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Sermon: Parshat Vayigash, 1/3/20

01/07/2020 10:12:07 AM


Rabbi Charlie

Shabbat Shalom!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayigash, gives us an unexpected hero. Judah is the one who vayigash – who “approaches” the most powerful man in Egypt besides Pharaoh. Judah has no idea that this man is actually Joseph. He only knows that the fate of his youngest brother, Benjamin, looks bleak. The evidence is against him – the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. And yet he steps forward and speaks out, possibly risking his own life in the process. He had no choice – standing silent wasn’t an option. The result: he melts Joseph’s heart.

“But rabbi – of course he had a choice,” you might say. “It was his idea to sell Joseph in the first place – just to make a buck. And you didn’t see any of the other brothers sticking their necks out. You always have a choice.” Many times, I would agree, but this time is different.

It’s different because we see the growth of Judah. Yes, it was his idea to sell Joseph, but that’s not the end of his story. In the middle of the narrative about Joseph, we take a break to follow Judah’s life. During this interlude, we often focus on Tamar and how Judah wrongs her and how Judah is humbled at the end of the story. What we often overlook is Judah’s tragedy. Judah has three sons. Two of them died. Then his wife died. Yes – he makes his mistakes, but he also knows pain and difficulty.

So when he says to his father, put Benjamin’s life in my hands so we can get food, Jacob listens. And when Joseph says to his brothers, “Benjamin stays in jail, but you can go back to your father in peace,” Judah refuses to accept that reality. He’s grown. He knows what it’s like to feel that pain. He’s taken responsibility for the pain he caused his father in the past. Because of his empathy and his commitment to his father, he really had no choice – standing silent was not an option. And when he speaks from the heart, he moves Joseph to tears, resulting in reconciliation and healing.

When we understand the Torah from this perspective, another imperfect Biblical hero has a moment of redemption. It’s painful and beautiful and human. And it explains why Judah had to act in that moment. What I have always found fascinating, however, is that not everyone has such good reasons to act. People with every reason to stay silent sometimes don’t.

Back in the 90’s, in her book, Conscience and Courage, Dr. Eva Fogelman tried to understand the psychology of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. She interviewed hundreds. Everyone came from different backgrounds. Everyone had their faults and regrets. And everyone saved lives. “Despite the fact that others saw what was happening to [our People], it was the rescuers who felt that unless they, personally did something, another person would die” (p. 58).

They didn’t buy into Nazi propaganda. They didn’t see Jews as vermin or animals or less than human. They saw us for who we are – people. And because of their empathy for fellow human beings, most of the rescuers didn’t feel that they had a choice. They could not stay silent – they had to do something. At a time when there were so many bystanders, these imperfect people were upstanders.

According to the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, upstanders are “those who stand up for other people and their rights, combat injustice, inequality, or unfairness, and, when they see something wrong, work to make it right.” At a time of increased antisemitism, we need to stand up for ourselves and we need upstanders to stand with us and support us. And as we look out at the injustice in our world, we can’t lose sight of our sense of empathy – our ability to see the dignity and beauty of every person.

We are not the only ones who need upstanders to support us. It’s easier to pretend we didn’t see. It’s easier to stay silent. Upstanders make excuses to make things right. In 2020, the need for upstanders is all around us. I hope and pray that we all can become the upstanders we need in our community and in our world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Fri, October 30 2020 12 Cheshvan 5781