Since the fall of my senior year in Rabbinical school, 1982-83, Parashat Vayeshev has held a special place in my heart. I was among the “lucky” members of our 5th year class to preach not one, but two, “senior sermons” before the student body and faculty. The first assignment, in my fourth year gave me Parashat Vayera (the announcement of Sarah’s impending pregnancy; Sodom and Gomorrah; the birth of Ishmael and the subsequent birth of Isaac; the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness; and the Akeida – the binding of Isaac. Not a bad draw in terms of source material rich for preaching. The second time around I drew this week’s portion as my assignment. Again, not bad: Joseph’s birth; his rise as “nudnik” within his family as he interpreted dreams that left no one feeling good; his brothers’ conspiracy to dispose of him; and his descent to and early years in Egypt. Again, plenty of rich source material on which to focus.
For some reason I cannot exactly recall, my attention was drawn that fall to a single verse in our portion, Genesis 37:4 – “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” Though many years have passed, I still find myself drawn to that verse. Why is it that Joseph’s brothers cannot “speak a friendly word to him (a less-than-accurate translation of the Hebrew)? Conversely, reading the story at its simple level, it’s not so difficult to understand the cold shoulder Joseph inspires in his brothers. If you’re interested, join us for Minyan Torah study tomorrow morning.
This time around in reading and studying Genesis, I find myself called back to that same verse. I am drawn not so much by the story itself, but by the power of those words, lo yachlu dabro l’shalom – “they were unable to speak to him (or with him) of shalom.”
The week now ending has brought us, yet again, deeply disturbing news – this week in the form of the horrific attack in San Bernardino, CA. I need not repeat here the details. We all know a fair amount from the cease
less reporting. As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jeff Salkin has written in The Forward, “There was a time when I asked myself: “Who will have to get killed in order for this nation to come to its senses? Whose loved one will have to die?” In the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh’s own firstborn had to die in order for him to wise up, and to free the Israelites from their slavery. Who will have to die this time? The firstborn of the head of the NRA? Will that work? No, it will not work. Because we simply don’t care anymore. Because we are numb.”
Rabbi Salkin’s words ring true for me. Even more, as the shooting incidents occur and the death tolls mount, I am stunned by our inability as a nation, to have a sane conversation about taking steps to put an end to the dying. Some cry the real issue is “mental health.” Others call for (but, in my opinion largely turn up lame when it comes to pursuing) gun control. I have said it before, I believe the real mental health issue when it comes to the rampant availability of guns, especially attack weapons, is the insanity to believe that ether more guns or ignoring the situation are responsible positions.
In part because of our elected officials fear of, and in many cases, obeisance to the NRA, we are not even permitted to have a conversation about guns and gun control. Witness how many presidential candidates simply changed the subject when asked about the shooting in Colorado last week, or San Bernardino this week.
In the midst of the nightmare of ongoing gun violence, we are living the very same syndrome which turned Joseph brothers away from him. If I may paraphrase, anachnu lo y’cholim l’dabeyr l’shalom – We are unable to speak of matters of peace, of wholeness.
Shame on us, and shame on our leaders – elected, or candidates, for failing to lead us in having a sane and responsible conversation about an important security matter that impacts us all – the place of guns in our society.
For Joseph, the difficult episodes through which he lives in the portions we are reading this week and in weeks to come turn out well. We are the dreamers if we dare kid ourselves that this bloody stream of shootings will turn out well without responsible, moral leadership. We will not see that leadership step up without our raising our voices. As Rabbi Salkin says in his article, “Want a Jewish Response to San Bernardino Mass Shooting? Scream Bloody Murder.”