Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayigash

While a student in seminary, I taught at the Reform Jewish High School in Cincinnati, Oh. Once a year, I would offer a class entitled “Sex, Murder, Mystery: An Introduction to The Bible.” Teenagers loved the title and had lots of fun in class. We looked at the more salacious stories in scripture to grow an understanding that historical or not, the stories in scripture help us develop skills for addressing and engaging the world. I hand-selected pieces of text that would pique their curiosity and interest. We looked at the “Binding of Isaac”, David and Bathsheba, Jacob stealing the birthright and blessing, Moses atop Sinai, and others, but the one that always drew the most interest was Joseph. Students always demonstrated a healthy curiosity in the part of the story that appears in this week’s Torah portion.

Joseph’s dreams came true. His brothers bowed before him. In a sardonic opportunity for revenge over the abuse and treachery he experienced at the hands of their jealousy, he now held the power of life and death over them. He tests them. He tries to implement revenge. In the end, though, he can only return to the good. With every reason in the world to hate his brothers, he reveals himself to them in calm. As they express their fear, having to now confront many years of guilt for what they had done, Joseph assures them, that it all ended up well, and that he was blessed to have them back in his life.

Inevitably, students wanted to know how he could let them off so easily. How could he forget the threats of death, being sold into slavery, and the anguish he experienced in the Egyptian prison? How could Joseph ignore the indignation of having been raised in a privileged home only to be reduced to slavery and imprisonment?

In the end, we would all figure out several truths about living valuable lives: 1. Holding on to a grudge hurts only the grudge holder. When we allow ourselves to become consumed in hate and pain, we only devalue our own lives. 2. What happened to Joseph was not all about Joseph. His parents fed into his brothers’ jealousies. His brothers had their own garbage with which to deal. We cannot take out someone else’s garbage, and resenting them for having it only diminishes us. We cannot control what people do to us. We can only control how we respond. 3. Sometimes, we cannot know how our today’s behaviors impact our tomorrow’s fortunes. I am not one to quickly buy into the theory that God intended all of this so that Joseph could end up in control. I am, however, absolutely willing to believe that Joseph used his experiences to garner blessings and grow acumen for leadership and understanding. 4. Pirke Avot teaches us that in a world where no one wants to behave humanely, we are still obligated to do so. We can never hide behind an excuse of our pain to justify inflicting pain on another. 5. “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Dr. King (and so many others) have taught (and continue to teach) that the only appropriate response to someone who expresses hate is to return with an expression of love. Bullies are themselves very insecure and in pain. Hate comes from fear and ignorance – a lack of appreciation and understanding. We can only resolve animosity with education, and we will never have an opportunity to create these conversations when we shut down relationships. Ignorant fear is our greatest enemy. It takes courage to step out and do the right thing. It takes courage to acknowledge when we lack understanding. It takes love and self-respect to hold people up even when they are attempting to break you down. That said, every holy scripture and the greatest sages all agree, there is no other answer of value.

It’s a new year. Let’s rethink the way we treat each other. Shabbat Shalom!