Friday, December 21, 2012

Parashat Vayigash

In the past few weeks, we have seen amazing transformation in Joseph. He goes from annoying kid brother, arrogant and tactless, to humble slave, hard-working and respectful, to second most powerful man in a large empire, self-possessed but still gracious. In this week’s parasha, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. They hang back, afraid of what might be coming next, ashamed of what they did to him, until Joseph calls them close and expresses forgiveness. He says, “It was not you who sent me here, but G-d; [G-d] has set me as a … master of [Pharoah’s] entire household, as a ruler in the entire land of Egypt.”
            So far in our Torah readings this year, we have seen G-d directly interacting with our main characters. Conversations, even arguments, have occurred between many of our ancestors and G-d or at least G-d’s messenger angels. However, Joseph just believes. He’s seen the success of his father, and knows G-d has spoken directly to his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, so it stands to reason that G-d would bestow upon him the same good fortune that befell his progenitors, even if it had never been explicitly promised him.
            All of the time between leaving his brothers and being reunited with them, he had plenty to blame G-d for: shackled and brought across borders by strangers, forced into labor for someone with different laws than he’s used to, complicated domestic drama, thrown in jail. But he never blames G-d, never expresses anger, never even prays that G-d might smite down his brothers for their evil act. Although it says in Parashat Vayeshev that G-d endowed Joseph with appeal, and put favor for him in the eyes of the warden, it doesn’t seem like Joseph is very aware of this. Again, there is no interaction between Joseph and G-d, just G-d looking out for Joseph, and Joseph maintaining faith that all will work out by the grace of G-d.
            Now, in a place of power, Joseph credits his power to G-d. He is able to forgive his brothers’ betrayal because it led to his being able to save them all from starvation. As in the very beginning of the Joseph saga, he sounds vaguely arrogant, but it’s different now. First of all, he has accomplished quite a lot to fee arrogant about. Correctly interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, coming up with a plan to save all of Egypt and surrounding areas, becoming a hero and a rich, powerful man, is more than any of us have ever accomplished. He insists the rest of his family move down to Egypt, to Goshen, a plot of land nearby to where Joseph lives, and they will live off his prosperity. Joseph just wanted to have his family together again, safe, healthy and happy, and they could really only do that by moving to Egypt. He says, “G-d has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival in the land and to sustain you for great deliverance.”
            In Joseph’s context, the words are completely valid and appreciated. In today’s context, anyone who said something like that, even if they were truly helping to sustain others through enormously philanthropic acts, would sound a little nutter. At a very young age, I felt a pull on my heart, and sense of responsibility for things that could not possibly be my responsibility. Guilt for all that went well for me when others suffered. I didn’t yet have Joseph’s certain faith; I didn’t have much for G-d language. They glossed over that a lot in my Reform Jewish education. What they talked about most was Tikkun Olam, and I constantly felt that no matter what I did it was never Tikkuning enough of the Olam. Then in high school, sometime between my summer at Kutz Camp and my two spring visits to the L’Takein seminar at the Religious Action Center in DC, I was empowered. I suddenly felt G-d’s support and guidance. I thought, for sure, now that I understand what it is G-d actually wants of me, I will be able to Tikkun more of the Olam. I envisioned myself a sort of new Rev. King, Jr., becoming ordained so that I could use my pulpit as a place to preach social justice, equality, peace, freedom, environmental justice, whatever needed to be said in order to finish Tikkuning this Olam, I could say, and people would have to listen. I was speaking for G-d, how could they not hold that in high importance? I was certain that G-d had touched me, had “sent me ahead of you to insure your survival in the land and to sustain for you a great deliverance.”
            Now, having the same words that Joseph said as he welcomed his long lost brothers into his palace, come out of some random 18 year old girl, indoctrinated by Reform Judaism’s rhetoric, with no real plan or power, sounds completely ridiculous. I tried my best not to really talk about my goals or feelings on this matter, because even at the time, I realized they sounded completely mad. I would have come across like a crazy, megalomaniac, false messiah crackpot. But it was still basically what I believed. Not the megalomania or messiah part, although my mother did accidentally instill a strong fear of Immaculate Conception in me, which certainly didn’t help my delusions of grandeur. But I did believe that G-d sent me messages. Sometimes, random strangers would approach me and start a conversation, usually about my smile, that it’s unusual to see teenage girls smiling while they are out grocery shopping with their mothers, or waiting alone in the cold for a bus, that I must have some inner light. Then in the course of the conversation, they would tell me something that I felt was exactly what I needed to hear. How did they know? Because G-d was speaking through them to give me messages. I felt so certain.
            As time went on, I progressed toward my goals: studying violence, thinking I would find some missing link and learn how to stop it forever, spending a semester at the Arava Institute, working on environmental collaboration efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, and other neighboring countries when possible, entering rabbinical school. The closer I got to what I was so sure G-d wanted of me, the less I found signs that G-d really cared about what I was doing. I often felt unsure, insecure, and abandoned. But Joseph never seemed to really have any signs from G-d, other than the talents and successes themselves, and he still never lost faith, neither in G-d nor in the fact that his gifts were definitely from G-d. Joseph should be an inspiration. May we all look at our own talents, successes, good fortunes as gifts from G-d, and remember as Joseph did, that whatever comes of our dreams, it is only by the grace of G-d. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Parashat Mikeitz

            And Joseph named [his] firstborn Manasseh, for "G-d has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house."” In last week’s Torah portion, Joseph is shown to have suffered greatly the price of being his father’s favorite, and letting that favoritism go to his head and ego. This week, he is redeemed, appointed a position of power, his dreams literally come true, and, additionally, he has two children. These two children are not given much stage time in our stories; they are not the lead roles in any Hebrew school plays, but they are important. Every Friday night, around the world, parents bless their sons by saying, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” because they supposedly are the only two siblings in the Bible who don’t have any fierce rivalries. And yet, here we read that Manasseh’s name is derived from a wish for Joseph to forget all his father’s house. While it is more than understandable that he would want to forget his brothers, and even understandable for Joseph to blame his father for the way his brothers mistreated him, it sounds harsh for Joseph to pass onto his child his desire to forget his former life and family. In contrast, he names his second son Ephraim, “G-d has made me to prosper in the land of my affliction,” showing that while he does not want to remember his father’s home, the place he currently lives does not quite feel like his home either.
There is much to learn from the Joseph story, and one lesson among many is on the question of respecting our parents even when it’s hard. Many of you are still very young and hopefully still revere and trust your parents and try your best to obey their rules. Those of you who are now parents probably see your parents differently now than you did before having children yourself, and hopefully can better appreciate all they did for you. But there are a few in this room who are of an age notorious for not showing proper respect for their parents. Speaking from purely anecdotal evidence and personal observations, I’d say starting at about 12 and peaking at 16 for girls, starting at about 15 and peaking closer to 20 for boys, the angst of adolescence starts to get in the way of appreciating the things your parents do for you. Often times, it feels like everything is all wrong and it’s all your parents fault and they’ll just never understand you and you just can’t wait to be grown up and out of their house and then you can forget all about this!
Joseph is considerably past this age when he names his firstborn child “G-d caused me to forget my toils and all my father’s house,” but since time in the Bible is generally very different than the way we view time now, let’s assume it’s safe to compare his attitude with that of a teenager’s. He does not want to acknowledge his connection to his father and family, he plays tricks on his brothers, and he cries a lot. Sounds like being 16 to me. In his tears, there is the implication that he wishes he could be close to them again, let his brothers know who he is, reunite the family. But he is afraid and distrustful, and understandably so. So he waits. In next week’s parasha – spoiler alerts – he does make himself known, and his whole family comes to live in Egypt and live off his success, and everyone lives happily ever after [at least until a new Pharoah arises who enslaves all the Hebrew people, but that’s not for quite a while].
Although it’s not shown explicitly, I think there is something in this on how we can show parents and family respect even when there is still anger and mistrust. It’s not easy, and the parasha certainly doesn’t tell us how to do it, but I think it can be done, and the parasha is at least saying that much. It’s okay to hold your cards close to your chest and still be gracious. Our Jewish law commands us to always show honor and respect our fathers and mothers, not to feel honor and reverence for them all time. Joseph messed with his brothers a little bit, but he still fed them, and ultimately welcomed them into his new life. Although he may have wanted to forget the pain of his childhood, he didn’t. He remembered and when the time was right, he re-embraced them all. Occasionally, people come to a point where they start to feel that as much as they love their family, they don’t like them so much right now. This generally passes, and it’s important to not to burn your bridges, since you might want to cross back at some point. Or in Joseph’s case, invite the rest of the family over to your side of the bridge. Either way, the bridge needs to still be in working condition, even if a little shaky.
May you always remember where you came from, who brought you up, and all they did to help make you the person you are today. May you survive your teenage angst and reunite in love with your family. And may G-d make us all like Ephraim and Manasseh, able to put aside our differences and just get along. Amen. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Parashat Vayeshev

            Happy holidays. This time of year often raises debate over that phrase, but why should anyone bother trying to determine the correct holiday to wish each person? There are so many to wish happy! Thanksgiving has barely passed, Chanukah is nearly upon us, before we know it will be New Years, and in between, many, if not all of us will be helping various friends and family celebrate their holidays – Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, and so on. Holidays can be loads of fun and a source of great warmth, but they can also be a source of stress as we plan large family gatherings and worry about what family members will likely start a fight right in front of the cheese and crackers table, keeping everyone else from being able to have their nosh before latkes are ready.
            In this week’s parasha, we find a family in turmoil. Many of us have a Joseph in our family. That brother, uncle, mother-in-law, whatever who is too smug, who is too favored, who always get first pick of the dark meat off the turkey at Thanksgiving, gets the crispiest latke at Chanukah, and who has a habit of rubbing it everyone else’s faces. Hopefully, each family also has a Reuven, though, eager to smooth out the family feuds, willing to be bipartisan, who runs to the rescue when any of us are backed in a corner by less forgiving other relatives.
            In the Torah, Reuven convinces his fellow brothers not to kill Joseph, no matter how obnoxious he might be. He allows the brothers to throw Joseph in a pit, instead, with the intention of pulling him out and returning him to their father at a later time when the other brothers aren’t looking. But where is Reuven when Joseph is sold into slavery? The Torah just says Reuven returned to the pit and found Joseph was gone, without mention of where or when he had left in the first place. Rashi explains this is because he had gone back home to serve their father and returned to the pastures where the brothers had been grazing sheep only to save Joseph from the pit. Reuven is split, having to care for different family members in different places, and in making a choice to uphold his commitment to one, he has effectively turn his back on another. What an awful choice to have to make.
Should Reuven have been more forceful with his brothers in convincing them to not kill Joseph? If he hadn’t had to be sneaky, maybe he would have been able to stop Joseph’s sale into slavery, but then again, maybe he would only have estranged himself from their other brothers in the process and furthered the family struggles. Joseph seems to be very unaware of why his brothers hate him so much; although there is some indication that he does know that they hate him. Maybe it would have been helpful for Reuven to pull Joseph aside and explain why his behavior was problematic, and given him the opportunity to make things right with his brothers himself. But then again, maybe Joseph would get offended and defensive, feeling like he’d lost his last ally, and family dinners would just get that much more awkward.
 Of course, we all know that if Joseph hadn’t been sent to Egypt as a slave, then Pharaoh would have no one to interpret his dreams, and Egypt would have been unprepared for the famine, and the rest of Joseph’s family wouldn’t have been able to come to get food from Egypt, and maybe everyone would die of starvation and there would be no Jewish people. Everything worked out the way it did for a reason. But Reuven didn’t, and couldn’t have had the opportunity to realize it for another 22 years, at which point all the family is reunited with Joseph. In the meantime, imagine the guilt he must have felt, the anger at his other siblings, the fear of his father finding out. This winter, with all our holiday craze, as we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, worrying about who is going to whose house for the holiday dinners and parties, who has gifts and who needs what, who gets along and who we have to seat at opposite ends of the table, let’s all take a minute to stop and breathe. Remind all your relatives to stop and breathe. To reflect. To search themselves and look carefully at all the family dynamics. Are you the Joseph, obnoxious and arrogant, off-putting to most of your family? Are you the other brothers, irrationally angry and overdramatic in your reactions to Joseph? Are you Reuven, wanting to make peace in the family and not knowing how? Most likely, we each have a moment to be each of these characters, depending on where we are in our lives, and which relative we are interacting with. This holiday season, can we find to just be Reuven, who loves and is loyal to each of his relatives? Can we all find a way toward humility and understanding? Set aside your angers and your petty differences. Invite back to your holiday dinner that uncle you haven’t spoken to in ages, remember to include everyone on your gift or card list, let your annoying younger brother have the tastiest-looking crispy latke fresh from the pan. It doesn’t matter anymore who is dad’s favorite or what their personal beliefs are. Family can brighten your harsh winter better than any menorah, but only if you let it. As the days start to get very cold, and the dark nights longer, may the light of all the different holidays keep us warm, and may sharing in each other’s joys keep us cheerful.