By: Rabbi Meir Azari, Senior Rabbi and Executive Director,
The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism
, Tel Aviv
This week’s Torah portion opens with one of the most moving and emotionally charged events in Jewish historical memory. For us, as outside spectators, it is clear that in the meeting between Joseph – the Vizier of Egypt – and his brothers lays the future of the family and the evolution of a people as a nation.
A failure of this meeting would have led to the severing of one of the branches of the family and perhaps to the destruction of the dream of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The bright light of the sun that had once shined on Abraham, Isaac, and Israel has dimmed, and clouds – of hatred, of jealousy, of arrogance – and educational failures have eclipsed the fate of the family and nation-to-be.
Israel, the man and the ideal, has become Jacob once again. Will there be another founding moment in which the Fathers of the Nation return to the path of Israel? How much feeling and fortitude lay in this meeting?
Just last week, in Parashat Miketz, we read about one of the darkest moments in Jewish memory: “And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear’” (Genesis 42:21).
In order for them to step up from the bottom of the well, the brothers must find new strengths in them, qualities which in time will become principal Jewish motifs such as: remorse, tikun and personal responsibility.
Joseph, in his wisdom and sensitivity, and, it seems, out of an awareness of his historical role, is slowly leading his brothers and molding them into the Nation of Israel… into people who are worthy, despite the shortcomings of the past, to carry the torch of faith and hope that Abraham had lit.
It is Judah, of all people, who leads his brothers on this occasion. What is Joseph’s attitude toward him on at this point? Does Joseph believe that it is thanks to Judah’s suggestion that his life was saved? Or does he believe that Judah tried to maximize profits on that terrible day when he was sold?
“What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let not our hand be upon him” (Genesis 37: 26-7). Did he just wish to earn some money off his brother, or did he mean well? So Joseph must have wondered and deliberated for years.
Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman tells a story about how a group of archangels was privy to the beginning of the fascinating dialogue between Joseph and Judah on that occasion:
And so a voice from the heavens was heard: “Let us go down and see a bull and a lion butting heads.”
Judah and Joseph, forefathers of the two dominant future tribes of Israel, establish together a basis for hope. They initiate a process of remorse and forgiveness. With their joint effort they elevate the family to the status of a people, and not just a people – the People of Israel.
The portion begins with a move made by Judah, “and he drew near”. The second highlight is Joseph’s move, when he reveals his identity to his brothers and calls them: “come near me”.
They approach him, hug him, ashamed and reconciled.
From that moment on the brothers carry with pride a historical memory which consists of both good and bad; which includes the Jew at both his best and at his worst. From this moment on Joseph and his brothers will be connected not only by their past but mostly by their future.
Only he who looks ahead to the future and is ready for it can lead the true Jewish journey. For many of us Judaism seems like a beautiful and intriguing historical memory. The eyes of many in the world of Judaism are always turned to the past. Joseph and his brothers teach us that alongside the past one must build a future, a future which draws on one’s memory but is not held captive by it.
The prophet Ezekiel turns to Israel in this week’s haftarah and says:
“I will make a covenant of peace with them, it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will establish them, and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in the midst of them for ever. My dwelling-place also shall be over them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Ezekiel 37:26-7).
The occasion is highly charged, and the remorse and forgiveness of the two parties enable the sons of Jacob to become the People Israel. If a group as misguided and as strayed as the sons of Jacob could become Israel, if so, couldn’t we?