sermon text from 12/14/13
It is a bit of a strange thing to say, but I’ve always felt it would have been better if the book of Genesis had ended with last week’s Torah portion, instead of the one we read this morning. At the end of last week’s portion everything seemed to be in such a nice, tight package. Joseph and his brothers had reconciled, in a moving vignette of weeping and hugging. Jacob comes to Egypt, and he is reunited with his beloved son Joseph for the first time in over 20 years. When Jacob comes he brings all of the Israelites, and they settle in Goshen, quickly becoming prosperous. Even Joseph’s personal journey seems to have reached a resolution – the arrogant Joseph who too pleasure in telling his brothers about his dreams of ruling over them has become humble and forgiving. And the concluding verse of last week’s portion is the Torah’s equivalent of ‘and they lived happily ever after:’ “So Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and increased greatly.” It is a perfect ending – everyone happy, everyone forgiven, everyone safe and sound, que the credits, let them ride off into the sunset.
The only problem is that Genesis didn’t end last week – it ends this week. And the picture that the Torah leaves us with is much less rosy, much messier, more more difficult and ambivalent, almost as if the Torah’s authors undid every good thing from last week, pulling the rug right out from under our feet. In this week’s reading Jacob appears to be bitter and even a bit vindictive, purposefully choosing his younger grandson Efraim for the blessing that should have gone to the older grandson, Menashe. Jacob should know better than anyone how problematic this is, and he does it anyway. He then calls his sons to his death bed, and tells each of them in turn what they’ve done wrong in the course of their lives. Then when Jacob dies, the Torah makes it quite clear that the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers that seemed so genuine last week was actually not so much. When Joseph goes to visit Jacob he goes by himself, not with his brothers. And when they travel together to take Jacob to Israel for burial, the brothers need to use a messenger to communicate with Joseph. He is clearly not approachable, keeping himself apart from his brothers, not what you would expect if everything was fine between them.
And then there is the communication between the brothers and Joseph on the way – the brothers lie to Joseph, telling him that their father Jacob told them to remind Joseph not to harm them, something Jacob never did. And Joseph’s response also is interesting. On the surface it sounds wonderful – here is what he says to them: “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people. Do not be afraid – I will sustain you and your children.”
Sounds nice! But read between the lines a little bit. What does he say to them? – ‘you intended me harm,’ reminding them just when they are most afraid of him that he has NOT forgotten what they’ve done. And also, what he does not say in his response? I forgive you! So if you are one of the brothers, you are left thinking A) Joseph has not forgotten what we’ve done, and B) he has not forgiven us for it either. It is also interesting that in this scene the brothers are bowing down to Joseph, again a fulfillment of his dreams from the beginning of the story, coming from his arrogant sense that he should be the one in charge. So the pretty picture we had at the end of last week’s portion of Jacob, Joseph, the brothers, and the relationship between them, by the end of this week’s portion, is gone.
So why didn’t the Torah just leave us where we were last week, feeling good about everything, and just move on to the book of Exodus? And I think the answer is this: we all know that we don’t live in the world reflected in last week’s Torah portion where everyone gets along, everything is great, and everyone is happy. That is just not real life! But we do live in the world where this week’s Torah portion takes place. A world where families wrestle with tension, where jealously and anger motivate people as often as goodness and kindness, where people have regrets about things they’ve done in their lives, where illness exists, and where forgiveness is hard to find, and even harder to grant. That is real life – messy, and difficult, and challenging. This week’s portion might not feel as good as last week’s, but it certainly feels more familiar.
And that in my mind is one of the great things about the Torah – it is not afraid to show us that life is hard. It is not afraid to show us that human beings – even great human beings – are flawed. But at the same time it suggests to us that in a difficult world, dealing with people’s imperfections, including our own, we can make a meaningful life, we can be partners with God in making the world a better place, and we can become members in a sacred community.
I love the moment in shul when we read the last verses of a book of the Torah, the moment we just enacted a few minutes ago. What happens? We stand together, the entire congregation. The reader chants the last verse of the book, and we respond with the phrase חזק חזק ונתחזק – be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened. The meaning of the phrase is probably this: hazak! you, the reader of the last verses, be strong! Well done! And then the second hazak – you, the person who had the honor of saying the blessings over those last verses, you should be strong – well done! And then v’nithazeik – we are strengthened together, because we, as a congregation, enabled this moment to happen – without the minyan, the Torah would not have come out of the ark and we would have missed the chance.
But in thinking about the world we live in every day, the world of this week’s Torah portion, we might understand the phrase differently. Hazak! There are times when you just have to be strong to face life’s challenges. Then the second hazak – there are times when you have to be strong for others, to be there for them and help them during a difficult time in their lives. And then, v’nithazeik – together we will truly be strengthened – supporting one another, caring for one another, as individuals, and as a sacred community.