Shabbat VaYigash: Who Are You Before You Were Hurt?

On this Shabbat the terrible game ends: brothers stop terrifying brothers, a parent is relieved of a horrifying lie, and we see the cessation of a generational dysfunction, all because of one – or, actually, two – heroic individuals.

The parashat hashavua (the Torah reading of the week) is named for the key act that brings the entire unhealthy structure down: vayigash, “he drew near”. It describes the heroism of Judah, fourth son of Leah and Jacob. When all seems lost and the brothers are convinced that they are to die, or at least to become slaves for the rest of their lives in Egypt, Judah finds the courage and the wisdom that it takes to “draw near” the threatening man who is second only to Pharaoh over all the land. Judah is able to ascertain what to say, and, more importantly, he understands good timing. 

Judah is not the oldest brother – he’s fourth in a long line of twelve. Nothing special about that – but that Judah makes his place special through his willingness to learn from experience and do the right thing even when it might cost him.

Judah risks it all, and he turns the tide. No one dies. And as the terror subsides, the man they most feared turns out to be their long-lost brother, Joseph.

Judah’s heroism is in his willingness to be the one to go first, to step away from the safety of the crowd and to stand for what he saw as just, regardless of the personal cost. The Torah seems here to be inviting us to learn that it is only within the fear that one finds the friend – and that finding the kindred spirit inside the terrifying enemy requires all the strength and wisdom that we can bring to bear.

The second act of heroism is Joseph’s, for he is able to still reach the wounded child inside the angry man he has become. There is no act which requires greater courage than that of being willing to let go of the anger and disappointment, and the days that stretched into years of building his sense of self upon the justification of that anger. Joseph had created in his heart a whole narrative of what had happened to him so that he would be able to go on. The defiant names he gave his children are essentially “I reject where I came from” and “I’m happy here”. 

And then in one moment, he finds the grace to drop it all and let Judah reach across the abyss to touch him, brother to brother. 

The Torah records the final closing of the wounds in the first three verses of the third year’s reading of this parashah, according to the Triennial Cycle:

כח  וְאֶת-יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו, אֶל-יוֹסֵף, לְהוֹרֹת לְפָנָיו, גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיָּבֹאוּ, אַרְצָה גֹּשֶׁן.

[Jacob} sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to show the way before him unto Goshen; and they came into the land of Goshen.

כט  וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָיו, וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל-צַוָּארָיו, עוֹד.

Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; he presented himself unto him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.

ל  וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם, אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ, כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי.

And Israel said unto Joseph: ‘Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are yet alive.’ (Genesis 46.28-30)

What Jacob sees here is that Joseph has not essentially changed; his “Joseph-ness” is still alive. Judah is the bridge that brings Joseph back to Jacob and all that the Patriarch represents, and also back to a sense of himself within the family, as son and brother. Judah allows Joseph to become whole in himself by restoring his family relationships to him.

In this moment we can see why Judah is the line of future kings of the People of Israel. And we’ve already seen Joseph’s intelligence and greatness. But only in this moment do we see that what we most long for requires being able to find, within the greatness and the kingship, the vulnerable human being who never stops needing the essential human connection of love, and belonging.

It’s still quite dark as we turn the corner after the solstice. There are still many dark hours of human history to make our way through – and we won’t all make it. And there is no guarantee of future results in these past acts of courage. 

But these acts nevertheless stand as testimony to what is, sometimes, possible, everywhere and within everyone: to find the brother within the enemy. To find the hope within the despair. To find the light in the midst of the darkness. After all, where else does one see light, but within the darkness?

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Shabbat Miketz: Enough Already, Let’s Wake Up

This parashat hashavua (parashah of the week) is called Miketz, “at the end”. The word refers to a period of time, as the Torah specifies: “It was at the end of two years….” It describes the Egyptian Pharaoh in the grip of dreams that start out innocuously enough, but then turn into terrifying nightmares: happy, fat cows grazing on the lush grass by the side of the Nile are eaten by horrifyingly gaunt, zombie-like cows who look no different after consuming the healthy cows. Then, in a literary echo of the parashah’s name, we read vayikatz Par’oh, “Pharaoh’s sleep came to a sudden end”. The dream was repeated, this time with stalks of grain, and once again the Pharaoh was startled out of a troubled sleep. 

The King of Egypt became desperate to find a meaning for the dreams, and a way to answer them, to understand and therefore to escape from the nightmare they presented. And a dream interpreter was found: Joseph, son of Jacob, who in the process becomes the first “court Jew” of many in our people’s history. 

When the dreams are related to him, Joseph declares to Pharaoh, “the two dreams are one and the same. You have been shown what is to be.” (Bereshit [Genesis] 41.25)

Joseph is able to correctly foresee the coming catastrophe and to offer guidance to meet it which Pharaoh was able to accept. Disaster, in the form of a years-deep, deadly famine, was successfully averted by centralized government planning, led by a wise and capable “Famine Czar” – Joseph himself, appointed by Pharaoh. Disaster is averted because the Egyptian Pharaoh woke up startled from a nightmare and took action.

In Israel right now, our fellow Jews are trying to wake up from a dream of Israel that has slowly turned into a nightmare. If the “public square” of Israeli media is any indication, more and more Israelis are desperate to find a way out of the ever-recurring nightmare which is the ethical and political morass of the status quo. 

But that’s not all:

In the United States right now, our fellow citizens are trying to wake up from the recurring nightmare of the interrupted march of our nation toward equal rights that started as a beautiful dream, but is being consumed, just like the healthy cows of Pharaoh’s dream, by harbingers of death and disaster: persistent racism, sexism, economic classism. It is known by many names, and its evil threatens to consume us.

The two dreams are one and the same.

The only real question is whether we will wake up, and take action to avert the catastrophe. For us as American Jews, there is supportive action we can and must undertake, and it is dictated in our traditional Jewish ethics: “justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live.” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16.20)

The dream of Israel: It is true that we are not in Israel, not part of the Israeli polity, and not subject to Israeli taxes; nor can we vote in an Israeli election. But it is a mitzvah, an obligation incumbent on every Jew, to build the land and to care for it, to do our part in help the Jewish homeland become the light to the nations that the prophets foresee as its destiny. We do have a relationship with the land and people of Israel. We can and should support those Israeli causes that further the Jewish values of justice and equality as proclaimed in the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence  In so doing we are helping Israel become what the people of Israel aspire to be as their best selves, most fully reflecting the presence of G-d in the world. In the declaration’s own words:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The dream of the United States of America: “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (VaYikra [Leviticus] 19.9) Those of us who used to feel safe, who thought that we would remain untouched by civil wrongs, are coming to see that we live in a truly inter-connected world. There is nothing wrong with money – it is a gift and those who have it are privileged to do good with it – but there is clearly something wrong with the way wealth is used in our nation.  There is nothing wrong with being white, either, unless those of us who identify as white are blind to the obligation to help our neighbor lift his load when we see that he has fallen under it, as our non-white neighbors suffer under the racism that drives them to their knees. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s own sexual identity, unless one is driven to defend it by hurting others. The ethical obscenity of the inequality we see demonstrated every day requires an ethical Jewish response, as the Prophet Jeremiah demanded: that of working for the welfare of the community in which we live, that it may prosper. (Jeremiah 29.7)

For the sake of all that is good in our dream, we must wake up and take action against the looming nightmare it is becoming. Let your kindling of the Hanukkah lights be sanctified this year by your own personal urgent search for Joseph’s way forward. 

Shabbat VaYeshev: Choices and Exile

In this week’s parashah we follow Joseph down to Egypt. This is a time of terror for him: his brothers sell him as a slave and he is taken far away from home. He is bought by a minister to Pharaoh and seems to be doing well; he gains his master’s trust and is put in charge of the household. The future is beginning to look brighter; maybe he will be able to become free, or at least become a higher rank of slave….

Then, one day, his master’s wife tries to seduce him. The story goes that Joseph was a very good looking young man, and like many young men is, well, not uninterested in sexual advances. Joseph knows it is wrong to sleep with his master’s wife, but, according to the midrash, he is, naturally, tempted.

How does he manage to refuse? According to a fascinating teaching by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger,

….there are two sorts of trials. One sort can be overcome by a person’s own efforts. The other trial is the greater one, in which sheer strength cannot be victorious at all. In a case like this, the pure desire and the honest and just heart of the righteous person allow choice to be removed all together, thus avoiding the trial. This is considered divine intervention.

This is what Joseph is really saying where in the Torah it is written, He refused, saying to his master’s wife: My lord knows nothing of that which I do in the house; all that is his he has placed in my hands (Gen. 39.8). G-d gives us choices in all we desire to do, asking only one thing of us: that we remember the yoke of G-d’s kingdom, recalling that all comes to us from G-d. This much we surely have to keep in mind.

Now understand this meaning within the words of Joseph: “…he [He] has kept nothing from me, except for you insofar as you are his wife.”

In this way Joseph was able to avoid having to choose; he remembered that choice itself is given by G-d. In this way, even though he could not overcome the temptation by his own strength, the pain he felt over this helped him to access G-d’s help in overcoming this trial.

This was our first preparation for exile, since Egypt contained within it all of our exiles. The essence of exile is that it makes for additional choice. If there were no need to choose, humanity would be truly free. When we are able to avoid choosing we will come to complete redemption.  

(from Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, p. 56-57)

Choosing, for the Sefat Emet, is a trial of exile – and exile is wandering, lost among competing claims for meaning, without an orienting compass to help distinguish between them, distant from a sense of certainty and a clear path. On this Shabbat, consider this insight into the halakha, the path of Jewish going. Its guidance may seem constricting, but within the certainties one is liberated from a basic level of choice. Consider the discipline of exercise; if you don’t have to waste time deciding if you’re going to, you’re already ahead. Similarly, What might you do with that extra energy if you weren’t using it deciding whether or not to do mitzvot?

Shabbat VaYishlakh: What Message Do You Carry?

Two opposing sides confront each other; one has been wronged and is angry, and the other is guilty, afraid, and feels that it must defend its very life. Ferguson? New York? Portland Oregon last night outside the Moda Center?

No, the situation described is part of this week’s parashah; in it, Jacob and Esau walk toward their fateful confrontation. The wrong has been festering for twenty years; now is the moment of truth.

Esau is the wronged: as our commentators have put it, he was not the right person to carry on the legacy of the People of Israel, so that prerogative, in the form of the Blessing of the First Born, was taken from him by guile, against his well, without anyone even bothering to try to talk with him.

Jacob represents the side in this conflict which clearly has “systemic deficiencies”. He deceives his brother when they are young, he does it again with his mother’s collusion later in their early life, and when he has to escape the “situation” for which he is responsible, he continues to live and act in a world full of deceit in his new surroundings. 

Yet Jacob is not “all bad”; he learns from his very bad mistakes, he struggles with his own inner nature, and he does make progress. In this excellent example of teshuvah that takes a lifetime, he does begin to behave better; he does become a better person. 

And Esau is not “all innocence”; his response to being wronged is not to seek redress but to seek to murder. He may be justified in his anger, yet killing leads only to more killing, and war to more war, when what both sides need is peace, safety and mutual respect.

As we try to understand the outrage and protests erupting all around us in instance after instance of police violence and the suffering of the African-American community, we hear these same ideas voiced in every conversation: the Cleveland Police Department is found to have “systemic deficiencies”. Of course, that does not mean that the police department is all bad. Most police officers are good, and try their best to serve their community. Yet for many generations much hurt has been caused, and teshuvah is clearly necessary. The African-American community and all those who stand in solidarity with them are naturally, righteously angry. Yet anger is destructive, the Rabbis teach; it is the most dangerous emotion of all, and must be channeled lest it lead to sin.

Many years later, Jacob approaches a face-to-face confrontation with Esau. In our parashat hashavua that is precisely the scene, and it echoes the protests which bring protesters and police face-to-face. Years of righteous anger and defensiveness underlie such a meeting; days of brooding, nights of obsessing over possible outcomes. 

What should Jacob do? How might Esau choose to act? In the first verse of our parashah, we read (Genesis 32.4):

ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם.

4 Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

The word for “messengers” in Hebrew is מלאכים, mal’akhim, which is also the term used in the Torah for “angel”. This is because the function of an angel in ancient Israelite belief was primarily that of being a messenger for the word of G-d. For us the coincidence of these two translations offers a significant insight: what seems to you to be simply a messenger sent by someone else to you is actually, just possibly, also someone who bears for you a word of G-d, that is, a message from the Universe that you need to hear.

Jewish mystical speculation suggests that each of us, reflecting G-d’s image as we do, function as messengers to each other, in ways of which we are unaware. Both in word and in act we send the message forth of some truth about the world as it is, or as it should be. And of course, we do so also by the act of inaction, or by withholding a word.

We are told that on the night before the fateful meeting, Jacob is up all night wrestling with a messenger. We are not told what the message is, only that Jacob needs the encounter, yet is wounded by the encounter, and limps forever after. This is the harsh reality: our nation will never completely overcome the racist “limp” inflicted upon us by the slavery our predecessors practiced. But the only way forward is to hear the message, to wrestle with it, not to turn away.

That is what Jacob finally does. He stops running away from the encounter, and he faces Esau. The key is this: what makes the encounter successful, what allows the two brothers to recognize their connection rather than that which distanced them, is the messengers that are sent first.

All of us find ourselves in the position of messenger at some point. Our Jewish tradition obligates us to step forward and recognize our responsibility in social discourse and political action. When you find yourself confronted with a messenger, can you listen? When you realize that you are in the position of messenger, what word are you carrying? By your words and acts, are you taking sides, judging justifications, and reveling in the gory details of anger and fear – or are you helping to bring Jacob and Esau together toward their longed-for reconciliation, toward the peace of wholeness and trust?