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?

Shabbat VaYigash: How To Become Israel

The famous part of this week’s parashah is at the very beginning: after weeks of build-up, the saga reaches its dramatic climax as Judah steps forward to confront the ruler of Egypt (not knowing that this ruler is his own little brother). In this single act of courage and emotional maturity, Judah breaks a tragic cycle of family dysfunction which has haunted the household of the first Jews since Abraham.

But that’s not our text. We are reading from the second third of the Torah in this year of our Triennial Cycle, and we begin with chapter 45, verse 16 of Bereshit (Genesis). Joseph has revealed his identity to his brothers, the tearful reunion has begun, and Jacob is about to find out that his long-lost, most beloved son is not only still alive, but is ruler over all of Egypt.

Jacob will journey to Egypt to see Joseph. What must that journey have cost? After so many years, what would he find?

Life has continued in the interim; the lost years cannot be regained. That which has been torn, like Joseph’s old multi-colored coat, cannot be fully repaired. Jacob at first finds himself unable to believe. It is a tremendous shock, and he reels from it.

What might he be thinking? Is his mind working with the possibilities, attempting to discover how it is that he was deceived? Does he look upon his other sons in a new light? What tension exists in those days – might Jacob even be considering some bitter, angry action toward the brothers?

The Torah does not tell us more than this: somehow, Jacob manages to pull himself together, and he resolves to undertake the journey to Egypt.

And the Torah itself seems to react. At the beginning of chapter 46, calling him Israel for the first time in a long while. Israel – the name given to Jacob which becomes the name of our people, the name which speaks of struggle, hard-won experience, maturity. And Israel undertook the journey with all that he had, and came to Beer Sheva…

He travels as far as Beer Sheva, the city associated with his father Isaac. Something is calling him toward the memory of his father in these moments. Is he perhaps thinking of his own difficult experience as a father, does it shed new light on his experience of Isaac as a father? And then the text continues …he offered sacrifices to the G-d of his father Isaac. 

There is a hasidic story about a young man destined to succeed his father as Rebbe of a community, but his behavior worried his father. When reproved, the young man replied “This is my G-d and I will glorify; the G-d of my father and I will exalt.” (Song of the Sea, Exodus 15.2). In other words, the young man had to figure out his relationship to G-d for himself before he would be able to fully appreciate and respect that of his father. Is this the experience that Jacob – Israel – is now having?

The next verse relates: And G-d spoke to Israel in the night, saying, ‘Jacob, Jacob’. And he said, ‘here I am’.” (Bereshit 46.1-2) From the evidence of the Torah, it appears that G-d has not spoken to Jacob since the journey from Beth El, when Rakhel died in childbirth. G-d’s presence returns to Jacob, now Israel, only because Jacob is finally, it seems, able to become Israel.

We don’t know what was going through Israel’s mind and heart as he took that journey after so many years of loss. We only know that he we reunited with Joseph and died at peace.

Today the world mourns for Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday. I well remember watching him walk away from prison in 1990, amidst all the excitement, and the hope, that he engendered. After so many years, what was that journey like for Mandela? What did it cost him? We will never really know – all we have is the teaching he did by example of how to be reunited, and how to die at peace. It is, as the Torah would put it this week, to become Israel: to put down bitterness and anger, to walk away from regret for loss. It is to let one’s hard-won experience lead one toward wholeness, finally, rather than looking for payback or, even, the attention one feels one deserves.

And perhaps, in that way, finally to come to know what is the true source of one’s reverence and awe, and be able to see others – even one’s own parents – in that new light as well.

May the light of your own hard-won experience illuminate your life in these longest, darkest days of the year.

Shabbat VaYeshev: What Do You See in the Light?

One of my favorite English lines from an old siddur is from a Kaddish meditation: “in light we see; in light we are seen.” This kind of light is not only visible, of course; illumination can also be of the “aha” kind, when something suddenly clarifies in the mind. The universal illustration for that at one time was a light bulb suddenly illuminating over one’s head. Suddenly, that which was hidden is visible. We can see, and we are seen.

This week the parashat hashavua is called VaYeshev, “dwell”. It is the last time that the name of the parashah will be taken from a story about Jacob’s life; now the acts of his children become central. The narrative for the year of the Triennial Cycle begins with a story that seems tangential to the action, but has great power to illuminate:

Judah, son of Jacob, has a daughter in law, Tamar; she has been promised that she will marry Judah’s son, but Judah avoids fulfilling the promise. Tamar is hidden away in the tents of the women, where he can pretend not to see her. Recently after being widowed, he travels to Timnah for the sheep-shearing. By the side of the road he sees a veiled woman – the convention of the time was that prostitutes veiled themselves. He sleeps with her, unaware of who she is, gives her his signet and his staff, and then he travels home again, and continues with his life. 

Three months later Tamar is accused of having sex outside of marriage (an offense punishable by death for a woman in certain circumstances). “Let her be brought out and burned,” (Gen.38.24) says her father in law. “Wait a minute,” she says. “The father of the baby is the man who owns this signet and this staff.” And Judah admits that “she is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to Shelah my son.” (Gen.38.26) 

Judah hides from Tamar by pretending he cannot see her, and rationalizing that she’s probably fine.

Tamar hides from Judah by veiling herself, and the two darknesses kindle a great light, one that would have destroyed her if she had not been clever enough to grab that signet of his.

But the fire that he would have kindled against her becomes the catalyst for a moment of illumination. In it, he sees himself in disgust and her act as brave.

“In light we see, in light we are seen.” It may not be easy to like what we see, and there may be that which is immolated in the moment of truth – but in that moment we will also, inevitably, see the necessary way forward on the path of our lives more clearly, more honestly, and more meaningfully. We cannot always dwell in light; the clarity would be overwhelming for us, as the Zohar teaches. In the future, that great light – from which we will feel no need to hide – will once again shine on the righteous, and it will include us all. That’s the promise of the light that we yearn for, even as we flee, sometimes, from what it shows us.

Hanukkah is a time of light; may it also be a time of illumination, of clarity, and of understanding for you.