Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vayigash Sermon

Our Torah portion contains the dramatic reunion of Joseph and his brothers.  In this story Judah pleads in behalf of Benjamin, who has been framed by Joseph, by offering himself instead.  Joseph is unable to control himself, sends his servants out of the room, and forgives his brothers.  He tells them not to worry about what they did to him so many years ago.  It was, he states, to do God’s will that he was sent into slavery in Egypt.  Finally the brothers are able to speak and they hug and kiss each other, crying over the remarkable turn of events.  Joseph sends them back to the land of Israel to bring their father to Egypt.  I wonder: Why did Joseph not go back with them to see his father after these 20 years?

There are two possibilities to explain Joseph’s motivation for the elaborate test he creates for his brothers. 1. He wanted to exact revenge and so the thought of throwing his brothers in jail was too tempting to avoid.  Or, 2. Joseph wanted to test his brothers to see if they had repented.  This second option is of course the explanation our tradition favors.  The only way to see if someone has made teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is to test them by the exact same situation.  Only if you say no to the same temptation that before you said yes to, do we know that you have changed.

But rarely do we find ourselves in this same circumstance.  And so how do we know if a person has truly changed?  Michael Vick for example admitted his wrongs and served time in jail.  Ben Roethlisberger by contrast never really owned up to his wrongs.

Some have argued that we are too quick to forgive our modern heroes.  They have said that sports achievements give Vick and Roethlisberger an unfair advantage.  We forgive them too easily because they win football games.  But from a Jewish perspective we can say that Vick has changed.  Our judgment of Roethlisberger must remain unclear.

Judaism fundamentally believes that people can change.  I confess perhaps we do so with great difficulty.  Nonetheless we can change.  It is a matter of first admitting the wrong.  And then asking forgiveness of those we have wronged.  Then we must resolve to change.  At some point we will be tested by the same circumstances.  In that moment we will discover if we have indeed changed.

But changing ourselves is in some ways the easier task.  Allowing others to change comes with greater difficulty.  Forgiving others of their wrongs is the more trying test.  Following Joseph’s example is the mightier task.

We must therefore continually remind ourselves that people can change.  We must say to ourselves that nothing is fated.  If I can change then others can change.  Can we forgive and forget the wrongs done to us?  Can we allow for others to change?  Michael Vick is indeed a great football player.  Believing that he has changed gives me hope.  Believing that others can change gives us hope in the future.

According to the rabbis repentance is built into the fabric of creation.  It was made by God before the world.  Why?  It is because the ability for people to change sustains the world.  There is no future without change.

Have hope in yourself and your ability to change.  More importantly, have hope in others.  It is not simply a matter of our Jewish faith.  It is instead because the world depends on it.

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