Especially Now, People Are Asking:

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“Now it happens to be the way of all men to take sides … About God you don’t know and I don’t know. But I have made a decision in favor of God …”   Rabbi Max Gross to Michael Kind in Noah Gordon’s novel The Rabbi, (New York, McGraw Hill, 1965) p. 139

 

During these precariously uncertain days of the Corona Virus pandemic, I have received, not surprisingly several questions about God.

I have been curious about God all my life, and at age 18, when I first read Noah Gordon’s The Rabbi my interest intensified and has grown over the years to be a driving force in my life.

After more than half a century of inquiry, I can make no more profound theological statement, nor one that better reflect my thinking than the one Mr. Gordon puts in the mouth of Rabbi Max Gross above.

To be a believing Jew, I have learned, does not mean to BELIEVE in God, it means to struggle with God.

In Genesis (ch. 33, verse 25 ff) after a titanic struggle God changes Jacob’s name to the one by which our people identify ourselves to this day: Yisrael, Israel, “One who struggles with God.”

More than half a century after Gordon’s novel intensified my own struggle with the Eternal One, I produced a volume of essays that I humbly recommend to those – Jews and non-Jews alike – who might find some of the steps of my struggle instructive.

It is called, Who Created God?

 It is available on AMAZON.com both in paperback and very inexpensively in a Kindle edition.

If the book answers some of your questions about God or even helps refine the parameters of your struggle of your connection – or lack thereof – to God, I would be very gratified indeed.

 

(If you do read the book, please consider leaving a review of it on AMAZON.COM that will hopefully encourage others to read it as well.)

In Honor of Earth Day

img_0010We are in charge of and responsible for this earth. We must do a better job of caring for it.

 

In the late 80’s when then Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Jr. began his campaign of environmental awareness (which led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007), he asked me to prepare “a closing homily” for the first meeting of the initiative held in Nashville, the city where I then served as rabbi of the Reform temple. On that occasion, I told a venerable Hasidic story – told in many different ways – about a magnificent goat that lived long ago. The goat had horns so long and beautiful that when he lifted his head, he could touch the stars, and they would sing the most beautiful melody that anyone had ever heard.

One day a man was walking through the forest thinking of what he might give his wife for her birthday. He encountered the goat, and a brilliant idea jumped into his head. “I could make my wife a gorgeous jewelry box from a piece of one of the goat’s horns,” he thought.

The man approached the goat, which was very tame and friendly, and explained, “I want to make a jewelry box from just a small piece of one of your horns. It won’t hurt when I cut it off, and I’ll just take a small piece. You won’t even miss it!” The goat lowered his head to accommodate the man’s request.

The jewelry box that the man fashioned was indeed beautiful, and his wife adored it. Proudly, she showed it to all of her friends who soon wanted one just like it. You can see where this is going. Soon the goat was inundated with requests to “cut off just a small piece” of one of his horns. Of course, soon his horns were much shorter. The goat could no longer reach the stars, and that most beautiful melody was forever silenced.

This wonderful tale teaches one of the vital lessons of Genesis’ creation story. We, human beings – not the crocodile, the elephant nor the lion, though they are stronger, faster, and fiercer – are in charge of, and responsible for, this world. Ergo, if we are to pass-on a beautiful and healthful environment to our children and grandchildren, we must do a much better job than we are doing now of taking care of it!

From: What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, pp. 2-3.

 

 

The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

fullsizeoutput_2575Dawn breaking over Husum, Germany

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. When I was a young Rabbi, a Catholic priest asked me,  “What is this obsession you have with remembering?  Why can’t you just focus on the present and the future?”

The best answer I can give comes from a Non Sequitur cartoon of a survivor and a small girl, Danae, sitting on a park bench. She notices the numbers tattooed on his arm, and asks about his, “boring tattoo… It’s just a line of numbers.”

“Well,” he answers, I was about your age when I got it, and I keep it as a reminder.”

“Oh,” Danae asks, “a reminder of happier days?”

“No,” he replies, “of a time when the world went mad.” And then he explains about the horror, as Danae imagines herself in a concentration camp.

She responds, with a tear rolling down her cheek, “So you keep it to remind yourself?”

“No, my darling,” he answers, “to remind you.”

Vickie and I do not have tattoos, but those we have seen on the arms of many of our parents’ friends are etched into our hearts. For the past five years we have spent between five and ten weeks per year in Germany where we teach about the Holocaust in German High Schools. We speak about her soon to be (God willing) 99-year old mother and my late father as among “the lucky ones.” They escaped the worst of the horror and came to this country and built meaningful lives here.

No, Vickie’s parents and my father were not, thank God, among the six million who perished, but they are among the many millions more whose lives and whose children’s lives carry the internal tattoo of memory.

So, I would answer the priest who inquired about our need to remember, “Memory is part of our DNA.”

The important question is: will we allow the memory to harbor hatred and resentment, or will we share our memories to work for reconciliation and harmony? Vickie and I choose to push back the darkness of our memories. We do so not to keep reminding ourselves, but to remind this and the next generation of Germans about the depths of brutality to which humans can descend.

I first heard the phrase, “The darkest hour is just before dawn,” in a hit song, Dedicated to the One I Love from the early sixties by the Shirelles. A few years later the Mamas and the Papas also had a hit with that number.

Language historians trace the origin of the phrase to a 1651 travelogue chronicling the visit to Palestine of the English theologian, Thomas Fuller. He wrote: “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.”

Since I first heard it as a teen, “The darkest hour is just before dawn,” has encouraged me to believe that if I keep pushing them away, whatever emotional clouds envelops me will soon lift. In Germany our aim is to help young people to push away their emotional darkness about the Holocaust.

Vickie and I hold dear the young man who came up to her after our presentation to a high school class in Kiel, and with tears in his eyes said, “Mrs. Fuchs I must apologize to you.”

“But you have nothing to apologize for,” she answered.”

“I must apologize because my grandfather was SS,” he answered.

Their embrace brought tears to my eyes.

We are grateful for the opportunities we have had to help people like this young man, push away their darkness.

In Germany we frequently say, “We cannot undo the past but the future is ours to shape.”

Holocaust Remembrance Day is more than a reminder of the past. It is to remind future generations to work to push back the dark clouds of antisemitism, bigotry and hatred and embrace the dawn — that can be just ahead — of harmony, understanding and love.

 

 

 

 

Weeping May Tarry for the Night, But Joy Comes in the Morning

“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalms 30:6),” is one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible.

Robert Alter’s translation, “ At evening one beds down weeping, and in the morning glad song,” (The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Co., 2007, loc. 2387, Kindle edition) may be more accurate linguistically, but it lacks the majesty of the more familiar King James translation of the verse.

As we move from day to day through the Corona plague, I find no more fitting mantra of aspiration than these immortal words.

Our lives have changed radically. Isolation is the new normal. The country faces a horrific choice. We must weigh the risk of an even greater death toll against the impact of an economic recession that deepens daily. Protesters have taken to the streets as arguments rage about our preparedness as a nation for the reality through which we are now living.

The late Rabbi Leon Klenicki, former Director of Inter-Religious Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, defined the word “crisis” as, “turning point.”

Without question, however long it endures Covid-19 will mark a turning point in our lives. We not only wonder when the economy will recover but if. Some industries face the possibilities that they never will. 

The cost in human suffering is incalculable, and the economic hardship many face is beyond measure. People who never dreamed they would depend on charity now wait in line for hours just to receive the food they will need to feed their families for the next week.

Through it all, the Psalmist promises: things will get better. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy will come in the morning.”

One way or another we will get through this.

We as a nation, and we as a worldwide humanity created in God’s image, will survive this pandemic. Hopefully we will learn from it to be more diligent in our stewardship of the planet entrusted to our care.  Hopefully we will put greater store in the relationships we used to take for granted. Hopefully we will hold more precious every breath of life that we have the privilege to take.

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We have learned that those who survived the camps shared a common characteristic: they clung to the hope that they would make it.

There is a lesson there for us. Though the toll of lives lost and economic devastation is staggering, we must not despair. Our night of weeping will end, and joy will come in the morning.

Corona Response: We Can’t Do Everything, But We Can Do Something

The Corona Virus Crisis has confronted us with circumstances few of us could have imagined only a few months ago. 

Our lives have changed – radically, but one look at the news, with people standing outside in frigid weather on long lines waiting for food or a test spaced at least six feet apart, should let us know how blessed we are to be here in southwest Florida.

The numbers of lives lost and afflicted stagger us. And the thousands on the front lines fighting the virus and caring for the sick inspire us. 

Numbers?

No.

They are real people who could easily be our loved ones or ourselves.They are each an embodiment of God’s image, a sacred act of creation.

Poet Hannah Senesh, who parachuted behind enemy lines and was tortured and executed at age 23 for aiding the Partisans who resisted Hitler, wrote, (Ashrei ha-Gafrur in the original Hebrew) “Blessed is the Match.”

       Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

       Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places

Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake. 

       Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

We offer our profound gratitude to all have risked or given their lives so that the flames in others will continue to burn.

Viktor Frankl, the famous neurologist and psychiatrist, who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and later wrote, Man’s Search for Meaning, taught: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of purpose and meaning.”

Yes, our lives have changed, and we feel frustrated and powerless to make a difference. But not being able to do all we wish to do should never stop us from acting as Frankl urged, with purpose and meaning to do whatever we can. So:

  • Let us do all we can to remain healthy.  Hand washing, sanitizing, and physical distancing, cannot be optional.
  • Drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods and try to get sufficient sleep. 
  • Seek new ways – in our enforced leisure — to keep our minds occupied.
  • Reach out with phone calls, emails and letters to those you know who are alone
  • Donate what you can to organizations that make a difference.

In recent weeks I have released $1000 of my Discretionary Fund to F.I.S.H. because my experience on the Island has shown me how efficiently and effectively they use the funds we contribute to them.

As a congregation, Bat Yam was the first on the Island to announce a switch from in person events to digital activities to remain connected and offer comfort to our members and the wider community.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to our technological wizards, Janice and Ron Chaddock, Garry and Beth Weiss, and Dave Waks and Sandy Teger for making possible our Shabbat Welcome,” Shabbat morning classes and our “Wednesday Coffee Hour.” I shudder to think where would be without them.

A special shout out goes to Dave Waks, who worked tirelessly for hours with Cantor Simon and me to ensure our Passover Seder would work well.

The effort paid off. Our Seder reached homes from Hawaii to Germany. Our other offerings reach far more people in more places than those who were able to attend in person before the current crisis.

Recently, many of us learned the famous song “Over the Rainbow,” was not just written to express a little girl’s hope to escape Kansas in the 1939 move, The Wizard of Oz. 

Rather, the song’s Jewish composers, Harold Arlen (nee Hyman Arluck) and Yip Harburg (nee Isidore Hochberg) had something greater in mind. Seeing the storm clouds gathering over Europe after Kristallnacht they were dreaming of land over “the rainbow” of their people’s suffering: Israel. 

As we confront the changes in our lives the Corona Virus has wrought, I am so proud that Bat Yam is looking “over the rainbow.” With people stepping forward to meet the current challenge with courage and creativity we shall soon “wake up with the clouds far behind” to embrace a bright and sunny future.

An Open Letter to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Dear Governor DeSantis,

So now WWE, i.e. professional wrestling is an essential business to the health and welfare of the people of the great state of Florida??

Seriously!?

Are you kidding me!?

Governor DeSantis, without even stopping to think I can come up with a hundred industries or businesses more central to the welfare of our citizens than pro-wrestling.

Please, Governor, tell us why a sport in which the object is to injure, maim or permanently disable one’s opponent (and whether it is staged or not, people get seriously hurt) is more essential to our welfare than restaurants or, for that matter, any other business or industry one can think of.

In fact, if I were given the power one of the first things I would do is ban all blood sports (wrestling, boxing, WWE and yes, even football which shortens lives, causes dementia and leaves almost all its participants with permanent painful injuries) from the activities of civilized society.

The fact that lots of people relish coming together to see two, or four individuals do all that they can to beat one another’s brains out should not make it OK for society to sanction such activity.

One day, I am sure, we will regard these spectacles with the same revulsion we feel for the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome

What is wrong with us?

In 2009 in my former home state of Connecticut, we witnessed the sorry spectacle of former WWE executive Linda McMahon investing millions of dollars in her campaign to try to run for Senator against former CT Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Her campaign unearthed the sorry spectacle of a video wherein, in her WWE role, she kicked one of the wrestlers where it would hurt the most. Really!

In 2012 she ran again and lost as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat now held by Christopher Murphy. But money talks! In December 2016 the President-elect nominated Ms. McMahon to head the Small Business Administration. For the past year she has served as Chairwoman of “America First Action,” a pro-Trump Super PAC.

So yes, I am admitting my bias. Professional wrestling and similar sports should be banned!

That is all the more reason why they should be considered anything but essential!

The Silver Lining in a Very Dark Cloud

The staggering number of deaths around the country and the world, and the horrible suffering endured by so many has us reeling.

The world will never be the same.

No one should minimize the human and economic cost of the current pandemic. Loved ones, friends and untold number of others have died and will die. Staggering numbers of people have lost their jobs and means of sustaining themselves and their families. Too many people have died and will die without loved ones nearby to say goodbye or to attend their funerals.

The description of horror and upheaval are endless.

And yet…

Instead of trying to get back to the old normal, maybe we can embrace the silver lining in the very dark cloud passing over us and create a new and better normal for ourselves future generations.

What is that silver lining?

The earth in these short weeks of shutdown has made a remarkable ecological recovery. Water is cleaner, air is purer and the tide flowing toward inevitable environmental destruction has slowed.

What a vital warning this tragic time is reiterating. It is the same warning our Sages issued to us in the name of the Eternal One (Kohelet Rabbah, chapter 7) at the time of creation:  “You are in charge of and responsible for this earth. But it is the only one you will get. So preserve and enhance it. Do not pollute or destroy it.”

Can we somehow embrace that valuable lesson before rushing headlong back to doing things exactly as we did before?

And speaking of rushing … is there nothing we can learn from the forced “slowing down” that has become the current reality of our lives? 

I for one do not wish to return to a normal that fills every waking moment of every single day with responsibilities and obligations that make every pause and every deep breath we allow ourselves a guilty pleasure or a costly luxury.

As Queen Elizabeth so eloquently reminded us in her address to Great Britain and the world, might we embrace the beauty of aloneness and the time for self-reflection and meditation this time allows even after we can return to our previous routines?

Also, might we not  — while forced to accept physical distance – give thanks for the virtual capabilities this crisis has enabled us to embrace?

Might the absolute necessity for physical distance inspire us to greater “social closeness” through emails texts, video chats, phone calls and letters?

For example, last year’s Bat Yam Temple of the islands Seder found more than 150 people straining the fire code limits of the Sanibel House, and it was wonderful to be together. Hopefully, we shall be again next year.

But should we not give thanks that while this year’s Seder found just a few close family members together in a room, our ritual was enjoyed by people not only from as close as Sanibel and Fort Myers but from as far away as Hawaii and Germany as well.

I believe that the secret to Jewish survival despite all the hardships and tragedy history has imposed on us is our ability to cling to the hope that things will get better.

The national anthem of Israel, unlike those of many nations, is not a militaristic march, but a soulful melody entitled Ha-Tikvah, “The Hope.”

And so in the presence of the dark cloud hovering over us, I cling to the silver lining of this hope:  When the cloud passes over, and it will, may we learn the lessons it teaches and create a calmer, gentler world around us and within ourselves.

Michael Harris Levinson

As you will read below Mike Levinson played a very special role in my life. It was my sad privilege to conduct his funeral:

 

When I met via Face Time with Marilyn, Joanie, Gary, Alan, Gail, Neil and Alec, Calvin and Caroline, Renee, Howard and Abby, the love of Mike that generated from each of them was precious, palpable and inspiring.  The outpouring of affection moved me deeply but did not surprise me at all because I shared it.

When Mike Levinson arrived in my dorm room at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati 47 years ago, my rabbinical future was uncertain.  INTERMET, the program in urban interfaith ministry to which I had applied had just rejected me, but Rabbi Richard S. Sternberger felt Temple Isaiah might consider taking a chance on me as their rabbinic intern anyway.

So Mike, as President of the congregation, traveled to Cincinnati to see for himself.

He asked very thoughtful questions, listened carefully and reflectively, and showed both excitement about and concern for the future of the fledgling congregation that he led.

I was very impressed.

So, I was overjoyed when Mike called me a few days later to invite me to fly out to Columbia to learn more about the congregation and for them to learn more about me.

 Mike Levinson’s term of office ended as mine began, but I quickly learned that though he would not be president, he would definitely be present.

Throughout my years at Temple Isaiah, he was a wise, steady calming influence. And that has continued to be the case over all these years.  As Rabbi Craig Axler, Temple Isaiah ‘s current and much beloved rabbi put it, Mike, was the congregation’s version of E. F. Hutton: When he talked, people listened. When controversy swirled, Mike had a way of calming the waters, keeping us from getting sidetracked, and bringing people together.

Michael Harris Levinson was born in Joplin, Missouri and moved to Jacksonville with his family after High School.

At the University of Florida he met Marilyn Marks, and the rest soon became history.  Marilyn was 19 when they married. They moved to Bridgeport where Mike began his engineering career at GE and then to Frederick, Maryland where Mike did chemical biological research in the army. They came to Columbia in 1970.

I was single but with a serious girl friend when I arrived at Temple Isaiah, and I learned so much from observing the marital dynamic between Mike and Marilyn. They shared 58 years of love and devotion together, and served as models for the type of marriage Vickie and I have tried to create.

At the age of 52 Mike made a courageous career change.  When I asked why, Mike explained he wanted to work for more than just a paycheck.  So he went back to school to become a librarian.  How many men in their fifties do you know who leave a corporate career to become librarians? I know only one: Mike Levinson.

With his usual good humor Mike deflected the jokes about, ’“How many ways are they teaching you to say, “Shhh!” and other light-hearted jibes.

To my sadness, Mike was too sick in November to travel to Temple Isaiah when I spoke there to inaugurate the celebration marking their 50th year as a congregation. But I was pleased I had the chance to tell everyone there the story of how Mike Levinson saved my career and help launch it on the path it has taken.

I was thrilled too, that though Mike and Marilyn could not be there, Joanie and Alan were.

It brought back memories of how Joanie gave up her room for me when I came to Columbia to interview for the first time. It brought back memories of how on that memorable occasion, six-year old Alan challenged me to a fight the second I walked through the door and how calmly, gently and skillfully Mike and Marilyn dealt with the unexpected greeting their precocious son accorded the prospective rabbi.

More importantly it was so wonderful to see how grown-up Joanie and Alan reflect the intelligence, thoughtfulness and kindness of their parents.

Without question, for the last 47 years, Mike Levinson represented everything I want to be: A fair, honest and thoughtful person, a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather and a proud Jew.

If Mike represented so much that I continue to admire even though we have had only sporadic contact since I left Temple Isaiah in 1986, how much the more does he mean to his loving children and grandchildren and, of course, to Marilyn.

For all of them, Mike embodied wisdom, thoughtfulness, integrity and a wonderful sense of humor. He was famous for systematically weighing the pros and cons of various options when a decision about anything significant was at hand.

His ultimate career choice as a librarian was a perfect fit.  It enabled him to combine his love for information, science and helping people. His courage in giving up a successful career and going back to school to pursue what Mike knew would be a more fulfilling path profoundly shaped the values and priorities of his children and grandchildren.

His grandchildren found their “Pop Pop” eternally young. He could talk, laugh and play with them at their level. He was the one who would suggest a hot dog stand for a birthday lunch or a spontaneous stop when they passed an ice cream parlor.

“Spontaneous” is a word his loved ones used frequently to describe Mike. It was the rare combination of spontaneity, systematic thoughtfulness and “his infinite wisdom and sweet and gentle patience” that made Mike who he was. He was, they recalled the type of person with whom you could sit in a room and just “appreciate the silence.”

Mike was already very ill last spring when he and Marilyn came to Joanie and Gary’s for Passover.  But when Gary offered to let him lead the Seder Mike did so with enthusiasm and energy. How fitting  …  as Judaism was such an important part of his life!

Mike was 81 years old when he died, but his youthful spirit and inquiring mind made him seem much younger.

I will always be grateful that our lives intertwined, and I know his memory will endure for those who loved him and all who knew him as a blessing.

 

 

 

 

Hushabye!

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Surrounded by original MYSTICS, second tenor, George Galfo (left) and lead singer, Phil Cracolici (right)

On a beautiful day in June 1959 George Snedden, Don Marino, Graham Carnegie, Tim Lewis and I were celebrating the fact that we had just completed seventh grade. Has there ever been a better day in a young boy’s life than the first day of summer vacation?

We were hanging out with a transistor radio in the parking lot across the street from George’s apartment on William Street in East Orange, NJ, when a beautiful lilting melody with amazing harmonies came out of the radio.  “That was ‘Hushabye’,” by the Mystics, a group from Brooklyn, NY,” the DJ announced.

I was transfixed. 

Many who know me find my musical tastes strange. If someone gave me two front row tickets to a Rolling Stones concert down the street, I would pass them up in favor of third balcony seats at full price to hear a good doo wop performance. Credit my wife Vickie, a classical music fan, for putting up with my idiosyncratic preferences.

Credit her also for not refusing when I suggested a few weeks ago that we take a three hour drive to Coral Springs on a Thursday night to hear the Mystics in concert.

Like almost every doo wop group from the fifties, the Mystics have gone through a number of personnel changes, but when I learned that two of the five “originals,” lead voice Phil Cracolici and second tenor George Galfo would be performing, I bought our tickets.

The sold out show was wonderful. We sat at a table with some very nice people who marveled at the fact that we drove three hours to be there. Vickie, who honestly expected to barely tolerate the concert, enjoyed it thoroughly.

The new voices in the Mystics did a great job on a wonderful array of doo wop and some post doo wop numbers, but Phil and George were the reason I was there.

Why?

After 61 years “Hushabye” remains one of my all time favorite songs.

Life in those 61 years has certainly had its ups and downs, but “Hushabye” represents for me a precious idyllic vision of how God wants the world to be.

Some 2500 years ago, the biblical Prophet Micah envisioned a word where: Everyone would lie down under their vines and fig tress with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4)

“Hushabye” represents that world, a world where  children lie down at night in peace and security and “Guardian angels up above take care of the one I love.”

Micah’s words were just as eloquent, but he didn’t have Phil Crocolici’s beautifully understated voice and the Mystics impeccable harmonies.

Reconciliation

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Joseph’s brothers bow before him in Egypt by Stefanie Steinberg

 

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph–so moved by Judah’s stirring appeal–reveals himself to his brothers. (Genesis 44:18-34)

“It is one of the greatest, most stirring addresses in all literature.”  That is the way my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s address to Joseph. Thank you, Mr. Ehrenworth. I know I was not a serious student in your class, but your explication of Judah’s speech has stayed with me my entire life. I did not realize it then, but you set in motion the process that inspired me to make the search for meaning in biblical narratives a driving force in my life.

Sir Walter Scott called Judah’s speech, “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language” (Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, P. 169).

We wonder though, why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin’s bag?

Many commentators suggest that Joseph’s motive was revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut, z’l, in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, “Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284). However, if revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused.

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive.  Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone.  As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him away into slavery.

With Joseph gone, Benjamin became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake.

If Benjamin does not return home safely, his father will die. Judah who so callously inflicted the pain of the loss of Joseph on his father is not willing to let it happen again. In his speech, the longest one to one address in the Bible, he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph-who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence-needs to hear in order to end the charade.

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].

In Parashat Va-yigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story shows us his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” derive from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past and live more positive, purposeful lives in the future.

 

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.