Jan 5, 2009

VaYigash 5769: "The Possible Blessing of Encounter"

VaYigash 5769: "The Possible Blessing of Encounter"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

   - wishing a Refu'ah Shleiman to Yedidya Schlessinger, wounded in Gaza
   - in memory of Alan Eisen z"l,
father of Chancellor Arnold Eisen
   - with thanks to Vicky Sommer

I've been spending some time with Martin Buber recently, preparing for a public conversation with my friend Josh Kornbluth, as part of his monologue at the Contemporary Jewish Museum entitled "Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?"  Buber is one of 10 Jewish portraits in museum's exhibit, and is himself an intriguing character in the worlds of philosophy, Zionism, and human interaction.  His general approach is articulated well in this quote, taken from Aubrey Hodes' "Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait":

"I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man's life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience."

Buber's concept of "encounter" is useful as we enter Joseph's culminating interaction with his brothers, specifically Judah's approach:

Then Judah approached (VaYigash) him and said, "Please, my lord, let Your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, You who are the equal of Pharaoh. (Gen 44:18)

What must Judah have been thinking in the immediate aftermath of Joseph's accusing Benjamin of stealing?  Their father Jacob's youngest son was about to be lost (again) and Judah's leadership was facing the ultimate test once more, this time from a clear position of vulnerability.  What must Joseph have been feeling, with the pent-up pain and anger of decades and the sudden position of power over his abusers at hand?  What must Benjamin have been feeling, thrust into a horrible position he did not himself create? What do we, the readers, experience as we enter the writhing text and its intense emotionality?

What was embodied in Judah's approach?  The ancient rabbis wondered as well:

[What does 'VaYigash/He Approached' mean?] Rabbi Yehudah interpreted it as an approach of war.  Rabbi Nechemiah interpreted it as an approach of appeasement... The Rabbis interpreted it as an approach of prayer. Rabbi Elazar resolved the dispute saying, "if for war, here I come; if for appeasement, here I come; if for prayer, here I come." (BR 93:6)

It is Rabbi Elazar's view that compels my attention, in which Judah's approach was one of unpredictable outcomes, an encounter in Buber's framework, I believe.  This encounter could only be determined by both parties in dialogue.  Would war be the next step, as Rabbi Yehudah's interpretation would suggest?  Would reconciliation ensue, as Rabbi Nechemia and the Rabbis would suggest?  Rabbi Elazar's interpretation left the question unanswered, as perhaps it had to remain until Judah spoke and Joseph responded, a true dialogue owned by two separate people.  Neither could ultimately control the words, emotions, or experience of the other.

What a different world we would witness today were this the way nations interacted.  Readiness for either war or reconciliation would have two groups encounter each other without presuming to know or control the intention of the other.

We are witnessing destruction and pain in Gaza after years of stress for people in Southern Israel.  The world is seeing images that just break our hearts, no matter our personal allegiances, no matter our passionate love for our People in Israel.  Everyone is in pain.  everyone is suffering.  To ignore the pain being caused by the Israeli response in Gaza, no matter how justified military response truly is, is to forget our humanity.  When one image of God is killed, the collective human body shudders and cries.  As Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger reminded us all in his teaching just last week,

"Whereas 'HaBa L'horgecha Hashkem L'horgo, do not hesitate to defend yourself and your country,'
remember also 'Binfol Oyvecha Al Tismach-- do not rejoice because when our enemy suffers.'"
This came to sharp contrast in a powerful encounter, for me, just this past Shabbat. 

I had communicated to my community that this past Shabbat we would be reciting an Emergency Mishebeirach for Israel, and included a link to it.  In a time of conflict in Israel, all Jewish communities should respond with the souls.  It is not "simply" a policital statement - it is a spiritual anguish for us all when our sisters and brothers are under attack.  To pray for Israel is not a rejection of the humanity of the Palestinian people - it is an affirmation that we are family and that we are viscerally suffering, no matter the physical distance.

A member of the shul pointed out a challenge she recognized in the text of the Mishebeirach itself.  The prophetic quote from Micah (4:4) at it's closing "[May] every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him" was preceded with the words: "may the verse be applied to us. (emphasis mine)"

My friend asked me if this truly represented the verse, if it embodied our hopes as a shul, as a people - if it should be the aspirational language of our prayer in a moment of war.  Do we pray for only our own peace?  She was correct.  In our encounter, within our dialogue, a new truth emerged.  And so, when we did recite an Emergency Mishebeirach, the language that emerged was more authentic and, I believe, holier.  The Mishebeirach we ended up sharing reached through our pain, through the years of unceasing assault by Hamas, through our Jewish experience of repeated victimization, and prayed both for the safety of every IDF soldier and Israeli citizen and affirmed the humanity and worthiness of the Palestinians who are suffering so terribly from Hamas' hatred and failed leadership. 

Rashi, commenting on the eventual tearful embrace of Joseph and Benjamin (Gen. 45:14), suggested that their tears were not about the immediate moment, but rather were prophetic:

"And he fell on his brother Benjamin's neck and wept" for the two sanctuaries which were destined to be in Benjamin's territory and would ultimately be destroyed "and Benjamin wept on his neck" for the Tabernacle of Shiloh, which was destined to be in Joseph's territory yet would ultimately be destroyed. [Meg. 16b, Gen. Rabbah 93:12]

Joseph wasn't crying for his own pain.  He cried for Benjamin's pain.  Benjamin similarly cried for Joseph's pain.  In the encounter, they experienced each other.  This was a reconcilliation of two vulnerable selves, again an early echo of Buber's evolution away from proposing the unity of being and instead focusing on relationship and the dialogical nature of existence.  Joseph's relationship with his brothers wasn't one of undying reunification; upon reading their fear of reprisal upon Jacob's death (Gen. 50:15) it becomes all too clear that conflict dies hard.

I close with the English translation of the Mishebeirach we ultimately offered this Shabbat with the fervent hope, as Rabbi David Greenstein recently wrote so eloquently in the Jerusalem Repor, that the reconcilliation we seek need not be one of love, because that isn't likely to happen.  But reconcilliation without love is a worthy goal, much more healthy for everyone than the headlines and realities we are likely to witness in the weeks to come. 

While peace may remain elusive, in its absence may tolerance and recognition of "the other" be in our prayers.

An Emergency Prayer for the State of Israel
adapted by Rabbi Menachem Creditor from the original written by Rabbi Simchah Roth and Rabbi Michael Graetz.
The original can be accessed at www.shefanetwork.org.

May the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah bless the residents of the State of Israel who live under the daily threat of missiles of death and destruction. May the Holy One strengthen their spirit and give them resolve to withstand this crisis until it passes. May God grant wisdom and insight to those leaders of the State charged with protecting our people, so that their actions are infused with courage, wisdom and intelligence aimed at achieving a just goal. Adonai Tzeva'ot, protect the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces in the air, on the sea and land, those in battle, those on the home front, and all the rescue and security forces. Save them from every trouble and evil design, and cause the works of their hands to be for blessing and for success. May they go out in peace and return victorious and whole to their homes and loved ones.

Adonai, bring peace to our Holy Land and eternal joy to its inhabitants, for Jacob again shall have calm and quiet with none to trouble him. Adonai, bless the Palestinian people with the calm they deserve. May peace with Israel become their stated goal, so that they may soon see their own homeland's birth. And may the verse be applied to everyone being impacted by this horrible war: "But every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him. For it was the Lord of Hosts who spoke."

May this be Your will, and let us say:

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.