Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel
Parashat Vayigash is a parashah of transformations. Judah and his brothers have transformed from the arbiters of Josephs slavery, to Benjamin’s protective siblings to, up to and including Judah offering himself as a surrogate slave in lieu of Benjamin. Joseph has been transformed from the immature youth to the leader of Egypt. Jacob is reunited with his beloved son and comes out of mourning. The whole family are reunited and leave the metaphoric famine for the bounty of Goshen / Egypt.
Egypt becomes a remarkable refuge for Jacob’s family, who when they migrate number a total of 70 people. Yet in Egypt, they prosper and multiply. Here we see the creation of the Jewish people. No longer are we a family or a tribe, but rather we are transformed into a multitude counted as 600,000 men of age at the exodus – which amounts to over 3 million total. The irony is far from lost on us as we then see the persecution and enslavement of the people in Egypt ultimately leading to the plagues and the Exodus – but this is also reflected in the modern day relationship between Egypt and Israel, and the large Jewish population which was forced yet again to flee soon after the wars of 1948, 1956 and finally 1967.
The Torah is replete with creation stories, beginning with the creation of the world in Bereshit, humanity with Adam and Eve, the recreation with the flood in Noah, and again after the tower of Babel. Then we can see the creation/transformation into the Jewish faith and then the people, first with the covenantal relationships established with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then with the evolution to people-hood in this weeks parashat. In a few weeks time we have further transformations beginning with the exodus and receiving the Torah, and then in becoming a state with the arrival and establishment of Biblical Israel.
Yet what is transformation? Is the eating of the fruit of the tree of life necessary in order to evolve from naïve childhood through to maturity? This then implies that it was no coincidence that the tree was placed in the garden in order to allow Adam and Eve to evolve into mature humanity. Perhaps this is also true of Joseph’s slavery, and ultimately of the slavery of the people at the hands of the Egyptians – all of which brings about the exodus, the receiving of the Torah and ultimately statehood. But this also leaves us with the uncomfortable theology which can be used to justify any suffering.
Certainly transformation is a necessary part of life. Just as Joseph evolves, so too we go from childhood through the cycle of life. Yet this evolution is also a metaphor for our spiritual evolution, from our spiritually naïve childhood through to having a fully developed spiritual life as committed adults. How do we shift from the spiritually simplistic stories which we teach to our children, to truly becoming Yisrael – the people who grapple with God. Living this spiritual transformation requires us to step beyond the Walt Disney versions of the biblical stories and to grapple with what the text and our tradition means to us as adults. We must grapple with the difficult challenges life throws before us without resorting to simplistic or puerile theological rationalizations.
This week’s Haftarah tells us of Ezekiel the son of a priest who is carried off into exile in Babylon. One of Ezekiel’s primary teachings is his insistence on individual responsibility. Ezekiel presents us with the symbol of two sticks which are unified, representing the people of Israel being reunited with Israel and with the Divine Presence. Once again, Ezekiel proffers hope in the light of adversity rather than accepting atrophy or despair.
Yes, true evil was done to Joseph, as it has been done to Jews throughout history, yet despite this both he and his brothers become the forefathers of the 12 tribes. Not only did Joseph himself succeed in overcoming adversity, but his brothers also merited to go beyond the heinous acts of their youth to establish themselves as future leaders. Our alternative to evolution is spiritual atrophy. Joseph does not spend his time looking into the past or attempting to rewrite history, but rather looks towards what can be achieved in the future, whether for himself, or ultimately for his family and his people. My question then becomes how do we evolve beyond the simple reality of the various adversities which life throws before us – whether personally or as a people? Can we rise to the occasion and evolve, transforming ourselves as did Joseph into the best that we can be in our actions our thoughts and our spiritual lives? Joseph certainly inspires us to see beyond our limited horizons, to hope and to dream – but most of all, to make our dreams come true!