Did you ever have to do this: to muster the courage to stand and speak and plead your case? I was once a VERY nervous (now just a little nervous) public speaker. I watch people really suffer to stand up to be seen and heard. Now kick it up one step: imagine drawing up close to some powerful world leader to offer your words and perhaps your life.
The Torah portion begins with the key word as Judah “draws near” to Joseph: Vayigash – to approach or draw near. This word is repeated five times in the parashah, and repeated more with the grandchildren next week.
What does is really mean to draw near, as you come nose to nose with someone, what’s going through your head and heart?
The Talmud also asks about the full meaning of “vayigash” And three points of view are stated. you approach to fight, to reconcile or to pray. Rabbi Eleazar says all three are happening here with Judah. The approach is everything. This approach begins the climactic scene of the Joseph saga and one could argue all of Genesis.
Picture the scene; You are Judah in the royal court of a guy named Tzapenath panea, the most powerful Egyptian in the Empire. You are facing the starvation of your children, so you’ve come to buy food, and now you face the enslavement of a Brother. And not just any brother: Rachel’s other son, Dad’s other favorite. If anything happens to him, it will kill Dad. It’s dejavu, all over again. You’re scott free if you walk away, if you turn your back on Benjamin as you did to Joseph. Just ignore your Brotherhood, ignore your Father and the spoiled favorite gets what he deserves, and you are free: win/win. But you won’t do it this time. You will give up your very life so that it doesn’t. So you stand up and go nose to nose – approaching Tzapenath
Talk about hard times! From Joseph’s (aka Tzapenath’s) point of view his own brothers have sold him as a slave, and he was later imprisoned, accused of a rape he did not commit. Never giving up faith, Joseph rises from the pit to rule Egypt with a dream interpretation and a plan to feed the world. Right now he’s facing down these same scum brothers.
Joseph is testing them big time, setting them up: has slipped his silver divining cup into Ben’s sack.
“I will take only this guilty man as my prisoner, the rest of you are free to go in peace to your father”
Now these same brothers had sold Joseph as a slave from jealousy and hatred. “behold, this master of dreams comes, let us kill him! Would they walk away without their brother? These brother’s hands are blood stained. Yet Judah steps up.
So what does Judah say? He recaps for Joseph and quotes father Jacob who is reluctant to let Benjamin go at all: “I had another son by his mother (Rachel) but he “went out” from me became “torn, ripped” If he loses Benjamin he will die grieving. Judah explains Jacob’s soul is bound up in Benjamin’s. To step out, to be torn, Why does Judah recount this: maybe he knows that what we need is to draw close, to love, to have our souls bound up as the text so beautifully paints
And finally Judah speaks the closer – offering himself as servant, let the boy return to Dad with his brothers.
What changed Judah? What gave him the courage to stand up, to speak up, to approach power? To say he was wrong, and put his own life on the line? What do you think?
Torah doesn’t say, but a clue in the story of a woman injected into the story seemingly at random. Her name is Tamar, and she is Judah’s daughter in law, marrying his eldest. Judah’s son dies. Levirate marriage was a law at that time. It says to the dead son’s family: don’t abandon this woman, but offer another son as bridegroom. Judah does, but Onan dies too. So Judah says to Tamar, just wait, hang out in limbo for my third son. Judah’s scared to lose a third son, so he’s lying. Tamar ends up tricking Judah into fulfilling his obligation to provide her with and children by disguising herself and sleeping with Judah himself, becoming pregnant with twins. When Judah finds out Tamar’s pregnant he orders her killed. Tamar proves Judah’s the dad, and reminds him of his obligation to provide her with a family. And Judah say’s “I’m wrong, Tamar is right” He is able to see Tamar’s point of view.
Perhaps Judah’s change of heart begins from loving and losing sons. At first he sees only his own heartbreak. Now he sees Tamar’s heartbreak of never being able to have sons. And finally he can see his Father’s heartbreak at losing Joseph and the possibility of losing Benjamin. “Their souls are bound up with one another” He explains to Joseph. And he honors his father, and both brothers by offering his own life and freedom.
Would you do it? Could you? I’m not a brave person by nature. As a Mom I know only fierce love could make me step up and put my own life down.
Joseph clears the court. Before he unmasks and reveals himself he cries. he releases pent up emotions with cries that are heard by all, (by Pharoah). Ani Yoseph ha-od avi chai? I am Joseph, does my father still live? This is the only part of Vayigash I’ve chanted, my favorite part, It reveals Joseph as a hero for forgiving his brothers, all of them as they pass his test. The powerful dreamer who has the strength to forgive. I’d never seen Judah as a hero until this time reading through. Perhaps I felt Judah was just a bully. I’m not so judgmental this time. Without Judah’s change and courage to approach the powerful and offer himself, we don’t exist.
So love transforms – the binding of souls from parents to children and back again. Perhaps Judah grew close to his sons and daughter in law and grandsons first but now Judah continues to draw close – in love to his father and brothers.
Incredible stories, our stories and heritage. I love stories. There’s an effort called storycorp to record people’s life stories that I’d love for us to get involved with. But are stories important to tell?
This week we look back on 2014 we know we living in troubling times. I need the hardest kind faith when faced with troubling times: to think that things will be OK. Where to find the strength? Perhaps knowing we’ve been there before. In this week’s Ten Minutes David Segal explains that stories of our families, and our people overcoming adversity give children resilience: the power to overcome the really hard times. I cannot mention Hurricane Sandy to my students in passing. They jump on the opening in the conversation to explain how they personally got through these times, and how they helped others. Their love of others inspired them to give, and that shining light lives alongside the hardships in their memory. I am sure they will tell those stories to their children. As I hope they will tell the story of Joseph and Judah, and the power of soul binding love to stand up and approach powerful forces face to face.
And so one more story about a young British / Israeli woman named Kay Wilson. (Full text in the link) She is a British-born Israeli tour guide, jazz musician and cartoonist. She is the survivor of a brutal terror attack that occurred while she was guiding in December 2010. Since the attack, she is in a demand as a motivational speaker and also speaks on issues of human rights and justice for victims of terrorism. Just a bit of her words here:
I believe with an imperfect faith that the question is not “why” did this happen to me, but rather “how” can I incorporate this grisly event into the rhythm of my life in a manner that guards me from becoming like those who tried to murder me.
…I believe with an imperfect faith that waking up every day in mental and physical pain is better than not waking up at all.
I believe with an imperfect faith in the importance of making a phone call, just to hear someone’s voice.
I believe with an imperfect faith that life is rushing outside when it starts to rain.
I believe with an imperfect faith that life is making someone giggle.
I believe with an imperfect faith in acknowledging the future but living in the present.
I believe with an imperfect faith in accepting the past but embracing the now.
I believe with an imperfect faith that life is too short to bear a grudge…..
I believe with an imperfect faith in living my life with gratitude.
I believe with an imperfect faith that every single moment is a miracle.
I believe with an imperfect faith that my broken and battered body serves both as a testimony and also a warning, of where hate speech can lead.
Like Joseph, Kay is a dreamer, of the world as it can be. Like Joseph, Kay harnesses the power of that dream to have the faith of hope and optimism. I wrote this little chant last year using Emily Dickenson’s poem in memory of Nelson Mandela, but offer it here for Kay’s story. Listen here