Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joseph and his brothers: take two / Vayigash

Nelson R. Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk received the Nobel Prize for Peace for their roles in the Peace and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. How many of us believed that peace and reconciliation were possible in South Africa when they began their work? Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have operated in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and 14 other counties -- including the United States. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are put into play in cases of egregious state terrorism and human rights abuses.

Most of us, in our lives, come to a point where we long for reconciliation. We don’t need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but sometimes it feels like our situation is as insurmountable as those that do.

For many weeks we have been reading the complex, convoluted, and compelling “Joseph Cycle” in the Torah. We’ve watch Joseph grow from a spoiled and bratty little brother into the prime minister of Egypt, wielding nearly limitless power. It’s packed with all the elements of a hit movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Daniel Craig: love, jealousy, intrigue, power, sex, bitter competition, betrayal, and revenge.

Yet all the while, and despite everything he has, Joseph discovers that he does not have what he most needs to be whole: to be reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his father. The arrival of Joseph’s brothers to buy grain in Egypt rips open the wound of long ago, a wound that never really healed.

This week, in parshat Vayigash, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and at last, reconciliation begins. But there’s something intriguing about how Torah recounts the story. Judah, the oldest of the 12 brothers, approaches Joseph and launches into a long discourse. Usually, people speak succinctly in the Torah. Not here! Judah goes on and on about his father’s pain and his fear that if Joseph keeps Benjamin, Jacob’s heart will break, and how he couldn’t bear for that to happen. Judah then offers himself as ransom for Benjamin. Here’s a little of it:
Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh… If I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us -- since his own life is so bound up with his -- when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief. Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ 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: 18, 30-34)
The scene that leads to reconciliation is striking: First, Judah speaks to Joseph at length and without rancor. He doesn’t express hate, resentment, anger, or bitterness. As a result, Joseph can hear commonalities with Judah. The father Judah wants to save from anguish is his own father, Jacob.

Second, Judah speaks not about his resentments and gripes, but about what he loves and is committed to. He speaks in terms Joseph can affirm. Again, Joseph can absorb what Judah says, feel empathy and concern for him (and remember, this is the brother who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery) and respond positively.

Third, Joseph listens without interrupting, commenting or contradicting. He just listens. Most of us need to learn to do that. We think we do, but… do we really?

Fourth, each side acknowledges the experience and reality of the other.

This is not to say that the reality of what happened is tossed aside. There are issues of justice, equity, and recompense that must be addressed. Corazon Aquino, who led the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos, and who became the 11th president of the Philippines said, “Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn't be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice.”

Joseph knows this. Sensing his brothers’ guilt and fear, he tells them:
Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:5, 7-8)
Whether or not we subscribe to Joseph’s theological belief, we can appreciate that he recognizes the need to address the wrongs that caused the rift.

What a great model for people everywhere! Wise, practical, and effective: Speak factually and without rancor, but say it all; say what you believe in and what you need; listen -- truly listen -- to what the other side says; acknowledge the experience and reality of the other; know that justice must be served. That’s the formula. It works for the sons of Jacob. It worked in South Africa. With a lot of courage and conviction, it can work for us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Come on baby, light my fire / Miketz

Taking great liberties with the Doors’ 1967 hit,
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
But vision lifts our spirits higher.
In a sense this is Joseph’s story, and it is the story of Chanukah, as well.

Miketz, and next week’s parashah, Vayigash, contain perhaps the most emotional narratives in Torah. Joseph does not cry when his brothers throw him into the pit, or when they sell him to a traveling caravan of Midianites, or when Potiphar throws him into the dungeon. Yet Joseph, overcome with emotion, weeps four times. (The first two instances are in this week’s parashah and the second two are recounted in parshat Vayigash.)

Joseph cries first when he hears his brothers speak among themselves about the plan to leave Shimon as a hostage in Egypt until they bring Benjamin from the land of Canaan. In their conversation, the brothers acknowledge and take full responsibility for the egregious way they treated their brother Joseph.
The brothers said to one another, “Oh we are being punished on account of our brother! We saw his soul’s distress when he pleaded with us -- on that account his distress has come upon us.” Reuben now responded to them, saying, “Didn’t I say to you, ‘Do not sin against the lad’! But you wouldn’t listen, and so his blood-payment, see -- it has come due.” (Genesis 42:21-22)
The brothers so not realize that Joseph understands their language. But Joseph understands more than their language; he must leave the room as his eyes brim with tears.

The second instance is when Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother, is brought to Joseph:
With that, Joseph hurried, out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. (Genesis 43:30)
Later, having planted a valuable goblet in Benjamin’s pack as a pretext to accuse Benjamin of theft and toss him in jail, Judah, the eldest brother, makes a long and impassioned speech about his father Jacob (who is Joseph’s father, too, of course) in which Judah says that if Benjamin does not return with his brothers, their father will die of grief. Judah offers himself as ransom for Benjamin and for a third time, Joseph is overcome with emotion. He sends his servants from of the room and reveals himself to his brothers. This time he not only weeps, but wails:
His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Genesis 45:2)
And finally, when Jacob comes down to Egypt and Joseph sets eyes on him for the first time in so long, we are hardly surprised that Joseph weeps a fourth time:
Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet his father Israel in Goshen; he presented himself to him and threw himself on his neck, weeping all the time. (Genesis 46:29)
If Joseph does not cry at the most frightening and potentially deadly moments in his life, why does he weep these four times? All four instances involve steps in the process of reunion and reconciliation with the people closest to him -- his brothers and father. These tears are mixed with pain, no doubt, but each time Joseph cries, it is because he has come closer to the vision of wholeness, reconciliation that has supported him through his years of ordeal.

What makes Joseph cry are glimpses of his vision fulfilled, milestones along the way to achieving it. Joseph is moved by his brothers' repentance. When they express remorse for how they treated Joseph, and take responsibility for it, Joseph is overcome. He is overcome again when Judah puts bones on that remorse and acceptance of responsibility by offering himself as ransom for Benjamin. Joseph sees that the brothers have truly changed; they are not the same jealous, vindictive, self-righteous siblings who cavalierly threw him into a pit without water and then proceeded to picnic (Genesis 37:24-25). Reconciliation is possible; healing is possible. Wholeness is within reach.

Joseph also cries when he first sees Benjamin and Jacob -- his two closest connections to his mother, Rachel, who died when he was but a lad.

When we examine what is most important and meaningful in our lives, it is probably what we cry about. I think of the people on Wall Street who threw themselves out of windows when the stock market crashed; it is clear how they defined their very being. For Joseph, his primary relationships with family define who he is and he desperately needs to rectify these relationships. Joseph remains broken until the breach is repaired.

Miketz is always read on the Shabbat during Chanukah, which is also known as Chag ha-Urim, the festival of lights. Chanukah is about light (or vision) fueled by dedication that led to a miracle.

Let’s take those three -- vision, dedication, and miracle -- in reverse order. The Chanukah miracle was not really the big, splashy kind, like the Parting of the Reed Sea, but rather a small miracle. The cruse of oil -- one tiny clay jar, a one-day supply -- was barely visible in the piles of rubble on the Temple Mount. Yet the Rabbis tell us it was sufficient to kindle the Temple lamp and keep it burning for eight days (b.Shabbat 21b). A legend, to be sure, but as with all rabbinic legends, this one is replete with a deeper meaning. Miracles are how we see things. They arise from within us and are set in motion through our dedication, our willingness to take risks and keep plugging for what we believe is right. That light, or vision, that helps us see what the end might look like, even when we’re tired, or scared, or unsure of ourselves, fueling and refueling our dedication. The Maccabees had a clear vision: sovereignty in their land, restoration of the Temple worship, freedom to live as Jews. That vision fueled, and many times refueled the dedication they needed to persevere through three long years of hiding in caves and conducting a guerilla war against their Hellenistic overlords. With a clear vision and dedication to that vision, they achieved victory in a war any historian would have said was impossible to win. The miracle of the lamp is the miracle they wrought.
Joseph, too, worked a miracle. Who would have believed that reunion and reconciliation with his family was possible when the brothers sold him into slavery, or when Potiphar cast him into the dungeon, or when Pharaoh made him grand vizier and married him off to the daughter of an Egyptian priest? Yet Joseph kept before him a vision of return and restoration to his family. He dedicated himself to that vision. He wasn’t unrealistic; he wanted assurances that his brothers had changed, had repented, felt remorse. These assurances brought him to tears because he recognized in them yet another miracle in a series of miracles that brought him closer and closer to his vision, closer and closer to the light.

Again, taking great liberties with the Doors’ 1967 hit song (start at 0:35) --
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
But visions lifts our spirits higher.
So here’s something to ponder: What makes you cry? What is your vision? What is most important to you? What keeps the cruse of oil inside you burning? With whom are you going to share your light and your miracle?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Divine Providence is not in Rhode Island / Vayeshev

I have a number of pet peeves, and high on my list are people who, having survived a calamity that took numerous lives, spout out, “God saved me for a reason.” If God saves one, then God causes the death of others. This hubristic and self-absorbed statement implies -- and not too subtly -- that God caused the deaths of those who perished also for a reason.

A discussion of hashgachah (divine providence) emerges in the traditional commentaries on parshat Vayeshev. Hasgachah is the belief that God supervises and determines what happens in our world. Taken to another level, hashgachah pratit (personal divine providence) presumes that God is deeply involved in the day-to-day events and intricacies of our lives. Is that your sense of things?

Rabbi Akiba is said to have taught: Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given… (Pirke Avot 3:19) What on earth does that mean? If all is foreseen, then events are pre-determined -- either by biology or God -- in which case we have no genuine free will.

In parshat Vayeshev, Joseph goes in search of his brothers in Shechem:
One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” [Joseph] answered hineinu/ Here I am. And [his father] said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” (Genesis 37:12-13)
Jacob (called Israel in this passage) sends Joseph to check on his brothers and the flocks. We are not told that Joseph brings food, money, or a message to his brothers. We might wonder then at the real purpose of the trip.

Joseph responds to Jacob, Hineinu/ Here I am. Abraham responds Hineinu when God tells he to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1). Jacob responds Hineini when God tells him to return to the Land of Israel (Genesis 31:11). Moses answers Hineini when God calls to him from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4). Isaiah responds Hineini to God who is searching for a prophet (Isaiah 6:8). Here, too, Hineini signals that Joseph’s journey has covenantal significant (Genesis 37:12-17)

When [Joseph] reached Shechem, a man (ish) came upon him wandering in the fields. The man (ish) asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man (ish) said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. (Genesis 37:14-17)

Who is this ish, this man wandering aimlessly around Shechem? Joseph does not describe his brothers to the man, yet the man knows who they are and where they have gone. We are reminded of the ish Joseph’s father Jacob encountered the night before his reunion with Esau. Torah tells us, Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25) -- this is the man who wrenches his hip, gives him the new name Israel, and blesses him. Is the ish Joseph meets also an angel or manifestation of God?

Ibn Ezra and Rashbam don’t make that claim. They lean on pshat to tell us that the ish is a wayfarer and the encounter proves Joseph’s fine character in diligently carrying out his father’s request.

Ramban and Rambam, however, ascribe supernatural significance to the encounter. Rambam identifies the ish as an angel. Ramban and others claim the encounter is evidence of God’s hashgachah, the divine plan for the people Israel to go down into Egypt. He writes: “God prepared for [Joseph] a guide who, without him being aware of it, brought him into [his brothers’] hands. And this is what Chazel (our Sages may their memory be for good) meant when they said that these people were angels, for the story… teaches us that God’s will is fulfilled.” Abravanel claims that because God is directing the shots, no one in the story bears responsibility for their behavior because all is God’s will. He adds that at the same time, they all have free will and the events could unfold in another sequence -- but he doesn’t explain how that is possible.

Joseph himself confirms his belief in divine providence when he tells his brothers -- quaking in their sandals, terrified that Joseph will exact revenge on them:
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:7-8)
In Joseph’s mind, his brothers sold him into slavery so that he could rise to the level of grand vizier and save his family from famine when the drought came. By this thinking, the ish Joseph encounters in Shechem is God’s directional guide.

The Rabbis are deeply invested in divine providence. Midrash tells us: "No blade of grass grows without an angel telling it to 'Grow!'" (Bereishit Rabbah 10:6)

We may reject hashgachah (divine providence) on the macro level -- certainly science and a conviction concerning human free will run strongly counter to hashgachah -- but what about the level of our personal lives? The Rabbis also spoke of hashgachah pratit (personal providence) and many people, including those who would consider themselves modern, scientific folk express the belief that events “happen for a purpose” and that God is directing their lives. How is this consistent with free will, moral responsibility, and science?

Perhaps the claim, “God saved me for a reason” is an emotional reaction to events of great danger and significance, events that take on special meaning to people, such as surviving a hurricane or car crash, being cured of a serious illness, succeeding when failure seemed assured. I would hope that people who utter such words would respond “no” to the question, “And did God specifically designate for death those who perished?”
Our Rabbis said: Even things which you may regard as completely superfluous to the creation of the world, such as fleas, gnats and flies, even they are included in the creation of the world and the Holy One carries out the Divine purpose through everything – even a snake, a scorpion, a gnat or a frog. (Bereishit Rabbah 10:7)
Read another way, we can understand the text to say that everything in the universe can be seen to have purpose in our eyes. That doesn’t mean God is a cosmic puppeteer pulling our strings. Rather, it can be our way of making sense of emotionally overwhelming events. Seeing our lives as purposeful is an excellent way to respond emotionally to trauma, because when we see our lives as purposeful, we can do things that really matter.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman