Parashat Vayigash 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayigash
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph reveals who he is to his brothers, in an awkward and fraught family reunion. It could hardly be otherwise. His brothers, when they were more powerful than Joseph due to age and numbers, sold him into slavery years ago and let their father believe his favorite son was dead. Now, he is the powerful one—the Egyptian official second only to Pharaoh—and they have come begging to buy food in the famine.

They never had much in common with each other, Joseph and his brothers, and they never got along. Joseph insulted his brothers and reported on their behavior to their father. They, of course, rejected him in the most extreme way, just short of murdering him.

Still, the bond of family remains. Times are hard now, during this great famine. Joseph forgives his brothers and helps them, because they are family, and because he can.

Years ago now, I brought an anthropologist to my congregation to lead a discussion about Jewish identity. He asked the group to consider what all Jews have in common. We were not able to come up with anything. God? Some Jews are atheists. Ethics and social action? Many non-Jews live by the same ethics and are dedicated to social action. Torah? There are many secular Jews who know nothing about the Torah. Israel? Some Jews are anti-Zionist. The fact that we’re all Jews? We don’t all agree on who is a Jew.

Ultimately, there may not be one thing that binds us all together besides the acknowledgment that we are a people, a family. We don’t all get along, we don’t all recognize each other’s practice of Judaism as authentic, and many of us are very, very different from each other. At the individual level, there are friendships and collegial relationships in many cases. At the same time, our varied Jewish practice often excludes other kinds of Jews, and that sometimes extends to attitudes about Jews different from ourselves. At the Academy for Jewish Religion, students and faculty have the opportunity to push themselves and each other in a pluralistic environment that embraces different kinds of Jews, and it is challenging. It is good, and it is not easy.

We now find ourselves in a time of rising antisemitic incidents and attacks, ranging from vandalism to murder. Very recently, a Persian synagogue in Beverly Hills, CA was vandalized. In Jersey City, NJ, four people were murdered, two of them Jews, in an attack in a kosher grocery store. In Monsey, NY, five people were injured in an attack with a machete during a Hanukkah party in a rabbi’s home. I live in Brooklyn, NY, and in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn there have been a number of assaults on Ultra-Orthodox Jews, mostly slapping and punching on the street.

Like Joseph and his brothers, all of us in the Jewish family are pulled closer to one another in the face of this environment. We stand together against these attacks.

I’m sometimes inclined to wish that we could get along better when times are not difficult. But reading the story of Joseph and his brothers, as well as other stories of difficult family relationships in the Torah, I think it’s okay that our relationships with other Jews are not always comfortable. We push each other, we argue, and we all contribute to the richness that is Judaism. Underneath all of it, we know that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. We are a people. May we stand together across our discomfort, across the distrust we sometimes have toward one another, and across our differences, as Joseph and his brothers do in our Torah.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.