Vayigash: Lessons in the kindness of strangers
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Vayigash: Lessons in the kindness of strangers

Reform Temple of Rockland, Upper Nyack

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we find the climax of Joseph’s journey. At this point in our story, Joseph’s brothers are standing before an unrecognizable Joseph, pleading for mercy on behalf of their brother Benjamin. Joseph once again asks about their father, Jacob. After explaining that Jacob is still alive, the brothers plead with Joseph, saying that if anything were to happen to Benjamin, Jacob would be devastated. Witnessing his brothers’ sense of compassion, which was lacking when Joseph was younger, Joseph requested that all of his attendants leave his presence. Unable to restrain himself, he wailed before revealing himself to his brothers.

As the Torah teaches, “…I am Joseph — is my father [really] alive? But his brothers were unable to answer him — they recoiled in fear of him.” (Genesis. 45:3)

Sensing his brothers’ fear and reluctance, Joseph pleaded with them to draw close to him. He forgave them, explaining that it was God who brought them to this day, and more than that, it was all according to God’s will. This truly is an amazing story of reconciliation, forgiveness, and acceptance. When the news reached Pharaoh’s ears, he offered the sons of Israel prime land in Egypt. Pharaoh also gave Israel’s sons all the assistance they could need in order to go to Canaan to bring Jacob and the rest of the family to Egypt.

Throughout our history in the diaspora, we Jews have depended upon the kindness and generosity of merciful and welcoming royalty and rulers. We have also suffered tremendously when these same offers of protection and assistance were revoked. As the old joke goes, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” However, as history teaches, more often than not, we did not win, but instead found ourselves in exile time and again, through no fault of our own except that we were Jews. This is one of the classic anti-Semitic narratives. We even see this in the Torah. After Joseph dies, there arises a Pharaoh who did not know him, and looked at the Israelites as a threat to his position. A numerous and successful people, our ancestors are on the verge of being enslaved by the Egyptians, but at this moment, they are merely looking to Pharaoh to save them from the famine.

Today’s narrative is a little bit different. We do not simply look to the kindness of benevolent authorities to protect us. Instead, we as individuals, congregations, organizations, and communities have worked to forge, sustain, and build upon our relationships with local officials and the interfaith community.

Sadly, during this time of pandemic, we have seen a rise in a number of anti-Semitic incidences in social media, locally, nationally, and internationally. This is especially true because during times of disaster and economic uncertainty, it is easy to turn to old anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories to blame the Jews. This is only exasperated by the fact that there is an ever-increasing ignorance outside our community about the nature and history of anti-Semitism.

All that being said, we as a community are resolute and strong. We are also grateful to have so many allies in the community as well, willing to shine the light on hatred, anger, and fear.

We also note that we are not Jewish because of anti-Semitism. We are Jewish because we celebrate life, Torah, mitzvot, community, and family. As we read in Vayigash, Israel’s family could have fallen apart at this moment of great crisis. Instead, they overcame their animosity and distrust to become one family again. The Torah is not Pollyanna-ish. There was still strife between the brothers. But they were able to set aside their differences to establish what would become the everlasting foundation of the Jewish people.

This past week, we concluded the celebration of the festival of Chanukah. It is a festival founded in the history of our ancestors rededicating themselves to our heritage in the face of hatred and persecution. Out of that time of darkness came great light. Not just the light of the chanukiyah, but also the light embodied by our people.

As we enter into 2022, may we find strength in our inner light, in our community, in our relationships with Jews and non-Jews alike, and may we continue to embrace our heritage, and may we never let hate or violence decide how we choose to celebrate what it means to be Jewish.

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