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Sermon: Parshat Vay'chi, 1/1/21

01/05/2021 05:09:03 PM


Rabbi Charlie

To hear Rabbi Charlie deliver this sermon, click HERE.


Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Vay’chi wraps up the book of Genesis with the peaceful passing of Jacob and Joseph, yet it still manages to have a little drama. After their father’s death, even though many years had passed, Joseph’s brother’s feared retribution. They come to Joseph and tell him that with his dying breath, Jacob wanted to make sure Joseph forgives the brothers.

According to most of commentators, the brothers were lying, and Joseph knew that they were lying. And still, Joseph responds with compassion. In Genesis, chapter 50, he tells them, "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? …Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good… -- the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children" (Gen 50:19-21 TNK).

This is striking because a book that is filled with family rivalry and strife – from Cain and Abel to Isaac and Ishmael to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers – the book of Genesis ends with forgiveness and reconciliation. From this perspective, the lesson of Genesis is that we can change for the better.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) teaches that this idea was revolutionary in the ancient world. He argues that prior to our Bible, time was thought of as an eternal pattern where nothing actually changed: birth, growth, decline, death, and repeat. We do have such ideas in the Tanakh – Ecclesiastes repeatedly mentions that there is “nothing new under the sun” – but on the whole, the Tanakh offers something radically different. Rabbi Sacks writes:

“For the first time people began to conceive that God had created the universe in freedom, and that by making man in His image, He endowed him too with freedom. That being so, he might be different tomorrow from what he was today, and if he could change himself, he could begin to change the world” (Covenant & Conversation: Genesis, p. 346)

When Joseph looks back on his life – he could have seen a cycle of pain and retribution where he now has the power and so he gets to have the last laugh. Instead, he chooses to focus on Teshuva / Repentance – the capacity for change within himself and his brothers. He chooses to reject vengeance and embrace forgiveness. The choice of Joseph and our Biblical authors transforms the narrative of Torah from an endless loop into the narrative of change and redemption. In spite of the challenges of the past, the future can look different. After betrayal and slavery and prison, Joseph found peace and we can find peace.

Our rabbis take this powerful teaching and add an exclamation mark: chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik / be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other. We offer these words at the completion of every book of Torah. Our rabbis understood that Joseph’s choice is not always easy. We can’t always see beyond the narrative of pain; we can’t always choose forgiveness or understanding; we can’t always see the possibility of redemption. So we say, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik.” There are times when we need to lean on others and there are times when friends, family, and community can lean on us.

The journey doesn’t end just because the road is difficult. There is always another step to take. We can always choose a different path. And we can strengthen each other along the way.

Praying for a happy, healthy 2021 for us and our community.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, January 21 2021 8 Sh'vat 5781