds of Americans, asking them to tell him their life story. You can go on his website and give an online interview, too, if you want. He asks all sorts of prompts, like what shape is your life? What is its color? What were some of your favorite toys as a child? What was a high point? What have you fought for?

By listening and telling people’s tales, Feiler captures a person’s storyline. And in so doing, begins to find meaning. We are storytelling animals, and within our stories, each of us has a wolf with whom we have had to contend.

So, who or what have been those wolves? To be clear, a wolf is not necessarily a villain in your story. The wolf is a challenge to overcome. We like to think that life is lived linearly, just as the poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine puts it, that “Birth is a beginning and death a destination and life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage.”

Wolves stand in the way of our linear storytelling. They cause us to change course. They show up when we least expect them. Sometimes we are our own wolves, and sometimes the wolves are something else. An unexpected diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, a business failing, or natural and blessed transitions like school graduations, weddings, and new babies--each of these are transitional moments, wolves who stand in the way of telling a straight story. So, who have been the wolves in your lives? And what have you done when you encountered them?

Finally, we are all still here. Regardless of age or stage of life, you have already traversed several major life transitions. So, when you have, what new stories have you begun to tell?

During my time in rabbinical school, I served a synagogue outside of Washington D.C, Temple Rodef Shalom. It was Shavuot and the synagogue community was celebrating the Confirmation of a class of tenth graders. In her remarks to those students, Senior Rabbi Amy Schwartzman said to all of them, “Friends, you are standing on the threshold of the rest of your lives.” Later that evening, over dinner, she and I were talking about her remarks. I asked her, “Isn’t that always the case? We seem to always be standing on the threshold of the rest of our lives.”

The wolves we encounter are thresholds. When we find ourselves on the other side, we must then reframe our story. The old ways of telling the story no longer resonate because we have changed. With these milestones, our stories evolve, as we do.

And thank God for that. I would not like to describe myself today as I was when I was a teenager. As spiritual people, who understand that life has its ups and its downs, its Mount Sinais and its Wildernesses, what makes the stories we tell interesting is that they both evolve and oscillate. We go through good times and challenges. We celebrate and we grieve. In the stacking up of those experiences, we--like Joseph--grow.

Perhaps that is the reason we say at the close of a book of Torah, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek; be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.” Because vanquishing wolves makes us stronger. Because moving through our transitions makes us stronger. Because we strengthen one another by listening and by telling our personal experiences, to mirror meaning and sanctity for ourselves and others.

As we close out the Book of Genesis with the close of Joseph’s story, let us all say, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.”

Shabbat Shalom.

-- [i] Genesis 45:7-8a

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