Trading Up – Parshat Vayigash 5782

Why do children take advantage of each other? I’ve watched my children do this so many times. One has a toy the other one wants, and so the bribing and bargaining begins. They’re wiser now that they’re older, so it isn’t as easy for the younger one to be taken advantage of. To be fair to them, equitable trades become much more complex as you grow up. Gone are the days of “I’ll be your best friend” if such and such, and very real is the need for tangible results from our bartering and bargaining.

Perhaps there’s something inherent in our nature about trying to get the best deal or the most value. We see it as early as Jacob and Esau. Jacob wants the birthright, Esau wants food, a “fair” trade is made, and off they go with their lives. Except, that particular trade was anything but equal. It’s a theme we’re quite familiar with, and in this week’s Torah portion, we see a prime example of the dark side of wanting it all.

Moving on to Jacob’s sons, Parshat Vayigash reminds us of the different ways in which we see behavioral changes. In the parshah, Joseph’s brother Yehudah (Judah) tries to redeem himself by asking to be imprisoned instead of Benjamin, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and heroically invites the whole family to Egypt to save them from starvation in Israel. In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his newfound position of power.

When it comes to Joseph overseeing the distribution of food in Egypt, we focus more on his dealings with his brothers, but this week’s portion reveals another side of his cunning (and problematic) leadership. The Egyptians, who had worked together to store food, are still hungry because the government had taken hold of the stores of food, and the citizens needed to pay or barter to take a share of it.

In chapter 47, verse 19 of Genesis, we read of the Egyptians coming to Joseph without anything left to trade. They’ve given all their livestock and fields as consignment to the leadership. They’re starving, and with nothing left to give, they offer up themselves in servitude, and Joseph accepts this offer. For me, this was a horrifying discovery. Joseph, the dreamer, the leader, allowed people to sell themselves for food? Didn’t he learn from what his brothers did to him? How could he be guilty of the same action?

Rest assured, the rabbis of old were bothered by this as well, and as a result, we have biblical laws requiring us to help the poor so that they should not have to sell themselves into slavery to repay a dept. Ours is not to own or outdo another. Our job is to respect and lift up one another.

Joseph could have kept control over a scarce resource without forcing people to sell themselves to survive, but he failed to strike that balance. Vayigash means “and he met.” But it wasn’t only his brothers whom he met. Joseph met himself at a crossroads, faced with deciding between a path of power and control over his brothers and the rest of the country, and a path to meet his brothers halfway. The lesson to take away is that perspective is everything; when we can approach any discussion, deal, or decision from the other party’s view, that’s what true humanity is about.

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. 

True To Yourself – Parshat Vayigash 5780

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When the person next to you on an airplane asks what you do for work, what do you say? Personally, I always dread this question. Don’t get me wrong – I’m proud to be a rabbi. I just don’t particularly enjoy the conversations with strangers about religion, faith, God, or Israel that inevitably result following this revelation. If pushed to answer, I share that I’m a teacher (which is technically true). When I’m stuck next to someone at 30,000 feet, I simply want to blend in and focus on my book or movie, rather than try to explain my philosophy of Jewish education and the state of American Jewry. 

I’m sure you can pinpoint those times in life when you find yourself desperately trying to fit in, to find whatever the norm is and to be that. Maybe you base your sense of style on what the fashion world tells us is trendy, or maybe you smile and nod during discussions of sports even if you have no interest in the teams. Sometimes it’s a tricky balancing act to be true to yourself and simultaneously be whatever we think of as the average “every person.”

The Torah tells us this isn’t a new conundrum. Parshat Vayigash, our Torah portion for this week, is the continuation of the saga between Joseph and his brothers. Yehudah, one of the master 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 Jacob that Joseph is still alive. Then, the 70 members of Jacob’s people follow him down to Egypt, the family is reunited, and there’s effectively a pause in the narrative. 

In chapters 46 and 47 of the book of Genesis, Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh. But before he introduces them, he tells them to say that they are breeders of livestock, not shepherds. His reasoning is that in Egypt shepherds are held in low esteem. But instead of following that suggestion, the brothers remain true to themselves and answer that they are shepherds like their father. Interestingly, Pharaoh responds not by looking down on the brothers, but by elevating them to be in charge of the royal flocks and herds. 

The brothers in Parshat Vayigash are proud to be themselves. They don’t shy away from their lineage or profession because someone suggests that it might not be “cool.” Instead, they share their true identity and are rewarded for doing so. 

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for all of us, including me and my conversations with strangers on airplanes. We would do well to wear our true selves with pride. Our Torah portion reminds us that the ultimate show of respect is first to respect yourself. That’s how we bring blessing into the world.

The Moment of Change – Parshat Vayigash 5779

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m somewhat predictable. Without fail, certain situations elicit a certain response from me. Whether it’s when my kids are in their difficult moods, or when I hear about a “holiday program” that should be called what it is (a Christmas program), or even when I put down my phone to charge, and suddenly that’s when I get flooded with messages, my frustrations follow certain patterns. You’d think that as predictable as my reactions are, I’d be self-aware enough to modify them, but apparently it takes more than moderate awareness to actually make a change.

Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, reminds us of the different ways in which we see behavioral changes. In the parshah, Joseph’s brother Yehudah (Judah) tries to redeem himself by asking to be imprisoned instead of Benjamin, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and heroically invites the whole family to Egypt to save them from the starvation of Israel. In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his newfound position of power.

The very first line in the parshah reminds us that we can in fact change our gut reactions. Judah goes up to Joseph after he was asked to bring the “favorite” brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt. Once again Judah is faced with the reality that his father still has a favorite son, as well as the fact that the last time this happened he made the choice to get rid of the other favorite (Joseph) instead of deal with the situation in a rational way.

Judah goes up to Joseph and can either make a deal to save his brother, or he can repeat the same poor choice. The Torah says Judah “went up to him.” According to the S’fat Emet, Judah approached himself. He saw who he himself was inside and recognized that while his father had not changed his behavior, Judah could change how he reacted to it. It takes intention and recognition of our own failings to change behavior. Judah recognizes that he can’t change anyone but himself, and that’s exactly what he does. Let us remember that the only choices we can control are our own, but that in itself is enough to cause change.

Hello, My Name Is – Parshat Vayigash 5778

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I have quite the collection of name tags. Some of them are nice metal ones from former positions, and some are stickers I’ve collected on my bookshelf or closet door after an event. And because I have a title that goes with me, the names range from simply “Eve” to “Rabbi Eve” to “Rabbi Posen” to the occasional “Shiri’s mom.” Each of these pieces of my identity is important to me and represents a different facet of my daily life. In certain circumstances, like performing a life cycle event or working on a rabbinic project, I am clearly Rabbi Posen. In other places I am Rabbi Eve, playing with the kids in Foundation School or our young families group Shoreshim. For simplicity I introduce myself as “Eve” when I go to an exercise class or an event for my husband Duncan. Of course when I’m in my mommy role for Shiri or Matan, I am simply that – Mommy.

How you introduce yourself to others tells at least a portion of the story of your identity. Every setting and situation, from parent/grandparent mode to professional environments to a casual night with friends, might require a different side of you.

The theme of names and the identities they carry with them is part of the focus of this week’s parshah, Parshat Vayigash. This week we read about how Joseph and his brothers have many moments of heartfelt joy. Joseph’s brother Yehudah tries to redeem himself by asking to be imprisoned instead of Benjamin, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and heroically invites the whole family to Egypt to save them from the starvation they face in Israel. In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his new-found position of power.

Joseph makes a deliberate choice when he reveals himself to his brothers. He says, “I am Joseph.” He had achieved a level of fame and notoriety in Egypt, so he could have identified himself by his Egyptian name and title, but instead he simply shares his name. “I am Joseph.” He knew he would need to rediscover his brotherly identity if this was to be a successful reunion.

Sometimes it feels like we’re wearing multiple name tags all at the same time as we carry different aspects of our identity with us. The challenge is always to figure out which one is best suited for any given moment. What’s important to remember is that having these multiple names doesn’t dilute or diminish who we are; it forms and strengthens who we are able to be.