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“Step Up,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

December 22, 2023 | 10 Tevet 5784

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

What are we willing to do to protect our family? How would we step up to guarantee an outcome of a protective and productive outcome?

This week’s Torah portion provides some insight. It contains the climatic moment of the Joseph narrative. For anyone who missed the story or the musical, Joseph, sold by his jealous brothers finds himself in Egypt and works his way up to vizier, chief counsel of Pharaoh overseeing the seven years of plenty to store grain to prepare for the ravages of famine. His brothers must now travel from Canaan to Egypt themselves to secure food because of the famine. The brothers find themselves face to face with the brother whom they abandoned and they did not recognize and, in fact, thought was most likely dead. Joseph had made them bring his younger brother, Benjamin, like him, the son of Rachel and beloved by his father, Jacob. He wanted to see if the brothers had changed and whether, as Aviva Zornberg describes it, “the residue of the crime they committed against him will manifest.” So Joseph hid a silver goblet in Benjamin’s belongings only for it to be found by one of Joseph’s servants. The brothers are stunned and, at first, speechless. They offer themselves as slaves. Joseph only wanted Benjamin and told them to go back to their father in peace. Alu leshalom el Avichem.

They cannot go back to their bereaved father. They had destroyed the peace, the wholeness of their family 22 years earlier when they made that fateful decision to deal with their jealousy by throwing their brother in a pit and selling him. It is at this point that our portion opens with a dramatic description of their reaction. One of the brothers, Judah, could not sit idly by. He was prepared to put his life on the line.

When it comes to family, what are you willing to risk?

Judah, speaking on behalf of his family, Vayigash and steps forward. He offers an impassioned speech. Vayigash is a revealing word. Vayigash describes just how Judah stepped up. He had to confront this authority and protect his brother and, at the same time, had to recognize the danger in facing up to the threat of losing Benjamin and having to return to his father without him. In addition, he challenges the most powerful man in Egypt besides the Pharoah, and risks a fateful response. It all comes together through this word. Vayigash. Rashi, the 12th century commentator, notes that Vayigash can mean war, appeasement, or prayer. Confrontation, conciliation, and entreaty each necessitate a particular attitude and may affect a different result. In our portion, however, Judah demonstrates all three in his approach to achieve success.

In the end, Joseph, the most powerful man, after revealing his identity breaks down in tears in a most vulnerable state. Both of them are humbled before each other. They have a second chance to create reconciliation.

We live in precarious times. How will we step up? How will we protect our family? It seems to me that our portion presents a necessary combination in the art of diplomacy, relationship, and peacemaking. How far and to what extent each take us is to consider the power of each: confrontation, conciliation, and entreaty. It takes courage, bravery, tenacity, and vulnerability. Where one ends and the other begins or the interplay of all of them at the same time necessitate hard work and the possibility that there can be resolution and reconciliation some way, somehow.

And there will still be many tears.

May it be so.

Shabbat Shalom!

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings.  Share with me what you think. Your email goes directly to me!

This Weekend at Temple Israel:

  • We come together as a community to celebrate Shabbat at 6:00 p.m.  on ZoomFacebook Live, or stream on our website.
  • Torah Study  gathers onsite or online at 9:00 a.m.
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with a lay-led Havdalah on Zoom at 8:00 p.m.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher