Deep into the Joseph story, we come to a moment that catches my breath and makes me tear up every year. Joseph, sold to slavery long ago, stands now as the viceroy of Egypt. He has designed a system of rations that saves Egypt from famine and consolidates the Pharaoh’s power. Meanwhile, his birth family is starving in Canaan, and his brothers go down to Egypt to plead for rations. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they – begging for food, and seeing a uniformed Egyptian officer before them speaking a foreign language – do not see Joseph for who he is. Joseph sets before them a series of tests. Then, after an impassioned speech from Judah, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. But first we read the line:
“V’lo yuchal Yosef l’hitapek l’chol hanitzavim alav…”
Joseph could no longer contain himself in front of all who stood before him (Genesis 45:1).
It is the word לְהִתְאַפֵּק/l’hitapek, the root א.פ.ק/aleph.peh.kuf which arrests my attention year after year. It means to compel oneself, to restrain oneself, to hold oneself back. When Joseph can no longer do it, when he can’t contain himself anymore and finally makes himself known to his brothers, “his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear.”
It takes a lot of holding back to make it through the day, these days. There is so much grief and ambiguous loss around the edges of our lives from just being human in the best of circumstances, let alone the pandemic, racism, climate change, and cruelty against vulnerable people and other non-human beings that we witness and take part in. We are, most of us, in the habit of l’hitapek – containing and restraining our anger, our grief. It feels too big to feel, and it takes space, and time, and companionship to feel it in a way that we can tolerate.
The Hebrew root of Shmita, ש.מ.ט/shin.mem.tet means to release, to let drop. It is the opposite of א.פ.ק/aleph.peh.kuf. Imagine the fist around our heart that has been keeping in all the feelings, and picture that fist opening. Softening. Letting the tender, hidden parts of our souls be been seen and heard, first by our own selves, and then perhaps by those close to us, or even our communities.
Let’s not wait until the Shmita year to have an emotional Shmita. A moment in our day when we can let go of the nice appearances, the pretending that everything is ok when it isn’t, the constraints that make it possible to power-play. This kind of shmita lets us reveal ourselves in our most human form to those before us.
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman serves on the faculty of Hebrew College in Newton, and is a rabbinic consultant to Dayenu: A Jewish Call for Climate Action. She is a contributing author to Rooted & Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), and has work forthcoming in the New York Times and Yes! Magazine. She is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, JOIN for Justice, and Oberlin College. She lives in Boston with her husband and son.
Shmita Friday is just one piece of a large conversation that has been ongoing for a long time! We’d love to hear what you think – post a comment below, join our facebook group, and start talking about shmita with your friends and family.