Vayigash Sermon Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum January 3, 2004
Our patriarch, Joseph is known as the righteous. In the Oral Torah, the Talmud, and in Jewish mysticism, as well as rabbinical literature, the sages call Joseph, the righteous. As we examine this characterization today, in the Torah portion Vayigash, a key question is, what makes Joseph more righteous than all the other children of Jacob? Jacob had 12 sons, some of them, with well known names and reputations such as Judah, and Benjamin. Each and every one of Jacobs 12 sons was special in his own way.
But Joseph was different; he is always called the righteous. So, what makes him special and sets him apart from his brothers? As we read the Biblical chapters of the past couple of weeks, we were given the life story of Joseph, almost like a diary, or biography, and we see that he was indeed a very beloved man blessed by G-d for a specific time and purpose.
If we were to try and put ourselves in Josephs shoes, it would be difficult to understand his reactions and behavior in light of the harsh conditions he suffered and the unfair circumstances that befell him. Joseph was born to Rachel, the favored wife of Jacob. She was a young mother, who died suddenly at the age of 36. Additionally, Joseph was part of a family that harbored a lot of jealousy against him. His brothers hated him so badly that they wanted to get rid of him. They put him in a pit with scorpions and snakes. His brothers then proceeded to sell him to the enemy, to Ishmaelite Arabs. Any man put in such a situation would think, why did all this happen? My mother died at a young age. Why is my family behaving so unjustly against me?
And that was not all that happened to Joseph. Later, while he was faithfully serving Potiphar, a good master, the wife of Potiphar tried to seduce him. But Joseph was loyal to his master and rejected the wifes advances. Because of his rejection, Potiphars wife turned the tables and accused Joseph of directing inappropriate advances to her. Potiphar then threw Joseph into jail.
For an ordinary person such a trials and tribulations might result in an embittered soul. He might blame G-d or he might blame his family or he might blame the whole world. Such a man might become an atheist and reject G-d totally, thinking that he is undeserving of such a hard life and it is not fair. But Joseph remained faithful to His creator and did not destroy himself with anger and bitterness. We see later in this account how his brothers came to Egypt seeking help and food. How they bowed down to Joseph who had now been elevated to a position of authority in Egypt because of G-ds wisdom and favor. And his brothers were starving and reduced to begging for food.
What was Josephs reaction? An ordinary person, might react with what the Italian mafia calls a vendetta. For example, he might say you tried to kill me and harm me and now it is time for my payback. But Joseph chose the higher path; he was a paragon of excellence and did not react with rage--but he reacted in love. He offered his brothers encouragement, hope and forgiveness. May we all have that part of Joseph living in us.
I look back at what happened last week, at the tragedy in Iran--35,000 people died in an earthquake. In this situation, we see a different reaction than Josephs from the leadership of Iran. Israel, and the Jewish people, viewed as a supreme enemy by Iran, offered a hand of hope and help to assist in earthquake relief efforts. Israel was the first state to offer medical supplies to the scores of devastated victims. Israel offered this assistance, even though Iran is a sponsor of Hezbollah, a most vicious terrorist group, as well as Hamas, a group of murderers who target innocent civilians. Many experts even say that Iran helped carry out the attacks on 9/11 and there is no doubt they have nuclear capabilities. One may think, who cares if the Iranian people die? But this is not Josephs attitude or legacy. The Jewish people always try to help those who are suffering, not just here in the United States where there are so many charities and organizations that help, and even in Israel. But the President of Iran would rather have more people die than accept help from the Jews, regardless where they are. This demonstrates what kind of world we live in today.
But we learn from Joseph the idea of overcoming pain and to learn not to forget, but to forgive. Dr. Bernie Siegel, a Yale surgeon, in his book, Love, Medicine and Miracles, illustrates how people can heal themselves within themselves by just changing their way of thinking and their attitudes. The famous American author and self-help advocate, Louise Hay, in her book, You Can Heal Your Life,teaches people to follow in the footsteps of Joseph, to take change of ones destiny not to carry anger. Another notable book, by Dr. Viktor Frankel, Man in Search of Meaning, illustrates how certain Jewish people that were imprisoned in concentration camps were able to overcome great pain and suffering and go on in life because they saw the whole picture and chose to follow the path of forgiveness and to go on in life--this is how they were victorious over the enemy and were able to survive.
My blessing and prayer is that each of us should have the joy of family, the gift of friends and the best of everything in this coming calendar year, 2004.