Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
Reuben was the first born, but Judah was the leader. Of all of Jacob’s sons, Judah was the one the other brothers followed. It was Judah who wanted to throw Joseph into the pit, who was ready to sell him into slavery for profit; and it was Judah who risked it all at the beginning of this week’s parashah to do the opposite.
Last week’s portion left us with a real cliffhanger. Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, had cruelly tested his brothers to see if they had changed. They had come to Egypt during the great famine in search of food, and did not recognize the powerful Egyptian man in charge as their long-lost brother. Joseph, however, recognized them! He was no longer the same arrogant youth they remembered, and wanted to know if they had grown as he had. So, he framed Benjamin, the only brother he had never met, the only other child of his mother Rachel – and sentenced him to a life of slavery for the “theft” of one of Joseph’s precious goblets. That is how last week’s parashah ended.
What would the brothers do? Would they abandon Benjamin the way they left Joseph in the pit? Would they plead for mercy?
No. They do not do either of these things. Instead, Judah does the unthinkable. VaYigash means “and he drew near.” Judah dared to walk right up to Joseph, who he knew only as the Egyptian aristocrat Zaphenath-Paneah. Not only was this probably a violation of royal etiquette, but it could easily have been interpreted as a threatening move by the royal guards. Who knew how they might respond? Yet Judah drew close and offered himself in Benjamin’s place for the sake of their father, who loved Benjamin above all others – as he had previously loved Joseph.
This is the moment that Joseph had been waiting for! Judah, in submitting to a life of slavery for the sake of his family, demonstrated an extraordinary teshuvah. No longer the jealous and vengeful brother, Judah has suffered and learned from his mistakes and has grown as a human being and a leader. With this one selfless act, Judah effectively ended three generations of family dysfunction. No wonder the future kings of Israel would be from the tribe of Judah!
What did Joseph do?
He could have kept Benjamin for himself (as a beloved brother, not as a slave). He could have accepted Judah’s offer and nobody would have been the wiser, thus exacting his own revenge. However, Joseph too has grown. When Judah makes his offer, Joseph is barely able to contain himself. He orders all of his attendants out of the room and reveals himself to his brothers, speaking for the first time in their own language, “Ani Yosef! I am Joseph, your brother, who you sold into slavery. Fear not!” (Gen. 45:3-5 – paraphrased)
I love this story because it teaches us one of the fundamental truths of Torah: we are free agents. We have the ability to change, to grow, to heal. It may not be easy, but we have power over ourselves, and over our future. Let us exercise that power with love, compassion and wisdom.
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
What does Torah have to say about inclusiveness? The answer is found early in parashat Bo, when Pharaoh, struggling with the devastation of the plagues, begins to reconsider his obstinacy:
… And Moses and Aaron were brought again to Pharaoh: and he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God, but who are they that will go?” And Moses said, “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast to the Lord … (Ex. 10:7-10)
The stated purpose of the Exodus (at least at this point in the narrative) is for our ancestors to “hold a feast to the Lord.” While we don’t have a detailed description of how this feast would have functioned, there would have been at least two components: offering sacrifices and sharing a meal at ‘God’s table’ (or perhaps inviting God’s presence to a shared meal at our own table). Sharing a meal is an intimate experience, and the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korbon, literally means “coming closer.” In contemporary terms, God is demanding that Pharaoh let us go so that we can become intimately closer with God.
What takes my breath away about this passage is Moses’ refusal to leave anyone behind. We cannot approach God while we leave others in bondage, oppression or pain. We cannot approach God through special privileges (as in some get to approach while others cannot). When it comes to connecting with God, we are all in this together, regardless of rank, gender or age. Over the last several decades, many of us have learned to expand our definition of inclusiveness beyond gender and age to embrace folks regardless of race, sexual orientation or developmental abilities. For this, I give thanks to God.
None of us will ever truly be free until we all are free. This is the Torah on inclusiveness. Now we must go forth and live it.
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Among the many famous stories in Vayera is the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel, who was a great teacher of Mussar, asked why Abraham dared to challenge God by saying, "Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" (Gen. 18:24). I will let Rabbi Finkel's answer speak for itself:
Abraham was the epitome of compassion, and his greatest opponent was Sodom. Its residents were the exact opposite of Abraham. In their evil ways, they were opposed to everything that he preached and did for them. They fought against him and against all the good that he implanted in people. Abraham, then, should have been happy that the cities were to be overturned. But that was not the case. Instead, he stood up and pleaded for them. This was because Abraham was loyal to his views and his moral convictions. If he had been happy at the destruction of Sodom, that itself would have been similar to the ways of the Sodomites. Rather, Abraham's belief was to help everyone and to not have anyone harmed. Abraham was interested in having sin perish, but not the sinners. (Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel)
Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
This week we get one of the biggest portions of them all, Va’Etchanan, which contains not only the 10 Commandments, but also the Shema and V’ahavta. The V’ahavta begins with one of the strangest commandments in the Torah, the commandment to Love God with everything we have. The question I’ve been thinking about is: can feelings be commanded? Can we make ourselves love another person, or even God? For now, I’m not going to try to answer the question. I’d be curious to know what you think, so please send your thoughts. Then on Friday, I’ll send a link to a short video interview in which I express my own ideas. What fun! Let’s get the conversation started!
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras