Vayigash 2023: Resurrection of the Dead: Ascending Into the New Year

Resurrection of the dead is an often-avoided idea in progressive Jewish spaces, but is rich with meaning , if only we look at it from the right perspective. Joseph's story of descent and ascent in this Torah portion, itself, helps us to understand how we can use this concept in our lives today.

One of the aspects of Judaism that has been contentious within the Reform Movement since its inception is the concept of resurrection of the dead. The founding text of Judaism, the Mishnah, declares that one who denies the resurrection of the dead will be excluded from life after death themselves, and the great medieval sage Maimonides included it as one of the thirteen principles of faith. In short, it is the belief that at the end of time, when the Messiah arrives, the righteous dead will be physically, bodily resurrected. 

One of the citations from the Bible that rabbinic Judaism based this upon is from a poem in the Book of Samuel, reading:

יְהֹוָ֖ה מֵמִ֣ית וּמְחַיֶּ֑ה מוֹרִ֥יד שְׁא֖וֹל וַיָּֽעַל

Adonai deals death and gives life, Casts down into Sheol and raises up.

Two of the Hebrew roots here, yored and alah, to go down, and to come up, are central to this week’s Torah portion. Much of the portion revolves around the action playing out between Joseph ruling Egypt, and his brothers as they seek sustenance from Egypt during a famine. In it, Joseph is concealing his identity, and has become the most powerful man in Egypt next to the Pharaoh. Through a series of meetings and acts of trickery, Joseph comes to discern that his father Jacob is still alive, and, in the end, has his entire family come down to Egypt to live off of the bounty he has collected. 

Down and up, yored v’alah, the children of Israel go again and again, and this idea, going down in order to go up, falling in order to rise, is the underlying idea behind the resurrection of the dead as well. Of course, the basic sense of our Genesis text is about actual geographical travel, but we see throughout that it is more than that. Those who follow the Torah year after year know the relationship between the people of Israel and Egypt; we sense the peril behind the choice to move the entire family to Egypt, even though at the time it was the best option. We know that, centuries later, a pharaoh will arise who did not know Joseph, and will oppress the Israelites greatly. And that is part of why moving from Canaan to Egypt is a downward action in the text; it is not only due to it being geographically south.

We see it even in the early part of Joseph’s story, when he is sold into slavery down to Egypt; where he toils, and languishes in Pharaoh’s dungeon, and eventually ascends to be the most powerful person in the land. In fact, his brothers think him dead after this ordeal, and to see him again in this week’s portion is as if they are seeing a resurrected soul; they are frozen in their tracks, unable to even speak once he reveals his true identity. Perhaps this is the root of the Jewish tradition to say a particular blessing after not having seen a loved one after 12 months

Baruch atah adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam m’chayeih hameitim

Blessed are you adonai Our God, sovereign of the universe who resurrects the dead

When he reveals his identity to his brothers, Joseph says, “do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me into slavery; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of 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.”

Joseph, in his connection to God and his vision, sees that which was horrific in the moment,that which was the rock bottom of his life, was part of a larger plan; part of a larger narrative of which he was only a small part. Now, I am not here to tell you to find the positive in every hurt, every pain, every horrific tragedy. Quite the contrary. Yored and alah; falling and ascending - is at the core of the story of Joseph and his brothers, and at the core of Jewish life. In fact, the great Chasidic mystic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote, “the ultimate purpose of the fall is the ascent [which follows]. It is only that God presents us with a stumbling block, for the benefit of the world. As our sages said: to teach teshuvah.”

Resurrection of the dead as a principle is, itself, a mode of teaching teshuvah. It provides Jewish theology a place for understanding a tangible purpose in the rise and fall of existence- that through doing teshuvah in our life, through being righteous, we will be granted a re-birth after death. I do not believe this idea as a true, scientific fact, but I do believe it is a particularly beautiful theme that can help us in this moment in particular.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, on the subject of ascent and descent in Judaism, wrote, “This is the work of spiritual life as I understand it. There are times that feel like a descent into the pit, a fall away from God, even imprisonment in Pharaoh's dungeon. This is true both on the small scale of every individual human life, and on the broader canvas of the nation or the world at large. But the thing about hitting bottom is, there's nowhere to go from there but up.”

This is not only true for us, but for our relationship with God. Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein, a third generation Hasidic master, taught that God descends for us; enters into the tangible, material world in order to bring us sacred influences, and motivations that will allow us to ascend. This, in short, is what revelation of Torah is on a wide scale, and is another parallel explanation of the principle of the resurrection of the dead.

When we are at our lowest, when we feel that there is a wall of darkness before us that will not allow us to go on, we must seek this influence in the world. When we, ourselves, are in the pit, are in Sheol - the lowest point, the place that feels furthest from the Divine - we can seek, we can use the holy gift of teshuvah, of atonement, to turn and turn again, and to realign our perspective to find that spark of sacred influence around us. We can be as Joseph, able to find within our pain and our torment a way forward, maybe even just through a dream. 

As we enter into 2023, let each of us take a moment to find those things that are clinging to us, holding us down, making us feel as though we have descended too deeply, and within them locate a method for ascent. Let us revisit our situation from all sides, seeking our own resurrection, finding the direction we need to discover that spark of Divinity within and around us, and allow it to guide our way into the new year. May all of our descents lead to ascents, and may each of you climb to greater heights in 2023. Happy New Year and Shabbat Shalom.