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Parashat Mikeitz 5784

Of Absence and Presence

December 11, 2023
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval ('06)

“How many children do you have?” This question, often posed as a simple social pleasantry, can be a complex one for a bereaved parent. Does one inject the intense, personal topic of a deceased child into a casual conversation with a stranger? Or does one ignore, not count, the child who is physically absent, but is still present in one’s heart and family? The same dilemma can exist for a sibling, whose deceased brother or sister remains for them a member of the family, and very much a part of their story.  The structure and makeup of a family can be ambiguous. While in the eyes of an outside observer, a family appears to be of a certain size and number, from within the family may continue to count its lost member(s), those who are physically absent, yet still present.

In this week’s parasha, Mikeitz, twenty years have passed since Joseph and his brothers parted under terrible circumstances. Now ten of his brothers stand before Joseph. They are at his mercy, needing food in a time of famine.  The brothers do not recognize Joseph, but he knows them, and, in a position of power, he begins to toy with them. When he accuses them of being spies and liars, the brothers assert their family identity, stating, “We your servants are twelve, brothers, the sons of one father.” (Gen. 42:13) After two decades, the brothers continue to include Joseph in their sibling count!

The brothers describe Joseph as “einenu.” He is missing, gone, absent. The word einenu recurs at several key moments in the Joseph narrative, reflecting the theme of absence.  The word first appears after the brothers throw Joseph into a pit. When Reuben returns later to the pit in hopes of rescuing Joseph, he notes that hayeled einenu: “the boy is not [there].” (Gen. 37:30) Reuben tears his clothes, and Joseph’s status as einenu begins. His absence will be a palpable presence in the life of the family.

For Jacob, the impact of this einenu is constant anxiety about loss. He especially fears losing Benjamin, and will not allow him to leave home and travel. Jacob lives in fear of any additional einenus, which he articulates in this parasha. When Joseph holds Simeon as a hostage, and demands that the brothers return with Benjamin, Jacob rages at his sons, “You bereave me! Joseph is no more (einenu) and Simeon is no more (einenu), and now Benjamin you will take from me?” (Gen. 42:36)

At this point in the story, we learn that the “einenu” of Joseph also looms large in the thoughts of his brothers, twenty years later.  When Joseph, as the Regent of Egypt, threatens to imprison one of them, they proclaim to one another, “But… we are guilty, on account of our brother who begged for help and we didn’t listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.” (Gen. 42:21) Although they are innocent of the crimes of which Joseph accuses them, they call themselves guilty. They have carried guilt about Joseph’s absence throughout their lives. Perhaps acknowledging it now represents a long-awaited turning point, the beginning of a journey towards reconciliation.

Paving the way for that reconciliation, or at least a reunion, Judah makes his powerful approach to Joseph in next week’s parasha. As he pleads with the Egyptian not to hold Benjamin captive, Judah again uses the word, einenu.  “How can I go up to my father if the boy is einenu, is not [with me]?” (Gen. 44:30)   The word reminds us how much the absent, missing Joseph has weighed on the family, in Jacob’s unrequited grief and anxiety, and in the guilty conscience of the brothers.  Twenty years earlier they made Joseph disappear.  Now Judah cannot bear to be the cause of more loss. It is as though he is saying, I will not be the agent of any more einenu in our family.  These words open Joseph’s heart.

Every family, and every family member, responds in their own way to an einenu.  The absence may be reflected with sadness, acceptance, anger, anxiety, or – as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, guilt and regret. Absence in a family is an ongoing presence. It challenges a family not to remain stuck in the past, but rather to find a path forward in the face of a major loss, to find opportunities in that empty space to grow and to heal.

This D’var Torah is dedicated to those who remain absent, missing or held hostage since October 7, with prayers that they will soon be released and returned in safety; and with prayers for comfort and strength for the many newly bereaved parents, siblings and other family members whose loved ones are absent, but whose presence will always be with them.
Rena Kieval was ordained as a rabbi by AJR in 2006. She retired in June 2022 as full-time rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY, and continues to teach, write and study.