Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Last week, more than ten different acts of violence were perpetrated against our people in the greater New York area during the celebration of Hanukkah.
What is the Jewish response to fear, pain and suffering?
Just look at this week’s parasha, VaYigash. Joseph, is now the ‘Prime Minister’ of Egypt and has severely tested his brothers to see if they will abandon Benjamin the way they abandoned him so many years before. They, of course, did not recognize him, but they do pass the test. Now, overcome with emotion, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. Their first reaction is shock, but when the truth finally sinks in, they became terribly afraid.
Because they were the ones who threw Joseph in the pit, where slavers then found him and took him to Egypt. Joseph suffered first at the hands of his brothers, then at the hands of the slavers, then as a slave in Egypt, then as a prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon for a crime he did not commit. He suffered for years and years, and now that his brothers were in Egypt, he had the power to take any revenge against them he wished.
Yet, Joseph did not seek revenge. He said:
“I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be pained and do not be incensed with yourselves that you sold me down here, because for sustenance God has sent me before you. Two years now there has been famine in the heart of the land, and there are yet five years without plowing and harvest. And God has sent me before you to make you a remnant on earth and to preserve life, for you to be a great surviving group. And so, it is not you who sent me here, but God, and He has made me father to Pharaoh and lord to all his house and ruler over the all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph: God has made lord to all Egypt. Come down to me, do not delay …’” [Gen. 45:4-9]
First, Joseph acknowledges the wrong his brothers committed. We are not stoics; we do not pretend everything is ok when it is not. The Jewish response to suffering begins with acknowledging the suffering we endure. But we do not stop there. Joseph serves as a great model for our people. His resilience stemmed from his faith, which in turn, allowed Joseph to take the long view. In this way, rather than just focusing on what he faced in the moment, Joseph was able not only to endure, but to maintain a sense of hope.
There is a common joke you may have heard before, about most every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” I have said these words in jest many times, yet Rabbi Dan Moskovitz teaches that Joseph’s example is not so simple. Joseph recasts his situation to find a greater meaning. His message to his brothers is that while they may have intended him harm, he was sent to Egypt for a Greater Reason. There was a purpose to his suffering. He had to learn from his experience; grow from being a spoiled little boy to a great and generous man of faith. He had to be in the right place at the right time to save his family, and many others.
Our resilience comes from our ability to take the long view AND our ability to find meaning in our experience.
Last week, more than ten different acts of violence were perpetrated against our people in the greater New York area during the celebration of Hanukkah. The most reported instance was a tragic attack at the house of a rabbi, as his community was preparing to light the candles. Five people were wounded – including the rabbi’s son.
How did this community respond?
After the danger had passed, and after making sure to care for everyone who needed, they returned to the celebration of Hanukkah – our festival of lights and of religious freedom. This was not an act of callousness, but of profound faith. It was a refusal to let the attackers take Hanukkah away from us. It was bringing the meaning of Hanukkah back to life.
For long after these haters are gone, we will still be here, still lighting candles during the darkest weeks of the year, still singing songs of praise, and yes, still eating delicious fried food for Hanukkah.
And that is no joke.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras