17 Dec 2015

Vayigash 5776 – “Philadelphia”

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Vayigash 5776 – “Philadelphia”

“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Each year, for four weeks, we read the saga of a family embroiled in strife, heartache and sadness. The pages of the Torah’s opening book are filled with death, betrayal, jealousy and even hatred. It would make for good cinema but as such it also makes for important lessons about life and relationships.

The lives of our forefather Yaakob together with his wives and children are the subject of our story. One can learn a great deal about a nation from its origins and relationships are at the core of ours.

While there were significant differences in philosophy within the family, those differences did not cause the struggles. It went deeper. It was the fear of not being able to share those differences in a supportive and constructive environment. It was the worry that one’s personal feelings, ideas and perspectives would be scorned rather than respected and there would be no welcoming space in which differences could be expressed.

Insecurities developed from an early stage due to Yaakob having more than one wife and thus more than one mother in the family. It is natural for there to be elements of favouritism and unequal attention in such an environment. One place where inequity was evident in the family was with Yoseph, Rahel’s son. He held a special place in his father’s heart. His brothers knew this causing their feeling of animosity to grow. Yoseph exacerbates the situation by telling his brothers of dreams he had been having in which his father and brothers bow to him. Upon hearing this, animosity turns to hatred and deep rifts rip into the fabric of the family.

It may be easy to blame Yoseph for being arrogant in sharing his grandiose dreams with his brothers but is it accurate to do so? Yaakob does indeed openly chastise him for sharing them. However, his father also holds them in his heart knowing that they are not to be coldly rejected.

When we look at Yoseph’s life we find that he is not an individual who is self-centred and insensitive to others’ feelings. On the contrary, he is a compassionate, caring and faithful person. He concerns himself with the welfare of the forsaken prisoners, he refuses to betray the trust of his master and he ultimately dedicates the rest of his life to faithfully building a country that he was ordered by Pharaoh to protect.

These attributes should cause us to look again at the revelation of Yoseph’s dreams and wonder if, rather than boasting, he was trying to share a personal experience with his family in the, albeit naive, expectation that among his brothers he would find a safe place in which he could express the more intimate aspects of his subconscious thoughts. Perhaps being seventeen and of a caring heart he had not properly taken into consideration the extent of anger and upset that was brewing towards him in the minds of his siblings.

But Yoseph quickly learned just how deep that fraternal ill will ran when his brothers sold him into slavery. There is no question that in order to do such a cold hearted act they would have had to suppress the natural empathic feelings of the human heart and develop firm emotional callouses to go through with it.

One can look at the ordeals through which Yoseph put his brothers when he encounters them twenty years later as petty revenge. I disagree and instead would suggest that Yoseph was actually trying to move his brothers to break free from the emotional callousness that they had developed and to choose love and brotherhood over hate and insensitivity.

He first requires them to consciously revisit the responsibility that they suppressed for selling him. He then accuses them of being spies, which in essence means that they lacked faithfulness and were not trustworthy. He insists that they bring their youngest brother to Egypt in order to prove their honesty knowing full well that they would first need to pledge to their father that they would faithfully protect him.

The brothers realise that the hardships they are faced with are divine retribution for the cold indifference that they showed towards their brother twenty years earlier.

They said each man to his brother: ‘Truly, we are guilty concerning our brother! That we saw his heart’s distress when he implored us and we did not listen. Therefore this distress has come upon us!’ (42:21)

When the time comes to return to Egypt and Binyamin must be brought to the adamant viceroy, astonishingly it is now Yehuda, once the initiator of the sale of his brother Yoseph, who dedicates his own life to protecting his younger brother Binyamin at all costs.

Yehuda said to his father: ‘Send the lad with me…I will act as his pledge, at my hand may you seek him! If I do not bring him back to you and set him in your presence, I will be culpable-for-sin against you all the days to come.’ (43:8-9)

The moment of that very defence is the scene that opens our parasha[2]. Yehuda is bravely and poignantly fighting for one brother’s welfare in front of another brother he once cruelly sold. We now read of a man who has allowed his heart to love again after years of restricting it and who ultimately chooses kinship over politics and personal agenda. In that moment a bond was forged between Yehuda and Binyamin, orchestrated by Yoseph in the hopes that brotherhood would ultimately prevail. Even Yehuda and Yoseph collaborate with each other by the story’s end.

In this world we protect ourselves in many ways. But at times we protect ourselves so much that we miss the most important and meaningful relationships in our lives. It is an art to know when and how to shield ourselves from heartache. It takes wisdom and bravery to wield it but it takes greater wisdom and bravery to know when to set it down. The stories of brothers at the close of Genesis teach us that our most glorious moments are the ones in which we choose to lower our shields and stand before each other in vulnerability with hands outstretched for embrace.
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1]  “brotherly love” from Greek φιλεω (phileo) “to love” and αδελφος (adelphos) “brother”.

[2] …And the goblet was found in Binyamin’s pack!…[Yosef] said ‘The man in whose hand the goblet was found — he shall become my servant!’ Now Yehuda came close to him and said: ‘Please my lord…’ (44:12,17-18)

Law and Lore

Tenth of Tebet

The fast of the tenth of Tebet commemorates the day that King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army laid siege around Jerusalem during the first temple period. It is seen as a precursor to the destruction and, therefore included in our fast days. The siege lasted for three years until the walls of Jerusalem were finally breached on the 9th of Tamuz and the temple destroyed a month later on the 9th of Ab. The siege caused many people to die of starvation and weakened the nation considerably.

The tenth of Tebet is mentioned in the book of Zekhariah[1] as the ‘tenth fast’.  It is called the tenth fast because the month of Tebet is the tenth month from Nisan which is counted as the first month in the Torah.

The nation of Israel had lived on their land for 850 years before the king of Babylon destroyed the temple and exiled the people.

It is the custom of the S&P Jews in London to wear tephilin at minha of a public fast day. This is also the custom of the Syrian Jews of New York.
[1] 8:19

Parasha Perspectives

XI              Vayigash 

37b           The truth comes out (44:18-46:7)
Yehuda’s passionate plea (44:18-34)
Yosef reveals identity to brothers (45:1-15)
Brothers return, tell Ya’akov news (45:16-28)
Ya’akov and all his family go to Egypt (47:1-7)
37c           List of Ya’akov’s family (46:8-27)
37d           Ya’akov and family in Egypt (46:28-47-31)
Ya’akov’s family settle in Goshen. Yosef comes
to greet his father (46:28-34)
Ya’akov and sons meet Pharaoh (47:1-10)
Yosef supports family; buys Egypt (47:11-27)
Continues directly into Vayechi (47:28-31)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS