The tragic events of last week occurred while Jews were reading a section of the story of Joseph and his brothers which is bursting with bereavement. As I read it through the lens of midrash, this ancient story not only echoes our pain, but may also offer us some hope and guidance.
The part of the book of Genesis read last week features two bereaved parents. Joseph’s father, Jacob, has already lost Rachel, his favorite wife, and Joseph, his favorite son. Now he is threatened with losing his sons Simeon and Benjamin, the latter his only remaining son born to Rachel.
The other bereaved parent is Benjamin. According to a midrash, when he and Joseph meet again, Joseph asks if he has children and Benjamin names his ten children and explains that all ten names recall his lost brother Joseph–his sweetness, his closeness with their father–and the suffering Joseph endured–his disappearance, his isolation. One can only imagine the deep imprint of grief that will be left on survivors and their children, even some not yet born, in the aftermath of the murders in Newtown.
When facing the prospect of losing Benjamin, Jacob prays that his sons will be treated with mercy, invoking the mysterious divine name El Shaddai. One interpretation of this name draws on the similarity between Shaddai and shaddayim, the Hebrew word for breasts, connecting this divine name with the attribute of mercy, which in Hebrew is related to the word for womb.
The rabbis, noting that dai in Hebrew means “enough,” understand the name El Shaddai to mean, “God who Says, ‘Enough!’” As I read the midrash, what Jacob means is, “God who knows and feels the love of parents will say of my suffering, enough!”
There is a catch, though. El Shaddai says, “Enough!” to suffering, but, according to the rabbis, also says, “Enough!” in the process of creating the world, curtailing divine activity to leave enough room for human beings.
If God had created a perfect world, there would be no place for humans in it, no need for our initiative. This divine decision demonstrates incredible faith in us–we have the ability to complete the world.
So it our role to give voice to El Shaddai’s cry of “Enough!” and then take the actions that will make it real and bring healing.
Image source: Owen Jones (attribution via Wikimedia Commons).