Shabbat VaYigash: Stepping Away from the Past, Shaping the Future

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – William Faulkner

The denouement of the Joseph saga occurs at the beginning of this week’s parashat VaYigash. The great dramatic moment comes when Judah courageously steps forward. He does so to accept the burden of the family’s great hidden sin: that of the brothers’ selling Joseph into slavery and hiding it from their father.  Judah gives himself up for the sake of them all, but especially for the father who, tragically, does not have it in his heart to ever be able to repay or even recognize this gift of love and family responsibility.

Judah’s act has been seen primarily by Jewish tradition as the proof of the extraordinary nature of the tribal line associated with him, the royal one; that of the once and forever line of the kings of Israel. His willingness to step first into a breach reminds one of Nakhshon ben Ammindav, his descendent, who is unafraid to leap into the Sea of Reeds even before the waters are miraculously parted during the Exodus from Egypt. 

Jewish tradition looks for family resemblances in this way, echoes and answers that reverberate over many generations. This is in line with ancient Israelite belief that we are all connected, and our acts affect each other over time and space. To understand the universe in this way is to see that we act within a sense of

אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲון אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י

“A passionate holiness, within which the sins of ancestors 

reverberate onto their descendants 

for three, and even four, generations” – Exodus 20.5

Judah is the great grandson of Sarah and Abraham, the grandson of Rivkah and Isaak, the son of Leah and Jacob. His life reflects not only the brave boundary crossing of Abraham but also the trauma of Isaak’s Akedah, Jacob’s theft of birthright and blessing from Esau, and the massacre of the men of Shekhem by his brothers Shimon and Levi. His step forward is a step away from all that inchoate pain, and toward wholeness. It is breath-taking, because Judah here is both wounded and whole. Where his father limps and lies, Judah strides toward the truth.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ז״ל attributes the reinterpretation of the past which becomes possible at this point to Joseph, who offers the brothers the perspective that instead of guilt at their own acts, they should see Joseph’s presence in Egypt as HaShem’s doing, for a higher purpose.

But Joseph’s generous reshaping of the impact of the years of suffering cannot take place until Judah takes the fateful step. Not unlike many of us, who limp through life in inherited pain until one day we are able to break the pattern, Judah steps out of and away from the family path. 

Today is Asarah b’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet. This day has been observed as a (minor) fast day for many generations of Exile, because on this day over 2500 years ago the Babylonian Empire, besieging Jerusalem, breached the walls. It was the beginning of the end. How could we know that all these years later the day would be scarcely relevant, as Jerusalem is rebuilt and so much has happened to soften that past horror?

We cannot erase the past, nor can we bury it. Both our Jewish tradition and any good therapist will agree: if you do not recognize your past consciously, it will demand your recognition subconsciously. All we can do is act now to set that past in a larger, redeeming perspective. As long as we live, such acts – we call them mitzvot – are constantly possible. Each small act of kindness, of wholeness, of love, defies the darkness of our isolation from each other in this 9th month of pandemic. And it will redeem our perspective in ways that will define these days in ways we cannot possibly imagine now.

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