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Story: Parshat Vayigash, 12/25/20

12/27/2020 10:44:27 AM


Rabbi Charlie

View Rabbi Charlie delivering this week's story/sermon, including special effects, HERE.

This week’s Torah portion begins with incredible drama. Joseph is second only to Pharaoh. His brothers have reluctantly brought Benjamin down to Egypt only to have Joseph frame Benjamin for stealing. Parshat Vayigash begins with Judah’s heartfelt appeal to save Benjamin. Joseph is so moved that with tears in his eyes, he reveals himself as their brother, sold into slavery so long ago.

It’s a beautiful, emotional moment of reconciliation. But as we know, there are lots of ways to tell a story and the Legends of the Jews, based on the Rabbinic storytelling of Midrash, tells this story in a very different way. This tear-jerker of a moment gets turned into this:

Joseph carried Benjamin off by force, locking him up in a cell. But Judah broke the door open and stood before Joseph with his brothers. Judah, not hiding the threat in his voice, said, “If I but utter a sound, a pestilence causing death will stalk through the land as far as Thebes.” When Judah started to make good on his threat, Joseph made a sign, and Manasseh stamped his foot on the ground so that the whole palace shook. Judah said to himself, “Only one belonging to our family can do that!” He was intimidated by this display of great strength so he moderated his tone and manner…

---and time out… So… you may be wondering how Judah could cause a pestilence with just his voice and how Joseph’s son, Manasseh, could cause an earthquake. Thank you to our rabbis! And because it has to do with our rabbis, it’s not a surprise that it all starts with a careful reading of the Torah.

When Jacob first meets Rachel, he moves a rock off a well that usually required the efforts of a group of shepherds. What’s the only conclusion? Jacob must have super strength. Throughout the years, our rabbis tell stories about what that super strength looked like and Louis Ginzberg put it all together into one incredible narrative, published in the early decades of the 20th century. With stories like these, it’s shocking that young Jews were at the heart of the comic book industry. And now, back to our story…

Judah tries to reason with Joseph, explaining their father’s suffering. Without compassion Joseph replied, “Why didn’t you speak up for your other brother, who you sold for twenty pieces of silver? You didn’t care about your father’s sorrow then? And yet Joseph was innocent while this Benjamin committed theft. Therefore, go and say to your father, ‘the rope has followed after the bucket.’”

These words had such an effect upon Judah that he broke out in sobs, and cried aloud, “How shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me?” His outcry reached to a distance of four hundred parasangs, and the whole land was on the point of collapsing from the great noise. Joseph’s valiant men lost their teeth and the cities of Pithom and Raamses were destroyed, and they remained in ruins until the Israelites built them up again.

Then Judah’s towering rage began to show signs of breaking out: his right eye shed tears of blood; the hair above his heart grew so stiff that it pierced and rent the five garments in which he was clothed; and he took brass rods, bit them with his teeth, and spat them out as fine powder. When Joseph observed these signs, fear befell him, and in order to show that he, too, was a man of extraordinary strength, he pushed with his foot against the marble pedestal upon which he sat, and it broke into splinters. Judah exclaimed, “This one is a hero equal to myself!”

More massive feats of strength followed – which we’ll look at in greater depth tomorrow morning - until finally, Joseph realized that his brothers were, indeed, on the point of destroying Egypt and he resolved to make himself known to them.

It’s fascinating storytelling that was created during times of difficulty when our rabbis wanted to provide inspiration and hope, as well as entertainment. Then it was repackaged and made available in German and then English in the early 1900s during a time of hope and optimism. It’s a reminder that whatever we’re going through, we need good stories. And while we might not be able to create an earthquake by stomping on the ground, keep sharing the story. Maybe, we’ll realize that we have a deeper reserve of strength than we knew.

Shabbat Shalom!


Thu, January 21 2021 8 Sh'vat 5781