The last few weeks have provided us with plenty of challenge and adversity—nationally, personally, and as a Jewish community.
Hurricane Sandy smashed against the east coast of the United States on October 29th after pummeling the Caribbean and leaving 50 dead in Haiti. New York harbor saw its highest storm surge on record, Jersey shore boardwalks washed away, and 109 people lost their lives. Communities in New Jersey and large parts of New York City continue to struggle with destruction and devastation.
A week after Sandy passed, a modest majority of American voters elected President Barack Obama to his second term, enraging some in the substantial minority that voted against him. An ugly incident at Ole Miss once again made national news.
A few days later, with Hamas launching rockets from Gaza into the south of Israel, Israel attempted to defend her citizens with a targeted counter-strike on a Hamas leader. Hamas retaliated with more rockets, several of which reached more deeply into Israel than ever, threatening Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For a few frightening days all-out war appeared inevitable. Finally, a cease-fire. As I write this, the truce holds.
And then we celebrated Thanksgiving. Families across the country got together for some of our most precious and most stressful moments of the year. Our closest kin occasionally become our worst antagonists. If your extended family is anything like mine, togetherness can lead to tension. In close quarters, resentments or rivalries resurface. As one of my daughters says to me whenever I thwart her will, “I love you, but I don’t like you.” Still, we remember our blessings and give thanks, and with a little luck, we’re back to liking and loving each other by the time we say goodbye. A little luck and perhaps a little something more.
All of this has me thinking about the dramatic tale of Joseph and his brothers, the original children of Israel (Jacob), which we will read from the Torah later this month. Not that any of us, God forbid, hate our siblings quite as bitterly as Joseph’s brothers hated him. But the strife, the alienation, the jealousy; the cruelty, the hardship of famine, the traumatized reconciliation—all feels rather familiar, if not with regard to my family reunion (which on balance was very nice), then in the context of recent world events.
The part that seems most instructive comes at the beginning of Parashat Vayyigash, Genesis 44. Joseph, having been sold into slavery years earlier by his jealous brothers, has risen to the top of Egyptian government and society. Because of his special ability to interpret dreams, he has predicted and successfully prepared for a devastating famine that has afflicted the entire region. Starving refugees from all over the ancient Near East stream to Joseph’s storehouses to beg for food. One day Joseph’s brothers appear among them.
The brothers do not recognize Joseph, and he devises a test for them. He sends them off with generous provisions, but also hides a precious royal goblet in the sack belonging to Benjamin, Joseph’s brother born of Rachel, their father Jacob’s second-favorite son after Joseph, whom their father Jacob presumes dead. Soon after they depart for home, Joseph sends his steward after them to reveal the theft. The brothers return, heavy-hearted, to Joseph.
When Joseph insists that Benjamin remain with him, imprisoned for his crime, Judah approaches (vayyigash) the still-unrecognized Joseph. He whose jealousy once drove him to conspire in selling Joseph into slavery now begs Joseph to release the beloved Benjamin, and take him instead. “For how can I go back to my father,” Judah exclaims, “unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”
Here’s the little something more: Judah’s selfless compassion for their father and their youngest brother cuts through Joseph’s ruse. He breaks down, likewise overcome by compassion: for their father, made foolish by favoritism; for his brothers, once overtaken by their jealousy; perhaps even for his past self, spoiled and conceited boy that he was. He reveals himself, and the brothers are reconciled. They return to Canaan for their father and their families, and at last Israel and all his children are reunited.
When rivalries flare and conflict threatens; when natural disaster hits and nerves and resources are strained to their limit; when old wounds fester anew; compassion for ourselves and others can work like a magic salve. The strife is, perhaps, inescapable. The pain is real. The world is a dangerous place, and life a difficult enterprise. But we’re all in it together, and the only way we’re getting through it is together. The alternative is death. Our pains are much more bearable when shared, even (or perhaps especially) with those who seem to cause our pain. So let’s try it. In this dark time of the year, approaching our festival of lights, let’s try compassion.
gam zeh ya’avor,