I Know You

VAYIGASH GENESIS 44:18 - 47:27
23 DECEMBER 2017 /  5 TEVET 5778
Shared at Beth Jacob Congregation in anticipation of their upcoming blood drive.

Dedicated to my mom.

Parsha Summary
Judah approaches Joseph – who he still does not recognize, and who he states is the equal of Pharaoh – to plead for the release of Benjamin, offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place. Upon witnessing his brothers’ loyalty to each other, Joseph is overcome with emotion and reveals his identity. “I am Joseph,” he tells them. The brothers are filled with shame and remorse, and Joseph comforts them saying, “It was not you who sent me here,” he says to them, “but God. . . . to save us, and the entire region, from famine.” The brothers rush back to Canaan with the news. Jacob comes to Egypt with his sons and their families—seventy in all—and is reunited with Joseph after 22 years. On his way he receives the divine promise: “Fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again.”Joseph grows the wealth of Egypt by selling food and seed during the famine. Pharaoh gives Jacob’s family the fertile county of Goshen to settle, and the children of Israel prosper in their Egyptian exile.

This week it’s parshat Vayigash,  and it’s also almost time for the Beth Jacob blood drive over MLK weekend. For many of us that means being extra mindful about eating iron-rich foods and hydrating or signing up to volunteer or making a financial contribution if we can’t donate blood ourselves. 

Some of us have spent a few minutes on Shabbat mornings together around this time the past few years. I am honored to be invited again to share another piece of my story. 

Vayigash invites us to witness Joseph revealing himself to his brothers. Judah approaches Joseph – who he still does not recognize, and who he states is the equal of Pharaoh – to plead for the release of Benjamin, offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place. Upon witnessing his brothers’ loyalty to each other, Joseph is overcome with emotion and reveals his identity. “I am Joseph,” he tells them. Later when Joseph reveals himself to his father, our text guards the privacy between father and son and only says, he presented himself to him – to Israel . . . who of course is also Jacob . . . and, embracing him around the neck, weeps “a good while.” (Genesis 46:29) In the next verse, Israel says to Joseph, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are alive.” (Genesis 46:30)

On the one hand, the revelation of Joseph’s identity is not surprising for us. We know Joseph. We’ve been with him the whole time. Yet, if we slow down and really hear him, pause, wait for his brother’s response; listen to him as he reveals and reveals and reveals – this is who I am, this is my relationship to you, this is what my life has meant for me – how life has changed me; watch Benjamin come forward and see them embrace each other and weep in genuine recognition of one another . . . there is such texture and color in that recognition. Such intimacy. And we are invited to bear witness to it. 

Maybe you’ve been counting with me? 

It’s been 2,564 days since December 17, 2010 when I was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) – over 7 years ago. And 2,565 days since my first of 36 blood transfusions. 
Let’s think of that, for a moment. 

I know. I ask us to pause here every year, but you have to know I pause here every day. 
I pause when I feel my heart beat. I pause when I get a paper cut, see the blood, and watch the miracle of platelets making the bleeding stop. I pause when I notice a bruise – yellowing. In addition to my loved ones who were my care givers, my friends, my rabbi, folks who made us meals, the techs, and nurses, and doctors, and researches, and financial donors, so many people, and, of course, my bone marrow donor, 36 people who donated blood between roughly December 1, 2010 and the end of August 2011 made it possible for me to be standing here with you today. My whole life, my mom has been one of the 5% of healthy adults in the United States who donate blood – and she always did it regularly. In 2011 my mom set a new goal for herself: 36 more blood donations. This past week she made her 18th. 

I invite you to close your eyes.

I invite you to find your pulse. 

Take a deep breath and in the quiet, become aware that approximately every 60 seconds, your hard working heart pumps your beautiful blood to every single cell in your amazing body. Your red blood cells are rich in oxygen. Your golden platelets stand ready to repair a breach. Your white blood cells, I call these my “goats”, are walking around and munching on the weeds – taking care of the stuff that isn’t supposed to be there. 

Take another deep breath. 

Count two seconds . . . and open your eyes.

In the United States, every 2 seconds, someone needs blood.

But mine is a cancer story. What does cancer have to do with blood?

Well, most obviously, leukemia is blood cancer – so there is that. What’s more, our white blood cells – key to our immune system – are critical for managing things that don’t belong. Things like cancerous cells. Healthy cells carry the body’s hereditary material and can make copies of themselves. That’s their job. When a healthy cell becomes a cancer cell, the cell multiplies but the copies aren’t quite right. If those copies are similar enough to the original, they may escape the goats’ (white cells) detection.  

That’s why, ultimately, I needed a bone marrow transplant. I needed to start fresh with new healthy blood cells, and I needed new goats that would notice when there is weeding to do. In the process of chemo, radiation, and preparation for transplant, the goal was to get rid of all of my marrow and replace it with donor marrow. I needed new cells with a high enough human leukocyte antigen (HLA) match that my body would recognize and welcome the new marrow, but those new cells also needed to be able to detect cells that don’t belong in my body – cancerous cells. The new marrow needed to make blood cells that would be familiar – but not the same. That’s why I needed a bone marrow donor. My donor was then a 32-year-old man living in Germany with a wife and infant child. 

Why did I also need blood transfusions? With AML, the white blood cells do not mature correctly and over replicate, crowding out red cells and platelets. Blood and platelet transfusions kept me alive during induction and subsequent rounds of chemo. After my bone marrow transplant, waiting weeks for the new marrow to graft, my body couldn’t make its own blood. Remember those 36 blood donors? To survive treatment, I lived on theirs. 
So with bone marrow recognition it’s all about HLA matching, and with a blood transfusion, recognition is about blood type. Either way, my body and the donor cells recognizing and accepting each other was life saving. 

Which, of course, brings us back to Vayigash

You knew I’d get back to Vayigash, right?

By the time we are hanging out with Joseph in Egypt, it should come as no surprise to us that there is some tension in our biblical family around recognition, or the lack of it. Okay, so our ancient ancestors probably wouldn’t have described their family strife as genetic, but given all of the emphasis on who is whose full sibling and who is whose half sibling from Ishmael and Isaac to Dina, Simeon, and Levi and all the way to Joseph and Benjamin the tension between these family members is clearly cellular. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about what happened when Isaac mistook Jacob for Esau. 

There are twelve long verses between the time when Joseph announces his identity to his brothers, “I am Joseph” (Genesis 45:3) and when his brothers are able to believe it’s him, recognize, and talk to him. (Genesis 45:15.) In those verses I can feel the days that stretched into weeks while we waited for my new marrow cells to graft and start making blood. “I am Joseph,” says Joseph. “I am your brother,” says Joseph. “Don’t be distressed,” says Joseph. “God sent me ahead of you,” says Joseph. “Tell my father it’s okay,” says Joseph. “You’ll have what you need here,” says Joseph. 

In Joseph and Benjamin’s embrace, I can remember the moment when something in me . . . changed . . . confirmed by the lab results that came back with something new: a blood count. I can remember weeping, too. 

Later, when Jacob greets Joseph and they recognize each other right away, (Genesis 46:49) the Torah refers to Joseph’s father, “Israel”, not Jacob. And when Jacob speaks, he comments that he has seen for himself that Joseph is “still alive.” (Genesis 46:30) They were still Jacob and Joseph, father and son, and they recognized each other, but they were also changed. How could they not be? Life does that to us, doesn’t it? Maybe Jacob was saying, “I see you. I who was once Jacob and is now also Israel, I see you. I see how you have grown, and changed, and become something new, and I also see you. I see you being Joseph.”

36 blood transfusions and a bone marrow transplant changes a person – changes a relationship, changes a community. 

I look out knowing so many of you may have supported the blood drive or donated the blood that my heart has pumped through my body, and we are all blood family. I feel you in my pulse. I recognize you. I see you. I see life has changed you, too. 

It is rare that I presume the right to speak for others, but in this, I do. On behalf of all of us who have ever needed or ever will need a blood transfusion, thank you to all of you who have ever supported a drive or donated blood, and thank you to all of you who will at the drive in January. Thank you for seeing us, and recognizing us.

It’s life saving. 

Amy ArielComment