Thursday, December 5, 2013

Vayigash and Change

We pick up the story of Joseph and his brothers as it nears its dramatic conclusion. Joseph has framed his brothers by hiding a goblet in his brother Benjamin’s bag. Joseph accuses the brothers of thievery and threatens to jail Benjamin. Rather than allowing Benjamin to be carted away and made a slave, as they did to Joseph so many years ago, Judah draws near to Joseph and begs that his younger brother be spared.

Judah pleads, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44:33-34) In that moment Joseph realizes that his brothers have indeed changed.

The rabbis see in Joseph’s machinations a test of his brothers. Given the opportunity, would they once again get rid of their father’s favorite son or make a different choice? Would they defend Benjamin even though years earlier they had betrayed Joseph? The only true test of teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is to find oneself in the exact same situation and make a different choice.

This is how Joseph discovers that his brothers have made repentance. Judah is a changed man.

It is instructive that Judah is the spokesman for the brothers. It was he who had earlier suggested that they sell Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. Judah has indeed changed.

Change is central to his character. It should also be defining of our own. In fact it is from the name Judah that the term Jew derives. The origin of the term Jew is one who descends from the tribe of Judah. Is it possible that change should then be the defining characteristic of a Jew?

I often hear people argue that it is because of Orthodoxy that Judaism survives. I hear this argument from all manners of Jews, from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. The notion is that only strict observance and inviolability guarantees the future. This is patently false. It angers me when I hear this argument from Orthodox Jews because it highlights their belief that only they hold the true path. It saddens me when I hear this from fellow Reform Jews because it suggests a lack of faith in our own path.

Change is part of our DNA. It is what guarantees our future. An example from history. Everyone who visits Israel goes to Masada and marvels there at the bravery of the zealots who chose their own deaths at their own hands rather than becoming slaves to the Romans. We fail to recognize that not one of us is a descendant of those brave fighters! The Jewish future might have ended with them. Instead it was seized by Yohanan ben Zakkai, a rabbi who secretly met with the Romans and negotiated the building of a small school in Yavneh.

With that masterful change the Jewish future was secured. The zealots would have called him a traitor. If their followers had discovered him they would have killed him. And yet his willingness to change rather than remain steadfast to old ways guaranteed a future that continues to this day.

And yet most remain afraid of change. We want it to remain like yesterday. We mythologize the past and as well tend to demonize the future. We pretend to live in a never changing present.

This weekend I watched the 60 Minutes interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. He spoke about change and how disruptive Amazon is to the old ways of doing things, such as bookstores, that I confess I continue to miss. He remarked, “Complaining is not a strategy.” It is of course easy to say such things when you are a billionaire or in the case of Joseph, number two in all of Egypt. Perhaps then it is easier to say as Joseph did, “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

True it is as well easier to laugh at change when you are a recognized master of it. Yet how much brighter might our future be if rather than complaining (or as in the example of Masada choosing suicide) we see only challenges to overcome and discover changes to master? Should this lesson not be instructive for all?

Change is who we are.  It is our very name.

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