D’var Torah by Jodie Friedman
When you think of a family reunion, what comes to mind? For me, it begins with the smell of familiar foods. My aunt’s tzimmes; kugel with cornflakes, and of course, a seemingly endless supply of seven layer cake from our family’s favorite, Starr Bakery. I think of the sounds too; a sprinkling or some extra Yiddish words, explosive laughter, and of course, my father bickering with his five siblings.
This week’s parasha tells of a different sort of reunion. As a reminder, the tribes of Israel are the direct descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. For those of you with siblings: could you imagine having nine or ten more in your family? Sometimes it feels like one brother is too much for me. And when we see each other, just a couple times a year, we try to spend our time sharing jokes and trying to find common ground even though we are so different. The story of Jacob’s sons doesn’t look like that at all.
When we left off last week, Benjamin, the youngest son, had come all the way to Egypt against his father’s wishes to ask for help from the Egyptians. Joseph, the second youngest son and Benjamin’s older brother, decided instead that Benjamin should stay and be his slave as revenge. At this point, we don’t think they know they are brothers since Joseph disappeared when Benjamin was very young. So Judah, the fourth oldest son, comes to recover baby Benjamin. Do you think Joseph secretly knew who Benjamin was?
For my fellow oldest or older children: sometimes it feels like the little ones get a lot of attention, right? However, we have the maturity to see the bigger picture. Judah, the fourth oldest, was ready to trade his own freedom so that Benjamin could return safely to their father, a classic protective big sib move. Judah can only think of what it would mean to their father to see his youngest and noted favorite son return home. When Judah begs to Joseph, who is still disguised, that it is for their father, Jacob, that Benjamin return home safely, Joseph forgets his anger and realizes that he is their long lost brother. Joseph is so happy to hear that his father is still alive, he is ready to let go over all the anger he’s been holding onto for his brothers.
Not so long ago, Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit and ran away because they were jealous of Jacob–Joseph was having unique visions and his brothers were jealous. Now, it was a vision that would save them. Joseph invited his entire family to come live with him safely in Egypt, where they are preparing for a famine. A famine is a long period of time when there is not enough food for everyone. Joseph had warned Pharaoh, and Pharaoh saw that Joseph’s visions can be very useful, so Pharaoh promised the best land to Joseph’s family. Judah and Benjamin return to Canaan to deliver the news that they were going to be moving. And so nearly seventy members of Joseph’s family that he had never even met before were coming to live with him in Egypt.
This was wonderful for Joseph, who was able to forgive his family, save his family, and then spend tons of quality time with them. This was less wonderful for the Egyptian people, many of whom were displaced so that someone more important could have this prime real estate. But that is a discussion for another time…
It is hard for many of us to set aside those big or small problems with our family to see our siblings as good people who won’t try to turn us their personal slaves. It is harder still to know where family ends. Joseph resigned to the idea that he was alone in the world, and one day ended up with seventy more family members than he was expecting. Even though we argue, and often disagree in really big ways, at the end of the day Jews are what my grandfather would call, “mishpucha,” family. From the outside, no one can see that one time your brother took the remote from you, or when your sister was annoying on that really long car ride. We see a strong family, and a people that will push forward.
Today, in New York City and other cities around the country, there is a Solidarity March to show that much like Joseph learned, there are a lot of Jews in the world and as many different types. To show that love is more powerful than hate, Jewish people will dance and sing and pray with their feet. We like to say mir veln zey iberlebn, we will outlive them. And for tomorrow, I look forward to a day of education and empowerment with many of the people in this room as we visit cornerstone Jewish spaces in Boston to meet with leaders and refocus our energy after attacks on the youngest Jews in our community. As we continue the arduous tradition of transforming through pain and finding ways to celebrate success, I’ll keep in the back of my mind the way that Joseph so quickly was able to forgive and move on–because the bond of family emboldened his love.
While no family is perfect, and we have a long way to go before the Exodus and the People of Israel depart the land of Egypt, we recognize that for now, things are okay. The sons of Jacob are no longer apart and they are working and growing together preparing for a day when they must band together and fight for their identity. And we know that day comes before we think were ready.
May this year, 2020 on the Gregorian calendar, be one of guided transformation, cautious openness, and a renewed sense of purpose.