I do quite a bit of writing but I rarely write about the parsha (my Shnayim Mikra synopses notwithstanding). Honestly, I feel there are many others who excel at finding meaningful, relevant messages in the parsha each week. Many of these people manage to uncover new insights every single year, and I am truly in awe of their ability to do so. There’s simply no need for me to duplicate their efforts with something that I do second best.
But there’s one parsha that really speaks to me: parshas Vayigash.
You know how people always say they’re spiritual but not religious? I’m the opposite—religious but not spiritual. I’m very pragmatic. Intellectual. Rationalist. A real “misnagid.” I don’t get touchy-feely about the parsha, or much else for that matter. Nevertheless, parshas Vayigash always gives me goosebumps.
Look at what has happened over the past few sedras:
Yoseif had a series of dreams that foretold that he would become master over his brothers. In a desperate act of self-preservation, the brothers tossed Yoseif in a pit. He ended up being sold as a slave in Egypt. After a pretty good run as manager of Potifar’s household, Yoseif was framed for attempted rape and imprisoned. Two years later, he was freed in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. After predicting an oncoming famine and outlining a course of action for surviving it, Yoseif was promoted to viceroy so that he could implement his plan.
A few years later, the famine arrived. When it hit Canaan, Yaakov sent his sons—Yoseif’s brothers—to Egypt to purchase food. Upon their arrival, Yoseif recognized them immediately but they didn’t recognize him. (Yoseif was 17 years older, he had grown a beard, and they assumed he was dead, not viceroy of Egypt.) Yoseif accused them of being spies; he grilled them about their family and threw them all in jail for three days. When he released them, he kept Shimon as a prisoner until such time as the other brothers would return with Binyamin, their youngest brother, which would corroborate their claims. Yoseif gave the brothers the food for which they had come, but he instructed his servants to put the brothers’ payment inside their sacks. When they opened their bags much later, they found the money and had panic attacks, fearing that the viceroy must now surely think them thieves as well as spies.
With all this drama, Yaakov refused to allow his sons to return to Egypt with the baby of his family, Binyamin, until the famine compelled him to do so. Upon their arrival, Yoseif greeted them warmly, assuring them not to worry about the money they found as their accounts were in order. Shimon was released from prison and the brothers were wined and dined. Yoseif messed with the brothers’ heads some more by showing inexplicable favoritism to Binyamin. (According to the Midrash, Yoseif continued to psychologically manipulate the brothers by revealing family details that he claimed to know through divination.)
Yoseif once again had the brothers’ money hidden in their sacks but this time he took the game to a new level: he had his own goblet placed in Binyamin’s sack. After the brothers departed, Yoseif had his soldiers pursue them, claiming that one of the brothers had stolen the viceroy’s magic cup, through which he worked his divination. The goblet was discovered in Binyamin’s sack, so Yoseif said that Binyamin must remain behind as a slave. This prospect devastated the brothers, as they were sure the news would kill their father.
Parshas Mikeitz ends on a cliffhanger. Parshas Vayigash opens with Yehuda taking the initiative. My Shnayim Mikra synopsis for the first aliyah of parshas Vayigash reads in its entirety:
In a defining moment, Yehuda approached Yoseif and said, “This is unacceptable. You asked us all about our family, you made us bring our younger brother here under duress, and now you want to enslave him. The boy is his mother’s only remaining son; if we don’t return with him, our father will surely die!”
Yehuda had had enough. Like Peter Finch in Network, he was mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore. He preceded fitness guru Susan Powter by several thousand years when he told Yoseif that it was time to “Stop the insanity!”
The strength of character displayed by Yehuda is not only a turning point in this story, it’s a turning point in Jewish history. Let’s say that Yehuda hadn’t confronted Yoseif. Instead, let’s say the brothers had said, “Oh, no! Tough break, Ben! Can’t be helped, I suppose.” Things would have played out very differently
Yehuda’s proactivity is just one reason why we’re called by his name, Yehudim. (Rationalist that I am, I know the “real” reason is because we’re the remnants of the post-civil war southern kingdom of Yehuda. I still like to believe that Yehuda’s initiative was a contributing factor toward his name being associated with all of us.)
But what about us? At what point do we say, “Stop the insanity?” When are we mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore?
Let’s take the recent terror attack in San Bernardino, CA. (No, this whole article wasn’t an excuse to talk about San Bernardino. San Bernardino just happens to be an example concurrent with my writing this. There are literally thousands of examples one could choose.)
Did you notice how I called it a terror attack? That’s because that’s exactly what it was. The shooters were motivated by radical Islam. It wasn’t a case of workplace violence. It’s not about gun control. The terrorist couple certainly wasn’t “acting out” over global climate change. To ignore the problem and pretend that radical Islam doesn’t exist places all of us—Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist—in deadly jeopardy. In other words, it’s insanity.
It’s not one-sided; there’s insanity all over. To call for excluding all Muslim immigrants, even temporarily, is to punish the overwhelming majority of innocent Muslims for the crimes, however heinous, of a very small minority that, as noted, threatens all of us. And, with the benefit of hindsight, to even consider the possibility that one might have supported the internment of Japanese US citizens during World War II? That’s nothing short of insanity.
But what do we do when the insanity comes from our own side of the aisle? (If you’re intellectually honest, you will note that 50% of the insanity comes from your own party.) Do we say, “I’m sorry, Mr. President (Mr. Candidate, Madame Senator, etc.), but you’re wrong?” Too often, we simply justify the insanity, either because it serves our agendas or it’s just easier.
Yehuda could have walked away. Instead, he put his own life on the line by standing up to the second-highest official of the mightiest empire on Earth. He had to. Injustice was being done and it was within his power to address it. He showed fortitude that literally changed the course of history.
What are we going to do? Are we going to lie down and let partisan politics steer the narrative when all of our lives hang in the balance? Or will we show the strength of character to declare “Stop the insanity!” regardless of from where the insanity originates?
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.