Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayigash

I am a sucker for hero stories. Ok, I like the Marvel and DC superheroes – they are a little campy and awkward, but the stories are entertaining. No, I am talking more about the real heroes, the folks who stick their necks out – put their own security on the line in efforts to save others. Hollywood found a way to over-romanticize these people on screen, but plain people do heroic things in real life.

I’m thinking of the people who step into harm’s way to help keep others safe. They come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, the harm is life-threatening, while it may only be perceived harm for others – and everything in between. These heroes range from our healthcare and safety professionals/volunteers to the person walking down the street who intervenes in someone’s moment of crisis. Sometimes folks do heroic things completely by accident, while others commit lives and careers to trauma reconciliation. Folk heroes become legends for what they did or said, even while their life never intersected with the one who felt healed/secured/motivated by the hero’s story. Some heroes simply went into the emotional discomfort of challenging themselves past personal failures. There is no one definition of what a hero is.

The activist in me finds the stories of heroes who became heroes having learned from and grown past previous failures to be most compelling. The person who failed to act justly and then figured out in the next opportunity is, perhaps, the most heroic. Having to overcome ourselves is often a monumental task. I have a dear friend who, as a registered dietitian, summed it up best (albeit in a far less impactful way). She taught that overcoming the “what the heck I already failed” mentality is a huge step forward. Dieters intending to eat two cookies find they mindlessly ate ten. While prone to say, “What the heck, I already ruined it, I will eat the rest of the bag,” getting past the desperate beating of oneself up over the lapse and putting the bag away while figuring out a better way to limit oneself to two is the healing answer.

This week, we re-enter the conversation between the Viceroy of Egypt Joseph and Judah. Judah does not yet know the Viceroy’s identity. After forcing Judah to bring Benjamin, against the will of Jacob, Joseph set Benjamin up to be arrested. Knowing it would break Jacob’s heart and kill him to lose the “last” of his beloved Rachel’s sons. To save his father, he pledges himself to the prison and servitude in Egypt taking Benjamin’s place (Genesis 44:33). The gesture is heroic. What makes this move “super-heroic” is Judah’s atonement. Back several chapters (Genesis 37), Judah sold Joseph into slavery. He covered his tracks by lying to his father – a lie causing Jacob to believe his favorite son was dead, from which the patriarch never emotionally recovered. Remembering how horrible that bad act was, Judah knew he had to save his brother (and his father).

We don’t always act well the first time. Each of us has the opportunity and obligation to do better the next time around. Even while we read about these large-scale dramas, the ethic applies to many of our “real world” interactions. A student who fails a test but learns better study habits to pass the next one; the athlete who loses has the tenacity to develop better focus and training for the next event; even the parties in a failed relationship who better prepare to respect the next one better – these are our everyday heroes. These people risk emotional harm and a dangerous expansion of their “safe” boundaries to grow through the discomfort of change.

These are the people who help all of us learn that our past only binds us so long as we give up and let it. We know that the correction is not a switch we can turn on or off. We grow from the journey, stage by stage, as we learn not only how to do better but also how to continue pushing forward.

These heroes fly under the radar and don’t get the press or attention they deserve, but their maturation is no less heroic. We need to look to our neighbors, families, and friends. These heroes surround us, walking with and through our lives. We need to appreciate them and learn to grow our healthy responses to the community and the challenges that communal interaction presents. As we heal and grow, so will the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom.