Posts Tagged ‘Weekly Torah portion’

It is a moment of truth, literally and figuratively.  After years of separation, Joseph is confronted by the presence of his brothers; who are in Egypt begging for food to relieve their starving family back in Canaan.  Joseph, having ascended to the pinnacle of power in Egypt, is unrecognizable to his brothers.  He, of course, recognizes them instantly.  And he has played them like a cat plays with a helpless mouse.  He has doled out food to them.  He has inquired about their family.  He sets a trap in which he has taken Benjamin, the youngest brother into custody for the false crime of stealing a cup.  He is threatening to permanently hold him prisoner, which would cause a heartbreak for their father, Jacob.  Only Joseph knows the truth of the situation.  He is using that truth to play with his brothers, to see their reactions.  It has been left to Judah to plead for Benjamin.

That is where this week’s Torah portion begins.  It is a moment pregnant with possibilities.  “Vayigash eilav Yehudah, vayomer, ‘Bi adoni yedabeir na avdecha davar b’oznei.’” “And Judah drew near to him (Joseph) saying, ‘my lord, please, let your sevant speak a word in your ear.’”  Judah is indeed brave to draw near to Joseph.  Joseph holds power.  He holds their fate in his hands.  And as I said, he is the only one who holds the truth.  What indeed is Judah thinking?  Midrash Rabbah gives three perspectives, all based on meanings of the Hebrew word vayigash.  Rabbi Judah says he was drawing near to do battle.  Rabbi Nechemya says he was drawing near for reconciliation.  Some anonymous sages say he was drawing near for prayer.  Certainly the moment contains the potential for each of these, although a battle would be useless as well as hopeless.  As for reconciliation and prayer, they cannot happen in the absence of something else – a relationship.

That is what I think Judah is attempting as he draws near to Joseph – to establish a basis for relationship.  He does so with no facts in hand other than his youngest brother is in danger and the possible result would devastate their father.  He holds no power – only the faith that by taking this risk he will break down a barrier between Joseph and himself.  I base this on some insights by the Sefas Emes, who examines the Hebrew words bi adoni.  Instead of translating these as “my lord,” he translates them as “God is within me.”  Indeed, if one looks at Judah’s name, yod, hey, vav, daled, hey, you can see that the name for God, yod, hey, vav, hey is contained within the letters of Judah’s name.  The presence of God lives within Judah, and Judah is opening his heart to reveal that divine presence.  This is accompanied and affirmed by his willingness to substitute himself as a prisoner for Benjamin.  His acknowledgement that he is already a servant to God gives him the strength to submit to physical servitude to Joseph.  He is taking a tremendous leap of faith.

On some levels this sounds so un-Jewish.  We tend to pride ourselves on the quest for truth, for facts.  We Jews are the rationalists in the religious world.  We stress deeds over faith.  We believe in action before worrying about feeling.  I would argue that Judah’s action is a paradigm for what Jews often forget – a dose of faith can provide the strength for bold action.  At his most vulnerable moment, Judah becomes incredibly strong.  By revealing the God within, he forces Joseph’s hand.  Indeed, Torah tells us that Joseph “could no longer hold back.”  He breaks down sobbing and orders all Egyptians to leave the room and then reveals himself to his brothers.  Judah’s leap of faith sparks Joseph’s revelation of truth.  The movement to create relationship facilitates something quite beautiful.

Now we are mourning the passing of perhaps the last of the great political leaders of the 20th century – Nelson Mandela.  Mandela and Judah have much in common.  Both are very flawed human beings, both having made numerous personal mistakes through their lives.  Both grow from their difficulties, each becoming a person who is able to reach unexpected heights.  Mandela, like Judah, faced overwhelming power.  Sentenced to life imprisonment on charges to overthrow a South African government that supported apartheid in 1964, Mandela never gave up his political principles to purchase freedom from prison.  Rather than shrink, becoming less of a person by his mistakes and his years in prison, he exceeds personal limitations.

His faith grows.  Like Judah he draws near to his opposition, forming a relationship with someone many would have thought impossible.  For after his release from prison in 1991, Mandela entered into a prolonged period of negotiation with South African president Willem De Klerk.  General elections open to all South Africans, regardless of color finally occurred in 1994, resulting in Mandela being elected President.  De Klerk served as his first deputy.

Like Judah, Mandela revealed the power of the Divine that lay within him.  He worked during his term as President to effect reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa.  This man who was held in prison for 26 years for daring to oppose apartheid did not allow himself to show malice.  Consider these words from his book, “Long Walk to Freedom.”  “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  The man who entered prison in 1964 could not have written these words.  But the man who emerged in 1991 had come to a different, deeper understanding of the world and lived what he wrote.

Finally, what made Nelson Mandela a great leader was not just his struggle for basic freedoms, but his willingness to take a great leap of faith; to believe that the divine spark, a bit of God, was alive in others, even in his enemies.  He believed that by embracing the presence of God in himself, it would release that presence in others.

The name Joseph (Yoseif)  means “something additional.”  Perhaps that something additional is the God potential in each of us.  Sometimes we need to be able to approach the one who seems like the enemy in order to find that God potential.  Judah’s faith enabled him to find a spark of the divine in Joseph.  He had the courage to act on that faith.  His combination of faith and courage allowed the divine presence to be revealed in Joseph.  Divine light cannot be revealed by staying hidden in the dark.  One has to be willing to step into the light to effect change.  This is exactly how Nelson Mandela believed life was as attested to in his inaugural speech of 1994:

“Perhaps it is not our darkness, but our light that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about your shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone!  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Zichrono livracha.    May we take inspiration from the life and memory of this great man.  Amen

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