Listen! Pay Attention!

Tevet 7 5780 וַיִּגַּשׁ, ז’ טבת תש”פ

Parashat Vayigash shows us the results of true communication as well as how tragedy helps to form our characters. Tragedy can turn out to be a blessing forcing us to go in a direction that we never imagined, even though it is difficult to see at that moment. Many years ago, my older brother died in a car accident at the age of 24. His tragic death, over time, brought our whole family to the Creator. The difficult times I have gone through in my life brought me to where I am today. If you look back at those decisive moments, you can also see how they made you a better person. Of course, there are two sides to every coin. I remember meeting two people who survived the Holocaust; one who emerged with a strong love for the Creator and positive about her future while the other was a man who was so angry with the Creator for allowing this to happen, that he became a hateful, bitter person to his death. How can two people be so different? Each of us is given the gift of “emunah – אמונה – faith” at birth; throughout our lives, our faith is tested as we use our “bechirah chofshit – בחירה חופשית – free will” to develop “bitachon – ביטחון – trust”. This forces us to be “responsible” for our “kavanah – כַּוָנָה – intention” in all that we do. It is easy to say, “I believe”, but if that belief is not translated into action, it is of little value. Religions have simple formulas that allow us to believe that something or someone else will pay for our sins. That is not the message of Torah! We need to constantly examine our intentions when we do something because this is how we are judged by our Creator. That is our struggle and why we are called “Israel” – the man who struggles with God. We need to constantly look within to see who we are and why we do certain things and come clean by doing true teshuva instead of doing lip-service.

When we first read about Joseph, suddenly the story of Judah appeared. In this portion, Joseph will have a special encounter with Judah but now it is “twenty – two” years later. So much had happened in both their lives. Tragedy can either make you a better person or a worse one. What had happened in the lives of Joseph’s brothers after keeping such a dark secret from their father all those years? Can you imagine their guilt? If we are careful to put everything together when reading these stories in the Torah, we can learn wonderful lessons. Joseph had already heard how guilty the brothers felt about what they did to him. Now he was listening in to see if they had treated Benjamin, the second son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, in the same way. Had they truly changed? Judah was ready to give his life in exchange for Benjamin’s. Remember, Judah was the one who told the other brothers to sell Joseph as a slave rather than kill him. Here Judah is defending Benjamin and offering himself as a slave to Joseph. This theme of “midah keneged midah – measure for measure” appears time and again in the Torah. What was the reason that Joseph finally revealed himself to them at this point? He saw that there was true teshuva in their lives, true kavanah to do the right thing!

We are a small community, sometimes asking ourselves, “are we doing anything important here or are we not?” Do we want to be important and recognized by man or by the Bore Olam – בורא עולם – Creator of the World? We all struggle with this question. Every Shabbat before the Torah procession, we read the Ten Commandments out loud since it is the basic constitution of Israel. The Creator doesn’t give us thousands of rules and regulations rather He wants us to be honest and do the right thing on a daily basis. My battle is with the religious, holier-than-thou institutions who take people away from a relationship with the Creator. Did Joseph change religions or choose another god because his God failed him by allowing him to go through such tragedies in his life? No, Joseph remained faithful to the end. When he finally revealed himself to his brothers, he told them not to worry since the Creator had allowed him to go through everything in order to save them. He demonstrated his true intentions by always giving glory and honor to the Bore Olam. It is not about being religious but about a true walk “Halachah – הֲלָכָה” with the Creator which involves sincerity, honesty and clarity of heart. It is important to be transparent and allow ourselves to be who we are, without a mask. Let us not judge others by their externals but take time to get to know the person before deciding who they are.

Judah approached Joseph asking to “speak to his ear”. He was asking him to “pay attention to” what he had to say. Most of us speak “at” each other instead of “to” each other. How often do we stop someone from speaking from his/her heart without letting him finish because we already think we know what he is going to say? It is usually a self-defence mechanism because we don’t want to deal with the truth since we already have our minds made up. When we wait and listen, we might be surprised about what we can learn. Judah finally got Joseph to pay attention even though Joseph had already made his mind up about his brothers’ behavior. For the first time, he saw that they had been protecting Benjamin because they truly loved their father and were repentant about how they had treated Joseph.

Have any of us judged someone without taking the time to get to know them? Are we holding something against someone without facing that person? There is no perfection in us, and we are the way we are so that we can continuously return to Him. A tragedy can make or break us. In whom do you trust, in a man-made religion or God? Psalm 145:18 says, “The LORD God is close to all who call upon Him; all who call on Him from His Truth (be’emet – בֶאֱמֶת).” This involves a two-way relationship between the Bore Olam and us. We need to listen carefully to each other, pay attention and not to prejudge one another. Let us be honest and real without play-acting. That is the message we can glean from Joseph and Judah.