Happy Ending or Just Another Peaceful Interlude

Parashat Va-yehi: Reversing History’s Pattern
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

When Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will take revenge on them for selling him away as a slave (Genesis 50:15).

When his brother’s throw themselves on Joseph’s mercy, he speaks tenderly to them saying, “Though you intended to do me evil, God has turned it to good to bring about the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). He then continues to protect and support them during the ensuing years of famine.

The brothers prosper in Egypt, and Pharaoh himself affirms the children of Israel’s covenantal connection to the Promised Land by responding to Joseph’s request to bury his father there with the words: “עלה, Go up,” up to the Land of Canaan. (Genesis 50:5,6). Indeed, Genesis ends, as it were, with “ … and they all lived happily ever after.”

Of course they did not all live happily ever after. It was only a peaceful interlude until, as we read next week, “a new king arose who knew not Joseph (Exodus 1:8),” and enslaved us and threw our babies into the Nile.

Vickie and I have recently returned home from a ten-week stay in Germany. As I ponder our experiences, I wonder: was our journey part of a happy ending after perhaps the most horrific period in Jewish history? Or is it, like the ending of Genesis, an interlude of calm before the next storm arises?

Our visit gave us many encouraging and uplifting opportunities. We taught hundreds of high school students about the Holocaust and basic Jewish values in an exhibit about the life of Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg. Stefanie, who was born in Breslau, is still an active artist at 93. Her idyllic childhood came to an early end when her family had to flee the Nazis. Although Stefanie never could complete her high school education in the 1930’s, grateful German students now preparing for their graduation send her affectionate emails and voice messages. They thank her and us for the chance to learn about her struggle and vow that their generation will not allow such things to happen again.

Stefanie Steinberg and her great granddaughter, Noa

Stefanie Steinberg and her great granddaughter, Noa


At the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel, it was my joyful experience to speak at High Holy Day, Festival and Shabbat services and lead adult study sessions. But each time we walked to the modest synagogue, we passed the monument on the site of the magnificent synagogue that once was a landmark in Kiel before the Nazis destroyed it.

Standing next to the monument on the site where the Great Synagogue in Kiel once stood

Standing next to the monument on the site where the Great Synagogue in Kiel once stood

While we were in Germany, I delivered ten different addresses in Lutheran churches, including one where a Nazi found guilty at Nuremberg of horrible war crimes once served as pastor. The current pastor, Martina Dittkrist, invited me to speak as part of the church’s ongoing atonement for that pastor’s crimes. I saw tears in many eyes as I spoke of reconciliation and building a better future.

(L to R) Pastorin Martina Dittkrist, artist Hannlore Golberg, me, and Vickie standing in front of Ms Golberg's painting of "The Broken Cross" symbolizing the ongoing atonement of the community of the Michaeliskirche in Kaltenkirchen for the crimes of their one time Pastor Ernst Biberstein who was tried and convicted at Nuremberg of mass murder.

In Leipzig on Kristallnacht, the city where my father was arrested on that fateful night in 1938, it was my privilege to speak at three separate commemorations. Certainly it was a happy ending for Vickie and me to be welcomed as honored guests to the city my father left as a prisoner bound for Dachau 76 years ago.

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

In Berlin it was also my privilege to conduct a seminar for rabbinical students and to deliver the semester opening lecture at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. How thrilling to see serious Jewish study once again encouraged in Germany and supported by the German government.

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

There is so much to be grateful for in our experience that we cannot help but revel in the joyful reality of Germany’s present. And yet we can never and should never forget the past. I keep wondering, “Are all of the wonderful experiences we enjoyed in Germany evidence of a true happy ending? Or is it just another interlude of calm?”

The evidence of Jewish history cries, “Interlude.” Time and again we have been welcomed and lived peaceably in places. But then the economy changed, our people were blamed, and we suffered persecution, forced conversions, murderous pogroms and exile.

There is reason for concern. We hear and see the evidence of resurgent anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Recent incidents in Belgium, Hungary, France and other places are frightening. The future of Jewish life in Europe is far from certain, but there is much we must continue to do.

We must do what is necessary so that Israel will always be strong. Had there been an Israel in 1935, there would have been no Holocaust. Therefore we must continue to defend Israel against those who question her right to live as a Jewish state in the sea of hostile Arab/Islamic states in the Middle East.

At the same time we must continue the fight for Progressive Jewish legitimacy in Israel. Our growing movement there provides an uplifting alternative to Haredi fanaticism on the one hand and secular skepticism on the other.

We must also continue to press for the equality of Progressive Judaism with Orthodox Judaism in every country in the world. Although it is an uphill struggle, we must spare no effort to strengthen our Progressive communities worldwide.

The values of Progressive Judaism demand—not just allow—that we think critically and independently. They demand that we study Torah with rigor to find in it the lessons that inform our lives and make us more worthy partners with the Almighty in forging a better world.

The pattern of Jewish history represented by the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus is a somber warning, but its repetition is not inevitable.

If we keep Israel strong—
If we do what we can to strengthen Progressive Jewish life and legitimacy around the world—
If we avidly pursue our destiny as a people called by the Almighty to help create a more just, caring compassionate society on earth—
Then I believe with all my heart, we shall reverse the pattern of history, and we shall endure and thrive. Moreover, we shall be able to say to those who wish us ill, as Joseph said to his brothers in the week’s parasha, “Although you intended to do me harm, God has turned it to good.”

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, D. Min., DD, is Past President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut, USA. He is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.

http://www.rabbifuchs.com
Twitter: @Rabbifuchs6
FB: What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives

http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Finding-Ourselves-Biblical-Narratives/dp/1427655014/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

My Vote for The Greatest Speech Ever

An End to The Charade

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 how 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 sought 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 was 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 into slavery.

With Joseph gone, Benjamin, the only other child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he too might become a slave in Egypt, and Jacob would once again lose his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake. If Benjamin does not return home safely, his father will die. This time Judah, who so callously inflicted the pain of the loss of Joseph on his father, will not 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 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)].

Judah is now a true hero, worthy to emerge 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.