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“Collusion and Complicity” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

December 30, 2022 | 6 Tevet 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

As we begin this week’s Torah portion, we enter into one of the most dramatic scenes of the Torah. Last week’s portion ended with a cliffhanger. Since Jacob’s sons have traveled to Egypt to procure food because of a terrible famine, they have had to deal with the most powerful man second to Pharaoh. Unbeknownst to them, that man is Joseph, their brother. He is the same person they threw in a pit and then sold to travelers on their way down to Egypt. He is their younger annoying, self-possessed, dream-interpreting sibling who had their father’s love. He is the embodiment of their father’s sadness when they created a false story and colluded for Jacob to believe that a savage beast had devoured Joseph. The brothers had to carry that story their whole lives.

This week opens with Judah pleading with this Egyptian authority not to enslave their youngest brother, Benjamin. Unaware of this Egyptian’s identity, they couldn’t have known at that moment the very dream Joseph had interpreted as a young boy of them bowing down to him in servitude had come true. Now they had to beg to spare the life of Benjamin, child of the same mother as Joseph.

Then Judah [the brother who had sold Joseph] approached him. (44:18)

When Judah stepped forward, he did so in a tangled web of complicity. The use of the particular verb and lack of use of Joseph’s name reveal the significance of the moment.

The verb, to approach, according to the 11th century commentator Rashi, can mean to do battle, to reconcile, and to pray. Judah is prepared to do all three. He must take matters into his own hands to save his brother, Benjamin. He must do what he could not years before with the young Joseph.  Judah inserted himself into the story. His past collusion has brought him to a full reckoning.

The S’fat Emet, a Hasidic teacher of the last century, commented that Judah actually approached himself in the recognition of the scandalous behavior of his own youth and transformed his sin into merit. (The Language of Truth, page 70)

What makes our text the “Torah of truth” is how Judah finally took responsibility for his actions. He did not blame others or accuse them of lying for his own protection. In a different era of his life, in an act of desperation, he did all of that. His transgressions swirled around him as he carried the collusion with his brothers within him. He took the opportunity to alter the end of the story and find redemption by speaking the truth. It is the reason the commentators believed Joseph finally revealed his true self.

I am your brother Joseph. (45:4)

The truth finally revealed the way forward for them all.

Collusion and complicity form a tangled web of lies that trigger trouble upon trouble. Fortunately, our tradition offers other paths toward repentance and redemption. Those who refuse to take responsibility and own their past histories end up remembered and entered into the annals of history but placed in the garbage heap, recalled as cowards, wayward without any moral compass.

Shabbat Shalom!

  • Join us at 6:00 p.m. for Qabbalat Shabbat. A community dinner will follow. If you’re unable to join onsite, please join on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website. Let’s celebrate together.
  • Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
  • Join us for Torah Study at 9:00 a.m. We begin with a short, informal morning service and then moves into an engaging, welcoming and inclusive Torah study for everyone and anyone. To join the conversation interactively online, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website.
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with lay-led Havdalah on Zoom.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher