After much drama, the conflict between Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax in this week’s Torah reading. Joseph, after tormenting his brothers, finally breaks down and reveals his true identity to them. And then the tone changes, as the family begins to reunite. Instead of rebuking them, Joseph comforts his brothers and asks them to join him in Egypt, and to bring their father Jacob to Egypt. The brothers rush back to Canaan with the news that Joseph is alive and Jacob is overwhelmed by the news that the son he long imagined dead, his favorite son, is actually living. Jacob arrives in Egypt, and the Bible tells us of the emotional reunion of father and son after 22 years of separation, where Jacob declares:
And Israel said to Joseph:
“I will die this time, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive.”
וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי
The reunion of Jacob and Joseph is significant on many levels, and offers both historical and psychological insights. The Midrash emphasizes that historically, the reunion signals the end of the stories of the Avot, our forefathers, and begins a new section of the Bible which now focuses on the formation of the Jews as a nation. But I believe there’s also a profound psychological value to the Torah’s portrayal of the reunion of father and son.
Too often we only begin to think about the things that really matter in life when we are faced with a significant illness or challenge. We go about our daily lives, living from year to year, holiday to holiday and vacation to vacation. We carry ourselves along by habit, without considering our true goals and aspirations. But every so often, we need to do an accounting of what really matters. This is one of the hallmarks of Shabbat – marking a time when we remember the fact that a) we are created in the image of God, b) we need to rest and reflect, and c) we are free men. We need to stop and think about what our goals are before we rush off again, busier than before.
Jacob is actually the first workaholic portrayed in the Bible. He says to his father in law that he worked day and night, in heat and cold, and barely slept for 20 years. And in all that time, he must have lost touch with his kids. But now, as an older man, Jacob has a better understanding of family dynamics, and some of the heartache that he endured – literally “dying a death”, gave him a wiser, more mature perspective.
Jacob’s words, that he could leave the world happy, now that he saw Joseph, echoes wisdom that others have learnt the hard way, through years of experience and failure. Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working with patients in palliative care, wrote a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, where she recorded the observations and patterns that she saw with her dying patients. She found that people close to death had important “clarity of vision” and wisdom. The top five regrets that people appeared to share in common were as follows:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.” (From Susie Steiner, theguardian.com, February, 2012)
This wisdom finds itself echoed in Jacob’s words. Did Jacob have his own regrets? Most likely yes, but he did have the opportunity to redeem the failures of his own life, and heal his family before his death. He reaches the point where he can die content, knowing that he has finally accomplished a goal he had put off for so long: to reunite his family as one family.
Perhaps if we take the time now – yearly, monthly, weekly or daily- we can live a full and meaningful life, a life that we can look back upon without regrets.