Hard to Believe – Parshat Vayigash 5776


Growing up watching the Tanner family on TV’s Full House, can you understand why I have mixed feelings about Netflix’s upcoming reboot of the series? Fuller House, which debuts February 26, follows the same format as the original, but with the kids now in the grown-up roles raising the next generation. The idea is tantalizingly nostalgic, but the secret recipe of the late 80s/early 90s series simply can’t be replicated. Sitcoms of that era had a cozy, comforting cheesiness that current television has evolved away from. I’m not sure that today’s audiences appreciate the signature catchphrases or the easily solved storyline problems as much as we used to. What made the show magical twenty years ago was that it was all just too happy to believe.

Life rarely feels like a sitcom. While we all experience moments that feel too good to be true, most days are mixes of highs and lows. Some things work out in our favor, some things don’t. However, there are moments of ultimate joy – the ones when we have to pinch ourselves to make sure they’re real. One of these for me was shortly after finding out I was expecting our daughter. The confirmation in the doctor’s office and seeing and hearing Shiri’s heart beat for the first time felt surreal. She’s already two years old, and I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the power of that moment.  

Parshat Vayigash, which we read this week, is about such a “believe it to see it” type of moment.  In fact, 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 facing Israel.  In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his newfound position of power.  Joseph is given high praise in this parshah as a leader in Egypt, the saving grace to the people of Egypt and Israel, a loving brother, and a forgiver of past indiscretions.  

But when this news is first revealed to Jacob, it’s too much for him to believe. In chapter 45, verse 26, the brothers return from Egypt with the exciting news that their brother Joseph, whom they had presumed dead, is not only alive, but is the pharaoh’s right-hand man.  The brothers try to explain this to their father, and the text describes his reaction, saying: “His heart went numb, for he did not believe them.”  And why should he believe their fantastical story? After all, Jacob had been deceived before (and even did some deceiving himself).  Rather than take their word for it, Jacob demands to see with his own eyes if there is truth to their claims.  

Even though the miraculous events in the Torah aren’t regular occurrences in our modern lives, the emotional highs and lows we experience every day are not unlike those in our biblical narrative. That’s not exactly the case in the sitcoms of my childhood. The Tanners provided an entertaining escape because all conflict was neatly resolved in half-hour intervals. For us, the unbelievable high points we do have are made that much sweeter because they are part of a complicated, intricate tapestry of experiences.

Two Wrongs; Make it Right – Parshat Vayigash 5775

IMG_1425.JPGIt is human nature to want to reciprocate actions, whether good or bad.  When someone does something nice for us, we want to pay them back or pay it forward.  When someone is horrible or mean, we want to be equally mean back.  But an “eye for an eye” isn’t always right or fair.  In our world where we work towards fairness and equality, it can be truly difficult to stand up and do the right thing when we really want others to feel our pain.

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 asks to be imprisoned to spare Benjamin.  Later, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his brothers tell Jacob that Joseph is still alive, seventy members of Jacob’s people follow him down to Egypt, and the family is reunited.  At this point the narrative takes pause.

In the first lines of the parshah, we see Yehudah stand up for his brothers, we see him try to right the wrong he did against Joseph, leaving Joseph with a choice.  Joseph can continue to imprison Benjamin; in doing so he would certainly inflict pain on his brothers, the kind of pain he felt years earlier when he himself was sent off.  But, he would also cause more pain to his father, something he could not stomach.

Joseph is ultimately moved to tears by the speech his brother Yehudah gives.  He realizes that keeping Benjamin would be acting as his brothers did, stooping to their level.  Instead, he decides to rise above it and do what is right.  And in a sense, Joseph is still reciprocating.  He’s not reciprocating the pain he felt much earlier in his life, he’s reciprocating the positive step forward he sees from Yehudah.

Siblings know how to push each other’s buttons better than anyone else.  It would have been easy for Joseph to wrong his brothers as they had wronged him, but instead, Joseph gathers his inner strength and is able to rise above the pettiness and past negative of their relationship.  What better reminder that while it is easy to commit a wrong in retaliation for a wrong, righting a situation will always yield the better outcome.

photo credit: The Hamster Factor via photopin cc

The Big(ger) Picture – Parshat Vayigash 5773

I have a few pet peeves, but lately the one that keeps resurfacing is when someone tells me, in the midst of what feels like a personal crisis, that I should “see the bigger picture.”  This is supposed to be comforting, reminding me that despite whatever is happening now, I shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that in the end it will work out.  But in that moment, seeing the big picture can be so difficult when it’s happening to you.  Someone looking at a situation with fresh eyes is sometimes easily able to put the situation in perspective, but objectivity can seem impossible when the situation is yours. 
Nevertheless, seeing the big picture is often necessary in order to move forward in a challenging situation.  In my final year of rabbinical school, I had a major Talmud exam.  I was not thrilled with the stress and aggravation that came with studying for this comprehensive exam, which, based on my score, would determine whether or not I would be ordained.  But it turns out, all of those people who told me to see the bigger picture of mastering Talmud and being ordained were actually on to something.  A small amount of pain in the moment can lead to great rewards down the road.  The challenge is figuring out how to see the bigger picture. 
Joseph, the hated brother, had plenty of reasons to be angry and vengeful with his brothers, but, as we read this week in parshat Vayigash, he is anything but upset.  In our parshah this week, Joseph reintroduces himself to his brothers.  He may have toyed with them when he first realized who they were out of a bit of revenge, but in this moment of meeting, he seems to be the one to add perspective.  The revelation goes like this:
“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.  Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.  It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling.  God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.  So, it was not you who sent me here, but God;…”
Three times Joseph reminds his brothers that it is God who sent him here to Egypt, not them.  In reading this text, it appears that the minute Joseph introduces himself, the brothers turn to a state of panic as the next words Joseph speaks are words of comfort to them.  Joseph saw the bigger picture of his brothers’ actions and was able to put it behind him in order to find the greater good.  Instead of accusing his brothers of having sold him, Joseph says they “sent” him, understanding the true significance of his life, and giving his brothers the benefit of the doubt.
As I read this parshah, I am awed by Joseph’s ability to forgive his brothers and see the big picture.  Joseph shows faith in God in understanding his ultimate purpose in life, and in this clarity he has gained, he is able to live by letting go of his anger against his brothers.  Joseph teaches us that seeing the big picture can be done from the inside, as long as we know we have a greater purpose to achieve. 
As we enter into the new secular year, may each of us be able to expand our view to see the bigger picture, to give the benefit of the doubt, and let ourselves aspire to and achieve greatness. 
THIS TOO IS TORAH: As 2012 comes to a close, what does the bigger picture of the year look like? Did you give people a second chance? 

Waterworks – Parshat Vayigash 5771

According to some research, human beings are the only animals that cry in connection with emotions.  We cry when we’re upset, angry, or scared.  We cry when we’re happy, when the emotion of joy wells up inside of us.  Occasionally we even laugh so hard we cry.  Sometimes our tears rain in big drops; other times, it’s a chronic drip.  Sometimes a cry is silent, tears streaming without sobs, and other times we sob and sob and cry and cry until there are no tears left.
This week’s parshah, parshat Vayigash, is punctuated with tears.  It begins in chapter 45, verse 2 ofB’reishit with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, which is such an emotional moment that his tears are heard throughout the kingdom.  The text states:
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “have everyone withdraw from me!”  So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.”
One can imagine Joseph trying to stifle the emotions deep within him.  For as long as it has taken the brothers to go back to Cana’an and then back to Egypt, Joseph has been keeping his emotions in check.  Joseph knows who these men are, he knows that they are his family, and he has just learned that his father is still living.   His emotions reach their boiling point in this moment, and he can no longer hold them in.  He has an outburst of big tears and heaving sobs as he rejoices in this reconnection with his siblings. 
Twelve verses later in chapter 45, verse 14, the emotions run forth again.  Here, Joseph is reunited with his brother Benjamin, his only full sibling, his link to his father and his mother.  As the text teaches, “with that he embraced his brother Benjamin around his neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.”  These tears are joyful tears accompanying an embrace that Joseph and Benjamin have longed to enjoy.
The final tears shed in our parshah are found in chapter 46, verse 29.  “Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while.”  These tears are ambiguous.  We know that someone cried on someone else’s neck “a good while,” but it is unclear as to whether it is Joseph or Jacob (or both) who cries. 
Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), the medieval philosopher and scholar, suggests that Jacob is the one who weeps.  He asks, “By whom are tears more easily shed?  By the aged parent who finds his long-lost son alive, or by the young man who is ruler?”  For Rambam, the tears must be tears of an emotional parent, tears of joy at this miraculous event.  Joseph, the “ruler,” must not be crying according to Rambam because it wouldn’t make sense to shed tears of joy at this event when so many more major events have happened in his life.  It almost seems as though Rambam would deem it inappropriate for Joseph to cry yet again.
However, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), the 11th century commentator on the Torah and Talmud, suggests that it is Joseph who sheds the tears out of a mixture of strong, conflicting feelings, while Jacob offered a prayer of thanks to God.  Rashi interprets the tears to be tears of joy that are shed as Joseph continues to ride the wave of emotions that come as a result of reuniting with his family.
Each of these sob fests is marked with intense emotions, but not apologetically so.  Joseph and Benjamin aren’t ridiculed for their display of brotherly love.  Jacob (or Joseph) doesn’t let any stoicism stifle his feelings.  There’s no holding back as the emotions come to a head.  The tears in this week’s parshah are tears of thanksgiving, tears of joy, and perhaps tears of sadness.  Most importantly, they are linked together by the courage to cry and a supportive environment that allows this freedom of emotions without restraint.  As we learn in this week’s parshah, if we humans are connected by nothing else, it is the healthy expression of feelings of love and loss.  Sometimes, all you need is a good cry.
Family Discussion Questions:
  1. Our ‘ethical covenant’ urges each of us to honor and love one another, mecaved/ohev zeh et zeh.  Joseph and Jacob are reunited after a long time apart, their emotions are intense.  Sometimes we take for granted that someone knows we honor them.  As a family, how do you show that you honor and love one another?
  2. Rambam taught that Jacob must be the one crying because “Joseph the big leader” doesn’t cry.  Rashi teaches that Joseph cries.  Which commentator do you agree with?  Why?  Who do you think cried?