Sunday, December 30, 2012

Parshat Vayehi

This piece was delivered as a talk at Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park on Saturday, December 29, 2012. 

This week's parshah is Va-yekhi, that last in the book of Bereshit. It recounts the promise Joseph made to bring Jacob's body back to the land of Israel for burial; Jacob's adoption of Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe and the intentionally reversed blessings his gives them; Jacob's testament to his other sons (one can scarcely call some of them “blessings”), and then the aftermath of Jacob's death. It is here that I want to focus.

Read 50:15

So they're afraid that Joseph is Michael Corleone and they are 10 Fredos. But in case you needed to be told, that's not the case.

Read 16-17

So they lie, basically. Comparison to God misquoting Sarah's words in Gen 18.

Read 18-21

It's interesting to see what is said here, and what isn't said. What do they want? Forgiveness. What does he say in response? 1) I'm not in place of God, it's not up to me to exact punishment, and 2) you meant it for ill, but God meant it for good.

It occurs to me there's a psychological truth here that we need to notice. And let's begin by asking a question. Why is he called by the tradition “Joseph the tzaddik” the righteous one. First he's a callow youth who can't keep his dreams to himself, then he's a bit of a climber, maybe even a schemer, rising to the top of whatever establishment he finds himself in – Potiphar's house, Pharaoh's kingdom – the midrash even says he was basically running the jail when he was there.

Yet here he is, the most powerful man in Egypt, with every reason in the world to stick it to his brothers, yet he chooses not to – why? Joseph chose to believe that his role was divinely ordained – that it was God's will that he end up in his position of power in Egypt, to help his family and the many others that he helped. One cannot reconcile this approach with holding a many-decade-long resentment of the way he was treated way back when. The two cannot be reconciled psychologically. Joseph chose to be psychologically healthy, and the way he had to be healthy was not to obsess about what had happened to him in the past, and who made it happen to him.

It reminds me of Victor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and went on to develop a long career as a psychologist. In his book, “Man's Search for Meaning” he came to the remarkable conclusion that even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanized situation, such as the one faced by inmates in the camps, that life has potential meaning and therefore even suffering is meaningful. He says that one of the differences between survival and not, and after the war the difference between a life consumed by the demons of memory, or not, is the ability to see meaning in what has occurred.

Extraordinary that the Torah is able to get to this psychological truth thousands of years ago.

In an account of a particularly bad moment Frankl talks about seeing the face of his wife, and he says, “The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.” 
Maimonides mentions that there are three steps to teshuvah, or repentance from a sin – 1) recognition that the action taken was wrong, 2) regret, and third, when the opportunity to do the same thing happens again, the opportunity is not taken.

We see all of these in the story of Joseph and his brothers. When in parshat Mi-ketz (Gen 42:21) Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, wants one of them to stay while the others go home to get the youngest brother, they say, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.” And then when he plants the cup on Benjamin, he is testing his brothers, and when at the beginning of parshat Va-yiggash (Gen 44:18) Judah pleads for his brother, and offers himself in Benjamin's stead, Joseph knows that they have made full teshuvah.

And that's the end of the matter for him. Any other punishment that the brothers may face will have to come from God. The fact that they held on to their fear of what would happen after their father's death for all those years is what pains him.

What does Joseph not offer them? The one thing they ask for - forgiveness. In fact Joseph never mentions forgiveness in any of his conversations with his brothers. It's often struck me that the ritual offering and accepting of apologies is the most superficial form of reconciliation. What are we saying when we forgive someone? Oh, that's okay, never mind, don't worry about it. Does that accomplish what it's intended to? Joseph recognizes that just as it's not his role to punish, neither is it really his role to forgive. He puts it behind him – that's what allows him to be psychologically healthy, even “righteous” - and it's enough.

Difficult to do, though, on the personal or on the political level.

Some of the people who are the most admirable in history show this same ability to put their resentments to the side. I think of someone like Nelson Mandela, who spent 24 years in prison in the harshest and most inhumane environment and yet came out dedicated not to violent revenge but to a peaceful transition for his nation.

And in fact this tendency was lived out on a institutional by the truth and reconciliation commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Victims of human rights violations during the apartheid era gave statements about their experiences, and perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Owning up to what they had done, honestly and openly, was the condition of reconciliation. The issue was forgiveness, it was honesty, taking responsibility, and it allowed the society to move forward with a marked lack of expiatory bloodshed.

And it's this approach that is markedly missing in the current situation in Israel/Palestine. If you follow spokespeople of either side in the press or on twitter you'll see a lot of people talking past each other. Each side has a laundry list of wrongs done to it by the other. And each side is right. If a report from human rights watch or some similar organization comes out, the parts that support our side are trumpeted, and the parts that support the other side are either ignored or are seen as evidence of bias or hatred.

One particular attempt to move past this battle of justifiable homicide is in the The Parents Circle - Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Palestinian Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the conflict. Sharing their stories, sharing their grief, has allowed them to humanize the so-called other, and to point the way to a resolution of the conflict based not on victory but on reconciliation and mutual respect. They were portrayed in the documentary film “Encounter Point.”

But the other significant dynamic in the story of Joseph and his brothers is that the power relationship is very one-sided. Joseph could do anything he wants to just about anyone he wants, and his righteousness comes from the fact that he doesn't. He chooses not to.

The dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians is also one-sided. Here I'm going to talk about the PA, Abbas' quasi-government, because the situation is Gaza is more complex. But in regard to the Palestinians in the West Bank: Israel has the army, Israel has the economy, Israel has the unquestioning support of the United States. And Abbas' government has done all what it's been asked to do in terms of protecting Israel's security and building the infrastructure of statehood – as the American negotiators and even many Israelis will tell you. But instead of using its strength to pursue reconciliation, Israel keeps pressing its advantage – now announcing plans to build thousands of new housing units in East Jerusalem and in the area between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim called E-1. These provocative gestures threaten both the possibility of a two-state solution and the relationship between Israel and the United States.

This is why I and over 600 of my rabbinic colleagues have signed an open letter sponsored, by Rabbis for Human Rights-North American and J Street, to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, asking him to desist from these plans, and to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible, before it's too late.

The letter quotes Pirke Avot 1:12 in telling us, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humankind and bringing them closer to the Torah." But it could just as easily reference our parshah today. Joseph is a man of great power, and a lot of justification for using it unwisely, should he have chosen to. But he recognizes that what's done is done, and that it is neither productive nor healthy to keep stewing on it. Rather, let the focus be on, as the Torah says later, “seeking peace and pursuing it.” Then we and our Israeli cousins will live up to the legacy that Joseph the tzadik, Joseph the righteous one, leaves for us.

Shabbat shalom.