Thursday, December 13, 2018

Drawing Near

Sometimes the Torah packs meaning into one word.

Vayigash alav Yehuda—and Judah drew near to Joseph…” (Genesis 44)

Judah still does not know that the Egyptian ruler who has been supplying him with rations during the famine and who now threatens the youngest of his father Jacob’s children, Benjamin, with enslavement is his brother Joseph whom he sold into slavery. Fearful for Benjamin’s life and his father’s welfare, Judah now draws close to Joseph to plead for Benjamin.

He offers himself in Benjamin’s place. He concludes his plea with the words, “Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” Judah is a changed man. He will no longer sell another brother into slavery. Joseph cannot control his emotions and says, “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He then embraces Benjamin, and kisses Judah and the rest of his brothers.

This remarkable tale of reconciliation begins when Judah draws near to Joseph and demonstrates his repentance. It culminates with Joseph’s statement of forgiveness. Joseph says in effect, “You intended to do wrong, but now we can see that throwing me in a pit while you sat down to a meal, selling me to the Ishmaelites who then traded me to the Egyptians, and then telling our father that wild beasts killed me, turned to good. Our family would have starved if you had not done that wrong, if you were then not so motivated by jealousy.

I would have understood if Joseph kept his brothers in jail for a long time and said, “Look at me. You tried to get rid of me and instead I have become second only to Pharaoh.” I would have even understood if Joseph said, “I don’t want anything to do with you. You may be my brothers but you are bunch of good for nothings.” But that is not Joseph.

He is heroic in his forgiveness. And Judah is heroic in his repentance.

Elsewhere in the Bible the word “vayigash” is used to describe making war.

Vayigash Yoav v’ha’am—and Joab and the troops with him drew near to make war against the Arameans… (II Samuel 10)

I have come to believe that this instance more aptly describes our everyday interactions. We follow not the examples of Joseph and Judah, but instead Joab.

Every discussion quickly turns angry. Every argument appears like war.

Our political leaders scream at each other rather than reaching for compromise. Our Facebook feeds are filled with outrage. “How dare they! Look at those idiots!” we read over and over again. Exclamation points abound. Emails and text messages quickly become heated. Anger and vitriol color our computer screens. We retreat to our iPhones.

We withdraw to the certainties of our shared indignation. Our feeds confirm our outrage. They vindicate our anger.

It all could change if we but turned to this week’s opening word. Vayigash. So much can be lost in drawing near to make war. So much continues to unravel as we draw near in battle and self-righteous indignation.

So much more can be cured by drawing near in reconciliation.

We again require such heroics.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Masked and Unmasked

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that throughout the Joseph story, our hero Joseph often changes clothes. In the opening chapters, his father places the coat of many colors on him and then his brothers tear it from him. There is as well the garment torn from him by Potiphar’s wife when she tries to seduce him. And finally, in this week’s portion the following: “Pharaoh had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” (Genesis 41)

By the time his brothers come before him, in search of food to stave their hunger from famine, Joseph looks like an Egyptian. He is unrecognizable. His clothes, and apparently his mannerisms and language, allow him to hide from them despite the fact that he stands right in front of them. Now it is left to him alone to remove these clothes. Still, he is not yet able to tear the trappings of his Egyptian identity and reveal himself to his brothers.

What do we hide? What do we reveal?

Soon Joseph will remove his mask and embrace his brothers in forgiveness. He is only able to do this after he comes to believe that they have changed. When they refuse to consign their younger brother Benjamin to slavery as they once did Joseph he is able to reveal himself. It is then that Joseph unmasks his true identity. Joseph discovers that he is more a brother, and a member of the family of Israel, than an Egyptian. His inner self becomes one with his outer identity.

Are we the same on the outside as we are on the inside? Is it possible to achieve such harmony?

Yesterday our country observed a day of mourning for President George H.W. Bush. Of the many remembrances shared I was most struck by those of his son, President George W. Bush. In this weekend’s 60 Minutes interview he said that he once asked his father the following, “Dad do you ever think about the war?” His father responded, “I think about Delaney and White all the time.” They were the two crew mates who died when his plane crashed. It was a startling revelation.

Despite all the accolades about Bush’s wartime heroism: the grainy film of him being rescued by a submarine, the reports of his nearly 60 missions, the pictures of him in his Navy dress uniform and the many government jobs he achieved: president, vice-president, CIA director, congressman, he remained bound to the two friends killed over 70 years ago. Their memories occupied his thoughts.

Their deaths were the hidden hands that directed his life. It appeared as if their memories impelled his service.

It was not the uniforms—and the many achievements, but the loss. It was not the heroism and the years of service, but instead the friends—or more accurately, their absence that guided his life.

I sensed his pain.

Uniforms hide the cost of war. (Perhaps this is their intention.) Achievements mask our inner struggles.

The soul was laid bare.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Miracles of Hanukkah Are Not What You May Think

During my rabbinical school years, my classmates and I gained experience serving small pulpits throughout the country. We traveled to these far-flung congregations once a month or every other week. I served communities in Houghton-Hancock, Michigan; Clarksdale Mississippi; Fargo, North Dakota and Arvada, Colorado.

I recall my first Hanukkah in Clarksdale. As I drove south from the Memphis airport, through the cotton fields of Northern Mississippi, I began to formulate my teaching about the upcoming holiday. For weeks, we had studied Hanukkah’s origins with our professors and debated its meaning in our classes.

I decided to teach my congregants about the real Hanukkah. I patiently explained how our central story about the miracle of oil appears nowhere in the Book of Maccabees. These books, written soon after the victory over the Syrian-Greeks and the Jewish Hellenists, emphasize the Maccabees’ heroism, the sinfulness of those Jews enamored of Greek culture, and the ruthlessness of the Syrian-Greek oppressors. There, the eight days are tied to the Temple’s rededication ceremony. The Temples were first dedicated during Sukkot, another eight-day holiday and so Hanukkah’s eight days are most likely tied to Sukkot’s eight.

“What about the miracle of oil?” my congregants asked.

“It does not appear until the pages of the Talmud,” I respond...