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Vayeshev Sermon

This week’s Torah portion offers a disturbing story.  Joseph’s brothers first try to kill him and then settle on selling him into slavery after throwing him in a pit.  The Torah emphasizes that there was no water in the pit.  Imagine how he cried out to his brothers from the darkened pit as they sat down to a meal.

Often we read stories in our Torah about the worst of human tendencies.  The saga of brothers of course begins with Cain killing Abel.  Jacob and Esau are little better.  Joseph and his brothers begin a torturous relationship but are ultimately reconciled.  Three weeks from now Joseph will demonstrate an extraordinary gesture of forgiveness, but this week we are left wondering about our forefathers’ example.  Is this how we are supposed to behave?

In a word, the answer is no.  Torah is not always about how we are supposed to act.  Instead it is Torah because this is what happens all the time.  We see ourselves in the brothers’ envy or perhaps in Joseph’s pomposity.   Too often human beings behave in this way.  This is what makes these stories Torah. We can see ourselves in its painful ordinariness.

So how do we learn what we are supposed to do?  For that we turn not to such examples, but instead to the mitzvot, the commandments contained in the Torah.  They offer us guidance.  We learn for example “To love your neighbor as yourself.”  Imagine if this mitzvah was our first thought rather than those feelings of jealousy and envy that too often creep into our hearts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel counseled that the deed is wiser than the heart.  When we follow the heart we too often end up like Joseph or worse, his brothers.  When we follow our hands, the world around us becomes transformed.  That is Judaism’s wisdom.