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. 

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