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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 – fraternité - 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]




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