Our festival of lights has come and gone. The lights still flicker in our hearts and minds while the world around us continues growing in darkness. The darkness is reflected as well in our cycle of Torah readings as we we read of the steps which lead our people down to Egypt. In our parashah for this Shabbat, we continue the saga of Joseph. As we continue in this story, one we know so well, we are aware that things will get worse before they get better. The lives of our ancestors will grow darker before the light of redemption will dawn.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written, “If we switch to a wide angle lens, we realize that the Joseph saga functions as a kind of transition piece joining Genesis with Exodus. Its job is to get us down to Egypt. At the beginning of the novella, when Jacob gives Joseph that beautiful coat, the Jews are a bunch of recalcitrant nomads living in the Promised Land in daily communication with God. By the first chapter of Exodus (to which we will come in two week’s time) they have become an enslaved nation of 600,000 souls, living in exile, who haven’t had as much as a postcard from God in 400 years! Something seems to have happened.”
Indeed something has happened! And sometimes we pay such close attention to big events that we miss the important transitions. Transitional moments can often be more enlightening than the events themselves. Our portion this Shabbat strikes me as both — an historical event and an important period of transition. I see in our portion a transition which will move Jacob and his family down to Egypt, as well an event of tremendous import — the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Both come about as a result of what transpires in the opening of our portion. We read: “Then Judah came near to him (Joseph), and said, Oh my lord, let your servant, I beg you, speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant; for you are as Pharaoh.” (Genesis 44:18) Frustrated by the seeming impasse with Joseph at which we left last Shabbat’s reading, Judah draws near. Judah steps up to the plate, perhaps recognizing that the only way out of the situation in which the brothers find themselves is for them, or for one of them to act. And so we read Va-yiggash Yehudah – “And Judah approached him…” And what Judah says to this powerful man before him changes everything: “My lord asked his servants, saying, Have you a father, or a brother? And we said to my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loves him. And you said to your servants, Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes upon him. And we said to my lord, The lad can not leave his father; for if he should leave his father, his father would die.” (44:19-22)
This moment is pivotal. It is a breaking point as down comes Joseph’s seemingly cold exterior. He demands all his servants withdraw. Weeping, he reveals his true identity to his dumbstruck brothers. “And Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph; does my father still live? And his brothers could not answer him; for they were troubled by his presence.” (45:3) This moment of transition takes Joseph from a hardened man, punishing his brothers in a mood of retribution, to a son, concerned for the health and well-being of his father. Judah steps forward. At a moment of transition and reconciliation, he plays a pivotal role in Jewish history as his step sets the stage for the Israelites’ descent into Egypt. His step forward was in one sense a step backward as it led our ancestor’s move towards slavery. It was also a step forward as he and Joseph, and then the entire family were reunited as they reconciled their differences. It was also a step forward as it brought the children of Israel one step closer to the wondrous redemption which is the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah at Sinai.
One step forward and so much meaning! What about the steps we take in our lives? What of the moments of transition in our lives? Are they overshadowed by the events which shape our lives? Our parashah teaches us of the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, an important lesson in forgiveness and love,. It also teaches us to think not only about point A and point B, but about how we got there. Sometimes the steps we take are so much more that the journey between the two as there are many lessons to be learned in the events and the transitions, the relationships and steps of our lives.