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.

What Day Is It? Depends Upon Your Memory Place

Today is New Year’s Day – secular new year’s, of course. What do you do to mark the day? It seems somehow appropriate to note the passing of the year, the turning of the calendar page, the beginning of a new count of days. It’s arbitrary, of course, but it does help to give shape to our days, and significance to our years.

I spend some time on New Year’s Eve going through my datebook for last year, and speaking my memories of significant times aloud with my beloved. Do you remember this, and how do you remember that…. There are, of course, days of which I have no conscious memory. They have no “memory place”:

The “Memory Place” creates an encounter between the individual and the collective and the commemorated object, event, or symbol. This encounter disturbs the daily routine, which, because of its nature, encourages forgetfulness. Like a person who encounters the past by passing from time to time by a physical monument in his neighborhood or visiting a memorial, the past is also encountered  when the person faces the temporal “Memory Place” on the calendar. This encounter is cyclic by its nature and with it, the person reflects about the past event, and in a way, even experiences it every year. (Dr. Guy Miron, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies)

Judaism gives us many opportunities for memory places in a year, and in so doing enriches our lives immeasureably. One of those Jewish memory places occurs today, by coincidence. Today is Asarah b’Tevet, the tenth day of the month of Tevet. The day commemorates the beginning of the end of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, in 586 BCE. Clearly, this is a day that would have long since been lost to us, if the Prophet Ezekiel, in his leadership position among the community of Jewish exiles in Babylon, had not mandated it as a day of remembrance.

There are those who suggest that such Memory Places as a day of destruction and exile should now be erased from the Jewish calendar, since the State of Israel has been re-established in our day and all Jewish exiles are able to come home. Yet the day has been on the calendar for so very long that for some to erase it seems wrong, and others of us might be left asking, how long is long enough to remember something that was once significant to us?

There’s another option. This particular “Memory Place” was chosen in the 1950s by the Israeli Rabbinate for a new significance: that of the yahrzeit for all the unknown victims of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Since traditionally, Kaddish is recited by an offspring on the date of a person’s death, what were we to do with all these Jewish deaths of unknown date? “Let the date of the first hurban (disastrous destruction) be the date of the last one”, suggested the Rabbinate, and so it is, we pray!

Read more about Asarah b’Tevet below, or by clicking on this link: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Minor_Fasts/Ideas_and_Beliefs/Tenth_of_Tevet.shtml?p=0