Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayigash
Omar Khayyam said, “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” What we do continues to write and impact the world long after the words vanish from any audibility.
I love a Midrash that teaches about a child who gossips about people all the time and speaks horribly about others. In an attempt to stop this behavior, his father made him hammer a nail into the backyard fence every time he transgressed in this way. It was hard work, but the child kept on until there was no room on the fence for any more nails. The father exclaimed, “Now, go pull them out.” The child responded, “When I do, there will be nothing left of the fence!” “Precisely,” answered Dad. “You cannot easily undo the damage that you caused gossiping time and again.”
From the week’s Torah portion, we read, “They told [Jacob] all the words of Joseph . . . and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father was revived” (45:27)
A great many commentaries develop because Hebrew has no vowels. When consonants and vocalic sounds come together, they can often yield radically different meanings because of the vowels one imposes. Medieval commentator RaSHI noticed that in Deuteronomy 21, when a murder happens outside the community and they cannot place blame (no one paid enough attention), the whole community must atone through a ritual of beheading a heifer (eglah arufah) – it is a sign of guilt for horrible offenses. He further noted that the word for wagons bears the same consonantal structure (agalah – plural agalot).
Sages understand and teach of this linguistic contextual relationship. Joseph sends the agalot to remind his brothers of their offense (punishable with the eglah arufah) and as a warning to Dad that his other sons faked his killing. He should not listen to whatever lie they made up as to how they found Joseph miraculously alive after swearing that they watched him die at the ripping teeth of a vicious animal, years before.
Knowing that Torah is a teaching allegory and not a history, I find instruction in these debates. One has to wrestle with these ideas (intended in authorship or contrived from the reader’s experience). One truth I have not seen play out, though, deals with how we get to this horrific conversation. Why would these “righteous” sons of patriarch Jacob behave in such a way?
Behavior is more nurture than nature. We learn from those who come before us. What they teach us is what we know. We all have the opportunity to transcend (or devolve) from our formative lessoned behaviors. At some point in time, though, most of us will open our mouths and hear the words of our parents (the ones we swore we would never say) come out of our mouths.
Where did the boys learn to lie and cheat? Look at Jacob’s history. The more troubling piece of this sociology is that once we expand a boundary of behavior, the next expansion is that much easier. On the one hand, “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.” One blessing begets the next. Each time we do something wonderful, it pushes us into the next such gift. On the other hand, “Averah goreret averah.” One transgression makes the next easier. (Pirke Avot 4:2)
If they learned that lying and cheating were accepted norms, violence is not that far an extension. Tradition teaches that the sins of the parent rest in the third and fourth generations that follow. Both the stigma that the community holds for one who transgresses and the default behaviors that made him/her think his actions were okay, take a while to overcome. We also know that blessings procured within one generation inure to the benefit of thousands after. The impact of good is powerful.
The world has played witness to inexplicable horrors in the way we violate each other. Still though, through it all, people love, communities grow, and hope for a better tomorrow flourishes. Hate only proliferates when we waste our energy, failing to invest in each other. Maimonides taught that evil is the absence of intentional good. The chaos that results from our lack of concern for each other (for our own short-term benefit) breeds violence and the devolution of our society. The tiniest intentional efforts of love and compassion move mountains. Either way, what we do impacts the world long past the time we finished acting. When faced between the choice: I choose moving mountains. Shabbat Shalom.