At the end of last week’s portion, we found Joseph threatening to enslave Benjamin for having “stolen” his goblet.
This week’s portion, Vayigash, begins with Judah, one of the brothers (who is where we get the term “Jewish” from – “Yehuda” = Judah and “Yehudi” = Jewish), interceding. Judah, who promised his father Jacob that he would be responsible for Benjamin’s well-being, cries out to Joseph: “Take me instead!” believing that Jacob would die if the brothers returned without Benjamin.
Joseph is so moved by Judah’s gesture that he sends all his attendants out of his chambers, and yet they can still hear his cries through the door as he finally reveals who he is to his brothers.
Joseph shares with his brothers that it was God’s plan that events should transpire as they did so that Joseph could help save all of their lives. With Pharaoh’s support, Jacob and his entire household were brought down to Egypt to settle in the area of Goshen, where their flocks would be able to thrive, and at last, Jacob reunites with Joseph, his favorite son.
This portion and some of the interactions within it are particularly resonant this week, in light of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren, 6 adults and the gunman.
So many of us in the aftermath of the news, like Judah, responded with the words, “Take me instead.” Lord knows the parents of the children lost have said those words. How many of us wouldn’t want to trade places with those who were so young and innocent… who still had so much promise and potential. How many of us want to believe we would have acted the way the committed teachers and administrators who sacrificed their lives did – with bravery and valiance in the face of such blind and unhinged hatred.
It is near impossible to find any comfort in the notion that such actions, so inhumane and unbelievable, are part of God’s plan – a faith that Joseph expresses as his childhood dreams are fulfilled 20 years after he has them and he is put in a position of power to save himself and his family. Could it really be that such actions are part of a broader plan, and that we simply cannot and may not ever understand what exactly that plan is? Needless to say, the prospect is far from comforting.
At the end of this week’s portion, upon meeting Jacob, Pharaoh asks him a simple question: How many are the years of your life?
Jacob answers Pharaoh – that he has lived 130 years, and those years have not been easy – and that’s the end of their brief (and arguably awkward) interaction.
Like Jacob’s interaction with Pharaoh, the lives that were taken this past week in Newtown were much too brief, and their hypothetical answers to Pharaoh’s simple question would be heartbreaking.
This week, this Shabbat and every day thereafter, let us resolve to treat each day and each moment as precious. Let us express our love and appreciation of others openly and without reservation. Let us commit to bettering, and when necessary, overhauling existing systems in order to help those most in need and ensure our collective safety as best we can. And let us have faith that while there are indeed events that strike us as unfathomable and unexplainable, that we, as human beings, have the power to shape the world as we see fit, and as Jews, must make it our business to do so.