In Parashat Shemot , Moses bursts onto the scene as the man appointed by God to go before Pharaoh to demand freedom for the Israelites. He hears the call from a humble bush–indicating that God’s presence can be found in places both majestic and modest. Moses was astute enough and open enough to experience God’s presence in the burning bush. As inscribed on the tie, “V’hasneh einenu ukal,” “And the bush was not consumed.”
Franklin’s sentiment is evident in the title of this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, literally, “and he lived.” The portion deals largely with the death of Jacob the Patriarch and, later, the death of Joseph. Despite the prevalence of death, the first word of the portion affirms life. The Sages note mah zar’o ba-hayyim, af hu ba-hayyim, so long as his children live, so long does the parent live; even after Jacob dies, he lives on by virtue of the legacy he passed on to his children.
On his death bed, Jacob affirms life by offering blessings to his sons and grandsons. A strange thing happens, though. Some of the sons don’t fare as well as others in receiving their last testament from their father. Shimon and Levi stand out for the harsh rebuke they receive from their father.
In blessing his second and third born sons, Shimon and Levi, Jacob must come to account with one of the most disturbing events in Genesis—the slaughter of the Shechemites following the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In the event, it was Shimon and Levi who orchestrated the brutal response. They demanded that the Shechemites circumcise themselves on the pretext that that then Jacob’s clan would intermarry and trade with them. Once the Shechemites were weakened from the circumcision, the brothers proceeded to slaughter the Shechemite males (Gen. 34). Jacob, in his “blessing” says the following:
Shimon v’Levi ahim, klei hamas m’cheiroteihem.
Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of violent lawlessness (Gen. 49:5).
The text continues: “Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless, I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel (6-7).
The Hebrew word m’cheiroteihem is hard to translate. It seems that the New Jewish Publication Society translation that appears in the Etz Hayim Humash that renders “tools of lawlessness” may be based on Ramban (Nachmanides):
“As I understand it, the weapons of violence are their habitations, their life…for the weapons of violence are themselves their dwelling place, for with them they live and eat….As a result of this they must be divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel (reference to Gen 49:7) so that they will not congregate in one place. Thus the lots of the tribe of Shimon are amongst the people of Judah…and their cities were separated one from another through Judah’s tribal lands, and the lots of Levi, the cities of refuge, are scattered in all of Israel.”
Jacob recognized in Shimon and Levi that they had crossed the line into a culture and a life of violence. They were no longer merely possessing weapons in case they were needed, but they were possessed by their weapons. Their weapons were their habitation. Their weapons defined their lives and therefore they were dangerous and had to be dispersed so as not to endanger Israel or her neighbors—because “when angry, they slay men.” (Gen. 49:6) (Rabbi Aryeh Cohen)
Jacob had the blessing of living out the full measure of his days, some 147 years. Today, though, we recall a day of horror in our nation in which innocent children were denied the right to live out the measure of their days. December 14 marks the first anniversary of the bloodbath that occurred at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, CT. Twenty first-graders, all of them age five or six, were shot to death in school in cold blood, along with six teachers. More than any other shooting tragedy in recent memory where innocent people have been shot to death in schools, movie theaters, and grocery stores, this tragedy captured the attention of the nation.
Millions of Americans voiced outrage at the easy access to guns and ammunition available to mentally ill people and people with criminal records. Millions of Americans voiced outrage at the easy access many people have to sophisticated, military-grade, automatic weapons and ammunition. There was a widespread sense that common-sense legislation would be enacted to respond to this scourge of our country. Tragically, the legislation that would have kept guns out of the wrong hands died last April in a tone-deaf Congress, despite polls showing 90% support for the legislation. In the meantime, in the last year alone there have been 26 other school shootings, mostly in minority communities that don’t attract the press coverage of mostly white communities like Newtown. It’s estimated that some 38,000 people have died in the last year as a result of gun violence.
This country is a nation of laws, and when children are dying, yes, existing laws need to be enforced. At the same time, when it’s obvious that there are systemic flaws, new laws are necessary to fix the system.
With Shimon and Levi in the Torah, their weapons of violence became their habitations. They became possessed by their weapons and were defined by them. When they were angry, they would slay men. The echoes of Jacob’s rebuke of his sons ring true today. Our society has become habituated to gun violence and indifferent to its consequences. If we remain silent and complacent, how many more thousands will be left dead by next December?
This week’s parasha describes death, but affirms life. For us, our task in honoring the memory of the victims of Newtown is to call on our leaders to take action so that they will not have died in vain. In closing, let me read the names of the 20 children and eight teachers who died one year ago:
Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachel Davino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hochsprung, Madeline F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emile Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison N. Wyatt—may their memories be for a blessing.
Several years ago, I visited the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Naturally, I was drawn to the gift shop afterwards and found this tie that I knew would be just perfect for Parashat Vayehi. The patriarch Jacob dies, and Joseph has him embalmed–Egyptian mummy style–so that the children of Israel could escort their father’s remains on the long journey back to Canaan where he was to be buried. Later, Joseph dies. While he too leaves instructions to be buried in Canaan, his remains will be taken when the children of Israel leave Egypt permanently. In the meantime, he too is embalmed and entombed in Egypt. So, Parashat Vayehi is the one Torah portion with mummies, giving it a very King Tut-esque flavor.
There’s a story told about a group of rabbis in Poland returning to their Yeshiva from a long journey to another town. They travel through thick forests and open meadows until one day they come to a raging river, where a beautiful young woman stands. She approaches the eldest rabbi and says, “Forgive me, Rabbi, but would you be so kind as to carry me across the river? I cannot swim, and if I remain here or attempt to cross on my own I shall surely perish.” The rabbi smiles at her warmly and says, “Of course I will help you.” With that he picks her up and carries her across the river. On the other side, he gently sets her down. She thanks him, departs, and the rabbis continue their journey.
After five more days of arduous travel, the rabbis arrive at their yeshiva, and the moment they do, they turn on the elder in a fury. “How could you do that?” they admonish him. “You violated Jewish law—you touched a woman who is not your wife!”
The elder rabbi replies, “I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her for five days.”
The story illustrates the danger of carrying within us resentments that impede our ability to form strong bonds with others. This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, teaches the value of letting go. Following the cliffhanger on which last week’s Torah reading ends, Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob and full brother of Joseph, is in danger of being thrown in jail. The brothers were warned by Jacob to ensure no harm to Benjamin, and now they are all in mortal danger. Judah steps forward and approaches the Egyptian ruler before him and pleads for Benjamin’s life, offering to take his place for the sake of his father. The Egyptian ruler before him can no longer contain his emotions and reveals himself as their brother Joseph. The brothers are stunned. They are also probably terrified that Joseph may now truly unleash his fury and exact revenge for what they did to him years ago, selling him into slavery. The opposite occurs.
Joseph says (45:5): v’al yihar b’eineichem ki m’khartem oti heinah—do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here. Ki l’mikhiyah sh’lahani Elohim lifneichem—it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. He later says (8): v’atah lo atem sh’lahtem oti heinah ki Elohim—it was not you who sent me here but God.
Rabbi Harold Kushner notes in his commentary that God’s role was to sustain Joseph and guide him to bring something good and life affirming out of the unfairness afflicted on him. Joseph has the wisdom and strength to recognize this, and he is not interested in holding grudges over past slights. He wants to move forward and bring about healing.
This weekend the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95. He was the legendary leader of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and was its first post-apartheid president. In an uncanny way, his biography mirrors that of Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery, suffered years in prison, and yet rose above it all when he was finally free and a leader. He never took revenge on his brothers; rather, he ensured their safety.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and yet when he ultimately became president he was able also to lead with a sense of dignity, fairness and even forgiveness. In reviewing the extensive obituaries over the last couple of days, the aspect of his legacy that stands out most for me is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he established during his presidency. The panel was devised to balance justice and forgiveness in a reckoning of the country’s apartheid history where the majority black population was systematically abused by the white minority and its regime. The panel offered individual amnesties for anyone who testified fully on the crimes committed during the apartheid period.
The goal of the TRC was to give victims of brutality a forum where their accounts would be heard and vindicated, where their dignity and sense of justice would be restored, and where they could express their grievances in front of the perpetrators themselves. In exchange for amnesty, the perpetrators had to drop their denials, evasions, and self-justifications and admit the harm they had done, including torture and murder. The commission emphasized the “need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu [humanity toward others] but not for victimization.”
The goals of the TRC were inspiring, if not entirely honored in practice. The commission produced grumbling, mockery, protests, and anger. Many black victims of apartheid, such as the family of activist Stephen Biko, who had been murdered in prison, were furious at the provisions of amnesty to the perpetrators. Many white perpetrators did not apologize with anything remotely like true feelings of remorse, and many white supporters of apartheid were not interested in listening to the broadcast confessions of their peers. South Africa has hardly become a paradise; it is still suffering from poverty and high crime rates. Yet it averted a bloodbath. Solomon Schimmel, a professor of psychology at Hebrew College in Boston, traveled to South Africa, interviewing people across the political and cultural spectrum for his book on victims of injustice and atrocities. He expected to hear people describe their rage and desire for revenge. “What most impressed me overall,” he reported, “was the remarkable lack of overt rancor and hatred between blacks and whites, and the concerted effort to create a society in which racial harmony and economic justice will prevail” (Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), pp. 255-256, iBook Edition).
Among his great achievements in standing for freedom and rebuilding a nation, Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a remarkable achievement.
Mandela’s passing this week on the eve of our reading of Parashat Vayigash, is yet another reminder that life imitates Torah As we reach the climax of the Joseph story this Shabbat in the Torah portion of Vayyigash, we are reminded of Nelson Mandela who, like Joseph, knew from an early age that he was destined for something special. Like Joseph, he spent many years in prison separated from his family. Like Joseph, it was in prison that he developed the skills — especially the ability to listen — that would later make him a great leader. Like Joseph, he had the fortitude to forgive those who were responsible for his imprisonment and to achieve reconciliation with them. Like Joseph, once regarded as part of a despised minority, Mandela ascended to national leadership. Like Joseph, as a national leader he was not without controversy and was far from perfefct. Nevertheless, he was able to steer his country through a crisis that, without his wise stewardship, could have led to civil war and complete destruction (from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg).
May God grant each of us the strength and courage to be inspired by Joseph and Nelson Mandela to repair the broken relationships in our lives.
In next week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, Jacob blesses his sons and likens Judah to a lion. A lion is symbolic of courage and grace under fire. Judah earns this reputation in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, when he boldly approaches Joseph and pleads with him to spare Benjamin from punishment and to take him instead. Hence, this Shabbat my tie bears the lion of Judah.