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Wednesday, 26 December 2012

'Drawing near' - pathos and tears

Vayigash alav Yehudah: ‘And Judah draw near to him...’ (Genesis 44:18). How can three Biblical words hold so much pathos? They come as we approach the culmination of the ‘novella’ of Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph has manipulated his brothers into bringing down to Egypt their youngest sibling, Benjamin, and has then sent them away laden with food but with his silver drinking-cup hidden in Benjamin’s sack – the perfect pretext to have the brothers hauled back in front of him and accused of theft. They can return to their homeland, he says, if they leave Benjamin with him as his slave.

When Judah then steps forward to can imagine the situation from his perspective: Benjamin is about to be detained by the powers-that-be, the mighty Pharoah’s right-hand man, Zaphenath-Paneah (41:45)  - it means ‘God speaks and lives’ or ‘ Creator of life’. This is the nightmare scenario that their father Jacob had feared: the loss not just of his beloved Joseph, all those years ago, but the loss too of the other child of his favourite wife Rachel, the youngster Benjamin. The loss of children being a painful and tragic theme in our minds in these recent weeks.

Though are we allowed to say, when we see President Obama’s tears, when we feel our own tears, when we feel moved by the human response of the most powerful leader on the planet, when we see the pain transparently there, heart-felt - are we allowed to say, are we allowed to think, ‘and what about the other children’:  the dozens and dozens of children killed in Pakistan by the drone strikes ordered by the President. ‘Collateral damage’ of the war against terrorism. The ugliness of the phrase, the euphemism, hiding the lack of tears for those families, the lack of a press-conference for those children, death arriving for them out of the clear blue morning skies, the world ending with a bang and a whimper. Can we ‘draw near’ to this, to compassion for these families, to tears for these children?

 ‘And Judah drew near to him’ – we read the words and we can marvel at the storyteller’s artistry, using language to open up our sensibilities, our sensitivities. Because yes, it is a portrait – we see it as if in a film, or a work by Rembrandt  – Judah steps forward and physically approaches the Egyptian prince, the brother in disguise, the brother he does not know is his brother. He approaches him. But in this ‘drawing near’ we also hear something else, an inner movement, because in taking this step forward Judah is also getting close to something else, something long buried, from his past: his role in the selling of Joseph. You remember that when the storyteller describes how the brothers tore off the coat of many colours from their much-hated younger brat-of-a-brother, Joseph, they threw him in a pit and wanted to leave him there to die, but it was Judah who had said:  no let’s not leave him to die, here are some merchants passing by, Ishmaelites, let’s not kill him, we can sell him – and that of course is how, in the story, Joseph reaches Egypt. 

So we realise this is also a metaphor, ‘And Judah drew near to him’, an image that is speaking about some psychological change in Judah:  for as he approaches the brother he does not know is his brother, the whole story about brotherhood comes tumbling out; the whole history of the failures in brotherhood is there in his long speech (verses 18-34), as he recognises – explicitly and implicitly - that the favouritism of his father was real, and that it had consequences not only for Jacob but for all of them; that their sense of solidarity as family had never been there at the beginning, that they had been consumed with jealousy and envy, and their hatred had been murderous; but faced now with the unfolding of time and a situation where another brother, Benjamin, could be sacrificed - they could have just left him and gone home and spun their father another story - Judah doesn’t repeat history, he changes it. Judah ‘draws nearer to him’:  he reaches a new understanding of the significance of family ties, family responsibilities, he’s protective towards his father and to his youngest brother; he is getting closer to living out brotherhood, where feelings of rivalry are able to be held in check and something else we might call empathy, or concern, or even love, are able to be felt and acted upon.

He ‘draws near’ to this new depth of maturity - and offers to exchange himself for Benjamin, to sacrifice himself. And we are moved to hear this, because we recognise the transformation in feeling of the character, of Judah, and we recognise in ourselves that such changes of heart can happen, such acts of self-sacrifice are possible, that this is something that we each have the potential for – the overcoming of destructive, hateful feelings in ourselves and the expression of our more generous natures, our better selves.

And this takes us into the heart of our text, and the beating heart of those opening three words of the sedrah: Vayigash alav Yehudah: ‘And Judah draw near to him...’  Because there is a Hasidic reading of this which realises that the word ‘alav/him’ doesn’t actually say who it refers to. We think of it as ‘him’, Joseph. But the Hasidic reading asks ‘To whom did Judah draw near? Whom did he approach? He approached, drew near, to himself, his real self, his potential as a self, as a human being.’ He reached into the person he was meant to be, could be, and stood forward and spoke openly, fearlessly, the truth he knew. This was what he ‘drew near’ to, got close to: his authentic self - reflective, compassionate, caring, self-sacrificing.  

And it is seeing this that undoes Joseph (45:1). He can no longer hide himself from his brother, his brothers. His pretence  of keeping them at a distance can’t be sustained, his manipulations, his long-term game of cat-and-mouse, his charade of acting the high-and-mighty overlord of Egypt, and he makes himself known to his brothers, and his grief is so strong, his sobs so loud, that they piece the very walls in which this meeting of brothers takes place. More tears, more grief - not about loss and death, but about loss and life. The losses within life: the lost opportunities, the lost love, the lost compassion, the lost family feeling, the lost companionship, the losses, the losses of life; the losses we are responsible for, and the losses we aren’t responsible for, but have to bear anyway.

The Torah tells its story of the family drama that underpins the whole collective saga of exile and Exodus and wandering and deliverance. The Jewish story. The story of the ‘family of Israel’. But when we read the extraordinary narrative in these later chapters of Genesis, we recognise that although it is telling a story about a particular family, it is not just our Jewish story, it is a universal story. That’s part of its power – as everyone from Thomas Mann to Andrew Lloyd Weber intuited - that it reaches beyond the tribe into the hearts of all who hear it. For the emotions are universal. The dramas of family life are universal. Rivalry and hatred and envy are universal. Loss and grief is universal. The tears of the Pakistani mother and the American mother, the Palestinian father and the Israeli father, are universal.

The Torah tells us our story, but tells it so that we have a vision that goes beyond ‘us’, beyond our tribe, our history, our nation, our suffering -  and helps us glimpse a world where brotherhood/ sisterhood is real – fraternit√© - and where reconciliation with the other, the one we used to hate, is seen not just as a pious wish but as an innate and universal possibility. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 22, 2012]




Monday, 10 December 2012

"And a man found him wandering..." - a story about a story

You don’t know who I am, my name that is. No-one bothered to record it. Sure, you read about me, but I’m anonymous, I’m just – you might say – a character.  Just another character. Merely  – and this is what hurts – a ‘narrative device’. But without me – and I am just a poor man and my story’s seldom told – without me you would not be listening to this story. Can you believe that? No, probably not.

No-one ever believed me, even then, when I kept telling them that the Jewish story depended on me. That had I not been there that day, wandering, confused, trudging the fields, looking for God knows what – meaning, purpose, the right words (you know, the old questions, the eternal questions) – if I hadn’t been there that day, if I hadn’t bumped into him just by chance - I suppose it was by chance, but how are we supposed to know? - if I hadn’t come across him, who was also wandering in the fields - by Shechem it was, but it could have been anywhere, it could have been in Finchley, or Berlin, it’s that kind of a story - if I hadn’t met him that day when he was lost and confused (he knew his brothers should be there but they weren’t, I knew they weren’t),  if I hadn’t come across him that day (though maybe he felt he’d come across me), if that meeting hadn’t happened, this is what I mean to say, if this encounter had not occurred – the rest of the Jewish story could not have unfolded as it did.

No-one thinks about that, wants to think about that:  the chance encounters, the random events, the serendipitous happenings, how much is down to luck, how randomness rules, how two pedestrians were knocked down by cars in 1931, either, or both, could easily have been killed, Winston Churchill in New York, Adolf Hitler in Munich. It was just my luck – and yours , for good or ill – that I was there that day and made the first move, though it was out of character for me, but I did it, approached this stranger and opened up a conversation, and opened it up with such an inviting metaphor of a question: “What are you looking for?” And his response, well, it warmed my heart, because it seemed to come from his heart “I’m looking for my brothers”. It seemed to take him by surprise, to hear himself say it, there was a quizzical look for a moment, as if he heard himself speak a truth he’d been hiding from:  he was searching for connection to his brothers, it was as if he’d been missing something all those years, privileged child that he was.

Perhaps it was a turning point, of sorts, that conversation. It set him on the right path, or at least a new path. And I was left to reflect on what it meant for me, that I was the one upon whom the whole story seems to hinge.

For Joseph met his brothers, because of me, because of that strange meeting. Whereupon – and maybe he cursed me for it at the time - he was thrown into the pit, sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, he had his adventures and misadventures, thrown into the prison, raised up again – it’s  a great story, all about money  and sex and power – and I was the link in the chain, though no doubt by then he’d forgotten all about me, but without me he would never have been in Egypt, never have become Pharoah’s right-hand man, never have brought his father and his brothers to Egypt, there would have been none of that subsequent collective drama, none of that slavery and freedom and desert wanderings, none of that revelation and journeying to a Promised Land, none of that conquest and grim and joyous adventure of Jewish living, century after century, millennium after millennium, no People of the Book, no chosen people, no Marx or Freud, no Kafka or Woody Allen, none of it  would have happened, no Nobel prizes, no Hollywood, no Holocaust, if that day, that particular day, we had missed each other in the fields:  he wandering, searching after his brothers, me wandering too, just a humble man, a nobody, no distinguishing features, no history, no story, no depth of character, just doing my own thing on that day, like you do your stuff every day, nothing special, except on that day I told him what I had heard.  I was always a good listener, I just reported what I had heard, overheard – it wasn’t snooping, just curiosity, just being open to hear what was going on around me, I just said to him, when he asked about his brothers, I guessed who he meant – how did I know who those shepherds  were? how did I know they were his brothers? – but I knew, I just knew, call it intuition, call it fate, call it the unconscious, call it ‘God’ if you want to, if you need to, but I knew when he asked about his brothers, I knew where they were pasturing, I knew I had seen them and I knew where they had gone, I heard them say it: Dothan.

And that’s what I told him and that’s where he went and that’s where he found them. And the rest, as they say, is history, or saga, or myth: the story of the Jewish people, with me the link in the chain, an anonymous link to be sure, but I’m there – ‘vayimza’ehu ish, a man found him’ (Genesis 37: 15) - my claim to fame, just a small actor in a larger drama, but I played my part, I listened to what was going on, I reported it truthfully, straightforwardly, and the story passed on, the larger story in which I played my role, humbly, simply, it’s what anyone would have done, helping a wandering Jew, a person in distress, a person who didn’t know what to do next, you would have done it too, wouldn’t you?  you would have taken your part, your role, in the unfolding drama of everyday life, of sacred life, you would have been able to be the lynchpin of history – though you didn’t know it at the time – you would have seen that this is not grandiosity, this is not an inflated sense of your own importance,  this is not thinking the world revolves around you, it’s just seeing that actions count, that giving directions to someone who is lost, any day of any week, is taking part in a drama, a story, much bigger than we can ever know. (The texts of our lives mirror, intersect with, the texts of old). It’s the smallest things we do, that history never records in our name, that make a difference.

Life turns on these moments. It’s staggering, this story, this way of seeing the world. When we think we don’t matter, when we think the individual doesn’t count, that the tides of history sweep on regardless of the individual, regardless of each of us, then suddenly we see: no, it’s not like that, it’s all about us, you and me, in our anonymity and our everyday lives where each action can tip the scales, can shift the balance, can alter the unfolding narrative of life on earth. What a responsibility. What grandeur.

I learnt it in Shechem, I learnt it in that place, where I shouldered responsibility – you know of course that Shechem means 'shoulder' – on that day when Joseph approached me ( and I knew who he was of course, everyone knew him with his fancy coat and his dreamy looks, he was unmistakable, unmissable, no wonder the stories they told revolved around him), on that day I suppose I was chosen to play my part in the sacred drama. I didn’t know, of course, just how much was at stake. We never do.

But there I am – inscribed in the good book, the book of life. And you don’t need my name, and I don’t need you to know my name. It is enough that you think of me each year, when you read this tale, this fable, this story of our lives, your lives. It’s enough you think of me. Think kindly of me. And think kindly of yourselves. My time has gone. It’s you now. Your turn to be in Shechem , to shoulder responsibility, to take your place in the unfolding drama, the sacred drama. It’s your turn now.

[Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 8th 2012]midrash