Rabbi Paula’s Sermons

Welcome to Rabbi Paula’s sermons section of our site.

Here is Rabbi Paula’s sermon from New Year’s Day:

Vayechi 2021

There was a lot of talk about heroes in 2020…essential workers, health care providers, first responders, teachers and farmers.  2020 has pushed us to think about who the heroes are in our world and how ordinary people can be heroes.  The events of 2020 have pushed us to think about what we value in other people and in ourselves.  Are we striving to be the kind of people we should be?  Are we putting our energy and our effort where we should?  It has certainly been a year of upheaval but also a year of reflection.  

I have to admit that I like to read obituaries.  They are stories and I love stories.  Even if I did not know the person, and never even heard of them, I find it fascinating to learn their story.  For as long as I can remember I have been an avid reader, for better or worse, of the New York Times.  But sometimes the obituary section of the New York Times frustrates me and makes me question who we are as a society and what we value.  You see, there are days when it is full of the stories of famous people.  I understand that people are interested in reading about famous people and that sells papers but I want to read about people who did important things, interesting things with their lives.  I want to read about real heroes, not people who became famous because they made a lot of money or were lucky to be born with a particular talent like for playing a sport or acting or were born into a rich, famous family.  I want to read about people who had moral character, who overcame something, who worked hard, who gave to others, who left the world a little better than they found it.  When they hire me to edit the New York Times obituary pages those are the stories I will highlight.  

In this week’s Torah portion we have the deaths of two people who would have had very interesting and different obituaries.  First, Jacob our patriarch dies.  Jacob who becomes Israel, literally, the father of our people.  Jacob who wrestles with a divine being.  Jacob who ends his life the head of a huge family, very rich and respected in the entire region.  And yet, Jacob almost destroys that family by favoring one child over the others.  He not only passes a pattern of familial dysfunction down to his children, he makes it worse to the point that it erupts and then he does not learn from it, even until his death.  Our great patriarch, Jacob, is a very complex and imperfect human being.  This makes him someone whom we can learn so much from and yet, he is not quite heroic, especially in his earliest years and again in his later years.  

But we have a second death in this Torah portion and a second opportunity for an obituary that is heroic and that is Joseph.  Now many of us think of the young Joseph, with the coat of many colors who brags about his dreams to his brothers but the man that Joseph grows into is very, very different and one whom I greatly admire.  In fact, we have an episode in this Torah portion, before Joseph dies, that is so powerful for me, because it is an example of what I so aspire to do and be.  

In spite of Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph and the hatred and strife that it causes among his sons Joseph finds a way to forgive his brothers and reunite with them in one of the most powerful scenes in the Torah which we read last week.  When Joseph was 17, the Torah tells us his brothers threw him into a pit (where he could have easily been left to die) and then instead of killing him, they sold into slavery in Egypt where he spent many years as a slave and then in jail.  When many years later, he sees his brothers again he is a great leader in Egypt and they have come to get food during a famine.  They have no idea what has happened to him and don’t recognize him.  He had many choices at this point.  He could have harmed his brothers, at the very least he could have had a really good gloat, throwing who he had become in Egypt in their faces and yet, Joseph manages to see his trials and traumas as part of God’s plan and not as simply a hateful evil act done by his brothers.  Because of this, when he tests them, he is able to see that they have changed (and at least his brother Judah who is now their leader has) forgive them and reunite with them.  He is also eager to reunite with his father whose role in what happened to him he must have come to understand over the years as it was his father who drove the wedge between him and his brothers to begin with and then sent him alone to meet them in the wilderness all those years ago.  

Up to this point, it seems entirely possible that Joseph has been kind to his brothers, and is taking care of them and their families for the sake of his father and he could still be angry and resentful on some level.  But then Jacob dies and all the brothers go together back to Canaan and bury Jacob in the family burial site, the Cave of Machpelah.  According to a Midrash, on the way back to Egypt, after the burial, they come upon the very pit that the brothers had thrown Joseph into all those years ago.  Joseph stops and looks into the pit.  The brothers, of course, are terrified that now that Jacob is gone, Joseph will take revenge on them for what they did to him.  According to this Midrash, Joseph instead says something amazing.  He looks into the pit and he says, “Baruch hamakom she’asah li nes bamakom hazeh.”  “Blessed is God who performed a miracle for me in this place.”   Pause.  He is standing in the place where the worst thing that ever happened to him in his life occurred and he sees the miracle, the gifts that came as a result of that horrible, horrible day.  

Now I’m not saying that I believe that when horrible things happen to us that God is doing them and that there is a reason.  I personally don’t believe that God is pulling our strings, acting in our lives the way that this story depicts.  What I do find incredibly admirable and yes, heroic, is Joseph’s ability to look back on the suffering and struggle in his life and learn from it, grow from it and to let go of the pain that came with it.  I am in awe of Joseph’s ability to let go of his anger at his brothers, his ability to forgive them for years of hurt that their unthinkable act caused him, his willingness to be open to the possibility that they have changed and his eagerness to heal the family and bring it back together.

The Torah tells us that after they buried Jacob, Joseph’s brothers came to him afraid that he would now seek revenge on them and offered themselves as slaves and asked him for forgiveness.  The Torah tells us that Joseph wept as they spoke to him and after he told them not to fear the Torah says, “Thus did he comfort them and speak straight to their hearts.”  Pause

How many times do people we love hurt us?  How hard is it to forgive?  How hard is it to let go of anger and hurt?  I want to be like Joseph.  I want to learn how to more easily let go of my anger, I want to be more able to forgive.  Joseph is my hero, not because he became like a king of Egypt but because of his character and what was in his soul.  

A new secular year lies before us.  Let’s take a Jewish approach and not just resolve to lose a few pounds or exercise a bit more or eat healthier (although all those things are good).  Let’s think about who we want to be in this new year…about what it means to be a real hero….about who we can forgive and rebuild a relationship with…of what baggage we can let go of to lighten our load as we keep moving forward on our journey.

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