Parshat Vayiggash

Parshat Vayiggash

Sermon Saturday Morning

2011

  1. Shabbat Shalom

  1. Biblical commentators all struggle with a startling question in the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is not hard to understand why Joseph’s brothers are angry with him. He is a spoiled boy who seems to take delight in tattling to his father all the deficiencies of his brothers. He has dreams of being the family ruler in spite of his being the second to last child, with ten other brothers ahead of him in line to lead the family. That the brothers only sell him into slavery and not kill him is only a quirk of fate. Almost any one of the brothers (except maybe Reuben and Judah) were ready to murder the boy and murder his dreams as well.

  1. Of the twenty-one years he will spend in Egypt, the sages say that he spent seven of those years as a slave in the house of Potipher. The next seven years he was in prison. Only in the final seven is he raised to the rank of ruler in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. Five of those years he prepared for the famine to come. At the end of the seventh year, his brothers return and he is set to have his vengeance. First he accuses the brothers of being spies, and imprisons his brother Simeon. Next he sets up Benjamin to make him look like an ungrateful thief. Unable to return to their father without his beloved Benjamin, Judah steps forward to plead on behalf of his youngest brother. And we see the results; Joseph and his brothers are reunited and all is forgiven.

  1. So what is the big question? Why did Joseph wait so long to contact his father? When he was a slave and a prisoner for 14 years, we can understand why he never contacted Jacob. Even so, it seems as if he could have sent a message back to his father somehow. But certainly when he is raised to leadership, why does he not immediately send a servant to tell his father where he is and what has happened? If they had such a close bond, you would think that he would get word to Jacob as quickly as possible. Yet, for all of 21 years, there is no attempt by Joseph to contact his father.

  1. The great Bible scholar, Nechama Leibowitz offers a striking answer. Joseph, sold into slavery is expecting his father, at any minute, to ride to his rescue and save him from his fate. Day after day he must have waited, thinking to himself that when Jacob comes, these people who are his masters will finally pay for the way they treat him. But as the years go by, Jacob never comes. Joseph becomes angry and bitter. Maybe he is thinking that the whole plot to sell Joseph into slavery was his father’s idea. After all, Jacob was the one who sent him on his ill fated mission to check up on his brothers. Maybe his father never really loved him at all. Slowly he stops waiting for his father and begins to plot his revenge should he ever get the chance to get even for all that they have done.

  1. For 21 long years he has plotted what he would do to his family should they ever show up in Egypt. After all, Joseph’s great grandfather had come to Egypt during a famine. Joseph would wait until they were helpless and then he would have his revenge on all of them, Jacob, and all of is brothers, except of course, Benjamin, who was too small to be in on the plot. Benjamin was his only full brother, both the sons of Rachel. He would snatch Benjamin for himself and then have his revenge.

  1. What changes Joseph’s mind? Why does he, in the end forgive his father and his brothers? It is true that Judah gives a heart wrenching speech designed to make even the hardest man cry, but, he also says something that shocks Joseph to his core. Judah mentions, for the first time, at the beginning of his speech, the fact that they all believe that Joseph is dead. That he was killed by a wild animal. I don’t think Joseph heard the rest of that speech. When he hears that Jacob has thought, all these years, that Joseph is dead, Joseph realizes why Jacob had never come looking for him. Joseph had assumed that they all hated him. But they never came looking because they thought he was dead. It was a possibility that Joseph had never considered. His anger disappears, his thoughts of vengeance dissolve and Joseph breaks down into tears.

  1. “I am Joseph” he says at last. “I am not dead, you sent me away in anger but God clearly wanted me to be here to do good.” Joseph suddenly sees, for the first time, the hand of God in his life story. Everyone and everything had been a part of God’s plan to save the life of his family. The dreams, the slavery, the prison, all of it, just part of a destiny ordained by God. After 21 years of pain and hatred, Joseph finally finds the love in his family he has always wanted.

  1. I like to tell this story because it is not just the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is our story as well. We experience difficult moments in our lives and we are quick to blame others for our struggles in life. We get angry; we rehearse how we will get even for the misdeeds that caused us so much hurt. Maybe we became estranged from our parents because they always wanted to control our lives. Maybe we are nursing a grudge with a brother or sister who was not there for us when we needed them. Maybe we have been hurt by our children because they seem to be so unconcerned about our welfare. Maybe we had a best friend who turned out to be unreliable. We can be just like Joseph. We are so sure we know all the answers, all the reasons why others have let the terrible things happen to us. And we review the hurt, day after day, to make sure that we will never be tempted to forgive them.

  1. But like Joseph, we don’t always know all of the story. Maybe it is better sometimes that we don’t. If we really knew the fears our parents lived with; if we really understood the difficult decisions our brothers and sisters had to make; if we could understand the awful choices our own children have to make as they struggle to deal with issues in their own families; if only we could see how our best friend cried the day he realized that he could not help us in our time of need. . . Could we still carry so much bitterness in our hearts?

  1. I have been a Rabbi long enough to know that there are some people who are unreliable and too self centered to think of anyone other than themselves. I can tell you that if you are itching for revenge against such people, you are wasting your time. They really don’t care about you or what you wish you could do to them.

  1. So the real question that we need to contemplate as our secular year prepares to end and as 2012 is about to begin is “Why do we want to carry that kind of anger and hurt into the newyear?” Why should we think we understand everything when it is likely we understand nothing. We don’t really know the intentions of others and we certainly don’t know what God has planned for our lives. What if we judged others charitably, assuming good motivations rather than an evil plot against us? What if our anger is all about a misunderstanding? What if the others never really knew how much we were hurt? Because, if they really knew, they would have indeed come when we called.

  1. Joseph’s troubles began with a multicolored coat. Maybe that is the metaphor that we are looking for. We naturally use our clothing to make ourselves look good. We can look at ourselves standing naked in the mirror, and find we are embarrassed about who we are and what we look like. We choose our clothes for the day to hide what we are ashamed of.

  1. But our clothing can be more than just a cover for our embarrassment. Our bodies are also a gift from God. What we may see as signs of decline, wrinkles and gray hair, others see as signs of perseverance and wisdom. Joseph may have hidden his insecurity as a youngest child under the gift from his father, but when he is dressed royally again, this time by Pharaoh, he is ready to assume the responsibilities that come with the tunic. So too when we are ready to accept ourselves for who we are, we can wear our clothing as a statement of the strong inner person we have become. When we give up the garb of the “person who has been wronged” we can begin to wear a wardrobe of understanding and love.

  1. Just because we have reacted to someone with anger, does not mean we have to be angry. Just because someone has been unkind or rude, we don’t have to give back to them in spades. We don’t need to understand why others do what they do to us. We need to love them anyway. Maybe they will come to repent the way they treated us, maybe not, but we will always be the one admired for our patience, our kindness and our concern. It is not about letting others take advantage of us, instead, we need to learn our lessons and move on with our life. Taking the anger into another year will not change the past nor will it let us heal. Maybe those others who hurt us don’t deserve our forgiveness, but we should forgive them anyway. If not for their sake, for the sake of our own peace of mind.

  1. Let us wear the coat of menchlichite, of a kind, caring and compassionate human being. And let us resolve to wear it every day in the year ahead. Let us be guided in the new year not by anger but by understanding and love. In this way we can make the secular new year not only a good year, but a year of making ourselves and our world a better place. Let us forget the hurts of 2011 and concentrate on the ways we can heal the hurts of others. If we can just do this one thing, 2012 will be a great year indeed.

May God help us get past the anger and find the love in our hearts as we say ….

AMEN, SHABBAT SHALOM AND A HAPPY SECULAR NEW YEAR

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