Old Fights – Parshat Vayigash 5781

Like most siblings, my sister and I have our fights. We’re seven years apart, which for us meant we were raised in very different realities because of my parents’ career situations at those different times. We were raised by the same loving parents and in the same home, but because of the age difference, and because we’re simply different people of course, we often have different versions of what happened in our family, or at least how we remember life together. One thing we’ve come to agree on is that the past is the past, and however we remember it, we can’t change it. We can only accept it and move forward.

Our parshah this week reminds us of this same idea. Parshat Vayigash, our Torah portion for this week, is the continuation of the saga between Joseph and his brothers. Judah, one of the primary perpetrators of the evil against Joseph, stands up for his brothers and requests to be imprisoned rather than Benjamin. Later, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and his brothers tell their father Jacob that Joseph is still alive. Then the 70 members of Jacob’s people follow him down to Egypt, and the family is reunited. 

What is so relatable about this is that as the brothers are turning to go back to their father, Joseph bids them adieu, saying: “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.” Joseph knows his brothers all too well, especially their family dynamics. He’s warning them that resorting to the same blame game they played after they sold him off to the Egyptians would only be replaying and rehashing the past. Instead, Joseph is urging his brothers to remember that the past is the past, and it cannot be undone. 

In other words, there is nothing to be gained from fighting old fights. The best way to move forward is to connect to what is happening now and to change what you have control over. Joseph could have easily taken a kind of revenge by letting his brothers continue to fight with each other as payback for the way they treated him. Ultimately, though, Joseph knew in the grand scheme of things his family would be healthier and much better off if they let go of the past and focused on how to change themselves for the future. 

While we’re all physically apart from each other, it’s easy to forget that we all have to live with each other in every sense of space. Portlanders share one city. Oregonians share one state. Humankind shares just one planet. Vayigash means “and he drew near,” and the parshah reminds us to draw near to each other and meet each other in the here and now. 

Resources in Reserve – Parshat Miketz 5781

I am generally over prepared. I can’t help myself. I always have a full backup battery for my phone, shoes in my car for any change in weather, replacement lovies for my kiddos, and a variety of snacks in my office should anyone need them (not that there’s anyone in my office these days). When I travel I overpack because I just want to have something for every possible occasion, and when I’m hosting a meal, I always try to have backup options should something go wrong.

There are things you can store up besides emergency supplies and other tangible goods. For example, there is real science behind storing up faith and gratitude. Mental health experts suggest creating a daily gratitude journal, the idea being that if you write down a few things you’re grateful for each day, you’ll be able to look back on it when things aren’t so great and be reminded of all the good that’s come your way.

Parshat Miketz, which we read this week, reminds us of the importance of literally planning ahead and in doing so, restoring our faith. Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt. He then marries and has sons named Ephraim and Menashe, and the land endures the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. During the famine Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food, and Joseph recognizes them, but they have no clue who he is. Joseph tests the brothers and asks for his younger brother Benjamin to be brought to him. 

The dreams that Pharaoh shares are dreams which illustrate the concern of not having enough in your stores to provide in a time of need. But there’s more to it than grain silos. The 19th century Torah scholar the Sfat Emet (the name of his monumental commentary, which also refers to the rabbi himself) asks, “What can be learned from this parshah to prepare ourselves in good days, days in which holiness is revealed, to set the light in our hearts, to be there in times when holiness seems far off?” He answers: “We must store up resources of faith, even as the Egyptians stored grain, to nourish us spiritually when events turn against us.”

Parshat Miketz is read around Hanukkah, a time in the year when we have less light and more darkness. And what could be a more appropriate lesson during a pandemic than the lesson of storing up gratitude? Savor the recent memory of the Hanukkah candles. Store your moments of light, of gratitude, because you never know when you’ll need to tap into them.

Doing Enough – Parshat Vayeshev 5781

Could I have done more? It’s one of those questions you ask yourself in moments of tragedy. It’s difficult to know which piece of advice, which kind word, which heroic gesture will make a difference, or if any of them will. So we’re often left with this feeling that there must have been more we could have done. We could have taken even more steps to prepare for this natural disaster. We could have seen more signs that this person was in need or in pain. We could have donated to just one more charitable cause.

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayeshev, taps into this unique type of self-critique. We find ourselves in the thick of the Joseph story. Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry with him. The brothers go out to pasture, Joseph finds them, the brothers decide to sell him, and father Jacob mourns for his “favorite son.” After this the story takes a turn to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and the betrayal of Tamar before turning back to Joseph’s life in Egypt, which ultimately lands him in jail.

You may be familiar with how the brothers scheme against Joseph. However, Reuben, the eldest son, has a complicated role here. As Jacob’s first-born, Reuben must have known he would be held responsible for whatever happened to Joseph, yet Joseph was the first-born of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, and that likely set up Joseph and Reuben as chief rivals. We know Reuben doesn’t want to kill Joseph, like his brothers, and in fact he tries to step in and save him. And when he presumes that his interfering has been in vain because it appears that Joseph has died anyway, Reuben despairs. 

Reuben mourns Joseph and possibly feels he didn’t do enough to save him. We don’t find out until later that it’s because of this turn of events that Joseph is able to become a great leader in Egypt and eventually saves his family. The S’fat Emet, a late 19th century Polish commentator, shares “Often, we despair that the good deeds we have done have made no difference, when in fact they have made a great difference.”

Parshat Vayeshev and Reuben’s actions remind us that grand gestures and small acts have the same power in changing the trajectory of any situation. I’m not suggesting that all tragedies have to have a silver lining or that we shouldn’t feel sorrow or regret. What I’m suggesting is that ultimately time and perspective will win out. Was there more Reuben could have done in the moment? Perhaps. Looking at individual actions, it’s easy to dwell on mistakes and assume “too little too late.” In reality, though, each little contribution, no matter how big or small, can make a difference. 

Grudge Match – Parshat Vayishlach 5781

I admit I can be a grudge holder. Holding grudges requires so much mental and physical energy, and yet I just can’t let it go sometimes. My memory tends to hold on to incidents and moments like glue, so it becomes very difficult to forget something that has happened in the past, especially when it upsets me. 

If there’s one thing that the countless viewings of the animated Disney movie Frozen have taught me, it’s to let it go. If you’re not blessed with the same intimate understanding of the film, the song “Let It Go” is the Oscar Award-winning turning point musical number, when Queen Elsa leaves home, now free of the secret that she kept hidden away for so long.

The song isn’t strictly about letting go of a grudge. It’s more about letting go of fear. But the lyrics still speak to me when I think about unburdening myself of whatever is weighing me down, whether it’s anger, fear, or insecurity. The lyrics also remind me of our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayishlach. I recommend that you find a clip of the movie to listen to as you follow along:

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free

This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, again shows us interaction between Jacob and his brother Esau. The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t seem too attached to his birthright blessing until it had been given to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t care much about his brother’s right to the blessing until his brother threatened to kill him. Now, twenty years or so later, we find the brothers on a path to meet again. Both are now married and fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them. 

What I find most remarkable about this moment of reconciliation is that apparently both Jacob and Esau have decided to let bygones be bygones. They don’t bring up their rocky past or ask for any sort of closure. They are simply able to embrace one another as siblings, and let it go. 

To truly “let it go,” as in Jacob and Esau’s example, is not easy, but not impossible. It takes acceptance, it takes love, and it takes two people.

Fully Dressed – Parshat Vayetzei 5781

Has anyone reminded you to make sure you’re wearing clean underwear? If you’re like me, you’ve had it drilled into you that no matter what, when you leave the house, always make sure you’re covered for any eventuality. If there’s an accident or an emergency, you want to be not only prepared, but presentable.

A few months ago, I had an experience that made me recall this advice and regret not heeding it. I was driving home from CNS after dropping off my tiny human for school. The sun was shining, the world was beautiful, and then another driver ran a stop sign and hit my car. My first instinct (after I made sure the other driver and I were both OK) was that it was very warm out, and I was dressed for a quick jaunt to CNS for dropoff before heading home to change. Instead, I spent two hours outside in the beating sun in running leggings and had to choose between a warm fleece that provided too much coverage or a tank top that didn’t provide enough coverage. While my car was filled with enough snacks (and crumbs) to feed me for months, I did not go out with enough clothes for every occasion.

This week, as we read our Torah, we’re reminded what we need to bring as we leave our homes. Parshat Vayetzei begins with Jacob on the run from his angry brother, fleeing his home and the mess that has become of his family dynamic. Exhausted, he lies down and has this crazy dream in which God comes and speaks to him. God gives Jacob marching orders, a legacy to hold and create, and a full sense of his mission in life. 

The question from this Parsah for me is, how are we supposed to go out into the world? How much emphasis and preparation should we put into being presentable at all times? In other words, what matters more: what’s underneath the surface or what people see? For so much of our lives we’ve been taught to look beyond the surface and not judge a book by its cover. But when you’re stressed, angry, or frustrated, you’re not putting your best foot forward, yet the surface level is all people see because they don’t look beneath. So when it comes down to it, is it more important to look prepared even if you’re not, or be emotionally prepared even if you don’t look it? 

I think what we’re supposed to take to heart from Parshat Vayetzei is that when we go out into the world, the best we can do is approach life as prepared as we can be with the information we have. We shouldn’t be completely internally or externally focused; rather, we should be willing to receive each moment and each individual as we encounter them. And hopefully they’re wearing underwear too.