Dreaming a Holy Community: dvar on Vayigash by Rabbi Shelley Goldman

Rabbi Shelley Goldman

Shabbat Shalom.

This morning I’d like to focus on the Joseph story from the perspective of community organizing and the creation of holy Jewish space. This week marks the third and final Torah portion focused entirely on the exploits and escapades of Joseph. Today we read the dramatic conclusion of the story, where Judah, the fourth of Jacob’s son’s, takes responsibility for the wrong that all the brothers did to Joseph so many years earlier. Judah begs the viceroy of Egypt, who he does not know is Joseph, to take him, instead of his brother Benjamin. But I am getting ahead of myself. We will return to Judah’s impassioned speech in a moment but let’s first look at the dramatic beginning of the story, which we read two weeks ago in Parashat VaYeishev.

The tale is familiar to all of us. Joseph, his father’s favorite, is sent to “see about” his brothers. We understand the complicated family dynamics at play when a younger sibling tags along with his older brothers. We can imagine how tricky it must have been to have Joseph, the son of his father’s favorite wife, hanging around with the sons of the other wives, Bilhah and Zilpah. It is not a stretch for us to think about what might happen when the favorite son shows up in the special coat that his father gave him (when no one else got any presents) telling tales about his dreams. Dreams that proclaim Joseph a future king, with his brothers and parents bowing low to him, first as sheaves of wheat and then as the sun, moon, and eleven stars. We know that this is not a story that ends well. Or does it? Right now I’d like to focus on four words in Hebrew in our story.

As Joseph approaches, his brothers say to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what becomes of his dreams!” But when Reuben, the oldest, heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life,” we can put him in that pit instead. Then Judah piped up and suggested that they sell him to the traders in the approaching caravan.

The words that I’d like to focus on are “We shall see what comes of his dreams,” eight words in English or Nireh Mah Yeheyu Chalomotav, four words in Hebrew. These four words exemplify the beauty of Torah study. Words can mean one thing in their Biblical context, or as my Biblical Hebrew teacher Michael Carasik says, “their natural habitat,” and they can mean quite another thing once the commentator has finished her work. This tradition, of reading words wholly out of context and with your own purpose in mind, was begun by the rabbis of the Rabbinic Period, some 2000 years ago. The sages of the Talmud, completed in the year 500, made this style of commentary into high art.

It is in this tradition of taking words of the Bible and flipping their meaning, that some years ago my teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, presented the graduating rabbis of that particular year with a chant, “We shall see what comes of his/her dreams.” In presenting this chant to a group of students who were moments away from becoming rabbis, and fulfilling a dream that was accompanied by years of study, the meaning of the words was flipped from the sarcastic sputter of a jealous brother to a loving send-off by a grateful community. When Joseph’s brothers’ say, “We shall see what comes of his dreams,” while he is lying, without his coat, at the bottom of a pit, the answer that they expect is, “Nothing. Nothing will become of his dreams.” When Rabbi Shefa Gold sings Nireh Mah Yeheyu Chalomotey’ha, “We shall see what comes of her dreams,” she is saying, “I can’t wait to see what you do next!”

Two weeks ago I spent a few days on a retreat in Chicago dreaming with leaders from Faith in Action affiliates from Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota. Faith in Action is one of the three major faith-based community organizing outfits in the country. We were taking a breath after the elections to evaluate our non-partisan get out the vote efforts of the past several months. We also continued to dream, this time focusing on the future. The central question of the three days was, “What do you want to see for your state in the next 2, 4, 6, 8 years?” It was a hard question, at first, but it got easier the more that we talked.

The main “take away” that I left with is this: I hope to help change the narrative in our public conversations from what it is right now – one based on fear, fear of the other, fear of immigrants, fear of people of color, fear of poor people,and, yes, fear and hatred of Jews to one based on love. I want a narrative that says, “I am responsible for my neighbor,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The current narrative holds that the job of government is to “stay out of people’s lives, except when it comes to law and order.” I humbly submit, along with my fellow dreamers, that the job of government is to protect people and lift us up.

In this moment of installing a new rabbi in the community, it is good to dream together. What do you want for your community in the next 2, 4, 6, 8 years? What educational programs would you like to see? Are there social action projects that you’d like to undertake together? How do you want to grow and change? Dreaming of a different future, a better future, is a core component of community organizing and radical Jewish life. What will become of our dreams? No one knows, but we can hope that our wildest dreams come to fruition and work to make it so.

Other core components of being good leaders in the struggle for justice and building Jewish community are the ability to see ourselves as the “guarantors of our fellows” and having the capacity for self-reflection and public confession. This brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat VaYigash, which opens with Judah’s impassioned speech to the Egyptian controller of grain in the time of famine. The speech so moves Joseph that he finally gives up his ruse and admits his identity to his assembled brothers. Judah’s speech is beautiful and as Biblical commentator Avivah Zornberg points out, is striking in that it shows Judah’s development from a devious brother who could willfully lie to his father about his brother being torn to shreds by a wild beast, to a sensitive man, who has lost two children of his own, and does not want his aging father to lose the only other child of his favorite wife, Rachel. Judah becomes the leader of the brothers, even though he is the fourth out of twelve sons, because of his self-reflection and public confession.

He says to Joseph, “we cannot return to our father without our brother Benjamin because it will kill our father for, Nafsho Keshurab’Nafsho, his life is bound up in his life.” Judah sees himself as responsible for Benjamin and responsible to his father, so much so, that he is willing to be the guarantor, to pay the price himself, for Benjamin’s alleged crimes.

As I reflect this morning, on my good friend and study partner/hevruta, Rabbi Ora, I am thinking about her qualities as a sensitive and empathic leader. She has a deep capacity to connect to pain, the world’s pain and individual’s pain, too. This means that she is a wonderful conversation partner and pastoral care giver. Her depth and introspection inspire others to examine their own lives. How lucky you are to have her as your leader!

Rabbi Ora is also a lover of words and books. As a student of fine literature, she weaves gorgeous d’vrei Torah and to this day when I sit down to write, I think about some of the pieces she presented in our Homelitics class.

Rabbi Ora’s speeches weave together many different sources and are texts that are full of other texts, dazzling with connections.

My blessing to you this morning, this Kehillah Kedosha, this holy community, is that as you install a new leader in your midst you also remember your individual power and responsibility. Vest your new leader with the authority she needs to lead you and also remember that you, yes, you, and every single one of us are the guarantors of our neighbors and the earth. It is our responsibility to dream, to reflect, to publicly confess and make amends when we have missed the mark. And as the Black Lives Matter Movement has brought to popular consciousness the words of Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love one another and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” 

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so. In this community and in all communities.

Shabbat Shalom.