Biblical Witness Genesis 45:25 – 46:5
The sons of Israel went up out of Egypt after meeting with Joseph and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. They told him, “Joseph is still alive! He is even ruler over all the land of Egypt.” Jacob was stunned; he could not believe them. But when they told him all the words of Joseph that he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Jacob, who is also known as Israel, said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.”
When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.”
Then Jacob set out from Beer-sheba; and the sons of Israel carried their father Jacob, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to carry him.
Contemporary Witness “Daughter Of The East” by Benazir Bhutto; Preface (excerpt)
More than a million of my countrymen came out to greet me when I returned to Pakistan from two years of exile in April 1986, catapulting me into the glare of international publicity. Suddenly I received several offers to write not my father’s story, but my own. I hesitated. It was one matter to write about my father, who had become the democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan and had lasting achievements to his name, and quite another to write about myself, whose most important political battles were still to be fought. It seemed presumptuous. I thought autobiographies were written in the autumn of one’s life, looking back.
A friend’s chance remark changed my mind. “What is not recorded is not remembered,” she told me. I saw her point. Like many in Pakistan, I had experienced the dark years of Martial Law. Unlike many, I had the opportunity to put those experiences on record. It is important that the world remember the repression we in Pakistan had to bear following General Zia’s coup d’etat.
Writing the book has been difficult. It has meant reliving the pain of the past. But it has also been cathartic, forcing me for the first time to come to terms with memories I had been trying to escape. This is my story, events as I saw them, felt them, reacted to them.
Let me begin by telling you a little about Benazir Bhutto.
She was the first democratically elected female to rule any muslim country. According to the website, benazirbhutto.com, she was also one of the most influential leaders of south asia. She was born in Karachi, Pakistan and at age 16 she left her homeland to study at Harvard’s Radcliffe College. After completing her undergraduate degree at Radcliffe she studied at England’s Oxford University, where she was awarded a second degree in 1977.
Only two years into her first term as Prime Minister, President Khan dismissed Bhutto from office. In 1993 she was re-elected and brought electricity to the countryside and built schools all over the country. In 1996 President Leghari of Pakistan dismissed Bhutto from office. Her husband was imprisoned. For nine years, she and her children lived in exile in London.
In the autumn of 2007, in the face of death threats from radical Islamists, and the hostility of the government, she returned to her native country. Within hours of her arrival, her motorcade was attacked by a suicide bomber. She survived this first assassination attempt, although more than 100 bystanders died in the attack. Weeks later, after one of her campaign rallies, a gunman fired at her car before detonating a bomb, killing himself and more than 20 bystanders. Bhutto was rushed to the hospital, but soon succumbed to injuries suffered in the attack.
In her book, “Daughter Of The East,” amoung many other things, she talks about the pain of her father’s execution, as well as the deaths of her brothers. In the preface, she mentions the catharsis that happened for her as she faced the memories she had been trying to escape.
I paired this with the story of Jacob, also known as Israel, finding out that his son, Joseph was alive. For 20 years Jacob thought that Joseph was dead because his other sons lied to him, having sold Joseph to Midianite traders. Jacob refused to be comforted by his sons and daughters saying, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” For at least 20 years he held this grief in his heart and in his body. A pain so deep that when he was confronted by the story that Joseph was alive, at first he could not believe them. But then it seems like he was enthusiastic about seeing Joseph. He says, “My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.” But next in the story we hear God comforting him and encouraging him by saying, “Jacob, Jacob. Here I am. I am God … do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, I will go down with you. … Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.”
Maybe he was afraid that he would die on the way, before getting to see his son. He wanted the healing that would come with being in the presence of Joseph. God assured him he would have that.
Today in our Lenten Ritual we are answering the question, “What are your family griefs about the pandemic?” Family can mean so many different things to people. Grief comes in different ways and for various reasons. A lot of the grief that I have heard, as well as felt, over the years, is the grief of being disconnected. Not being able to gather together with those we love out of concern for making each other sick is a deep grief we carry in our bones. This combines with the risk that something might happen to one of our loved ones, or to us, and we might never see them again. The question that came up over and over was, do we risk getting together … or do we risk not getting together? There is no good answer to these questions. Only one kind of heart-ache or another.
Each of us have had difference experiences – had different losses – different kinds of reunions which were joyous and relieving. We might want to put it all behind us. Forget about it and move forward. One way to really move forward into the future, with those losses as well as the gains, is to face it all. Doing this ritually helps us to mark the time, the place, the sensations, the sights and smells, what we heard, and how we felt.
Benazir Bhutto did this through the ritual work of writing her book. Writing has an interesting ritual all its own which is unique to each writer. I don’t know what her process was, but it provided her a way to set her thoughts into words, sharing her story with us.
These little pieces of paper that we are writing on – or drawing on – might not seem like something very significant. They can be though. When we meditate, when we face whatever we’ve been avoiding because it’s hard or uncomfortable or maybe downright awful, when we face it, it is an opportunity for us to feel our own strength. In this moment we embrace it all, loving ourselves. Comforting ourselves and each other by this shared experience.
Catharsis is the release and relief from strong or repressed emotions by bringing them to consciousness and affording them expression. These little pieces of paper are the vehicle of that expression. What you write and the act of shredding is the release. Hopefully there will be relief that comes from this, especially at the end when we take these shreds and revive them, remaking them.
What I love about rituals is that they are tangible memories I can go back to, reminding myself in hard times of the moment I faced what I needed to, and then released it to the best of my ability. I can return to the sights and smells and sounds, the tug of the shredder taking the paper, the feeling of all of us in the room.
In times of intense memory related to grief we might forget that we are more than our grief. Benazir Bhutto reminds us that the stories we tell, whether we tell them publicly or on a private piece of paper, free us from being captive to the past.
The story of Jacob reminds us that when we move forward, our faith moves with us. It might even be our faith itself that helps us move. I hold on to the notion that our Holy Love accompanies us in all our travels – from the ones we make geographically to the ones we make emotionally.
Today, we travel together. Our thoughts and our feelings join in the spirit. Our bodies may quiver, wondering, like Jacob, if we can make the journey. May we feel the assurance from our Divine Beloved that we are accompanied and that at the end of the journey each of us, individually and as a community, will experience freedom and release.