This week’s parsha—VA-ERA—narrates the exchange between God and Moshe about Moshe’s eventual leadership of the Jewish people. And we know that Moshe resists his calling—he worries about his speech impediment, he tells God that the Israelites will not listen to him, he mentions his older brother Aaron, and he tries everything in his power to dissuade God from appointing him. One popular explanation for God’s choice of Moshe as a leader is that Moshe is an ANAV.
I think we probably all know this word—we hear it all the time, especially in the book of Exodus. And just as we frequently call Abraham, Abraham Avinu, so we often note that Moshe is an ANAV. What does that word mean? YES—HUMBLE. In fact, Moshe called himself the most humble person on earth. Imagine—this person who led the Israelites out of slavery, who received the Ten Commandments and the Torah from God, who is perhaps the greatest prophet of all time, who is the only person who is able to speak DIRECTLY with God—this is not just a humble person, but the most humble person on the planet. One tractate tells us that “all the other prophets looked at God through a murky glass. But Moshe looked at God through a CLEAR glass.” Isn’t it amazing to think that someone with all of those accomplishments would be able to remain humble?
I think that most of us—with even ONE of these things on our resumes, would have a tendency to get a swelled head. But Moshe does not; and he never does.
We tend to take for granted that the word ANAV translates to HUMBLE. But not all translations do that. The Christian Bible—the King James Version—translates ANAV as MEEK. What do you think?
I may be biased, and I know that the business of translation is tricky. But I’m with all of you. I think MEEK is not a good translation of ANAV. And I think that Moshe may have been humble, but he was certainly not meek. Meekness, in my opinion, is very different from humility. So look at our text. Moshe kills the task master to save the life of a Jewish slave. Moshe stands up to God and challenges God’s selection of him as the leader of the Israelites. Moshe (along with his brother Aaron) confronts Pharaoh with the power of God and his love for the Jewish people. Moshe may have sinned by striking the rock and by losing his patience with the people, but those sins make clear that he is hardly a meek man.
But humble is very different. When Miriam and Aaron challenge Moshe’s authority, he never defends himself; in fact, it takes God to intervene to defend Moshe. When Korach rebels, we never see Moshe defend his leadership; in every case, he invokes God to make clear that he is only an emissary. There is even a midrash that when the five daughters of Tzelafchad came to Moshe to ask whether they could inherit, he made the decision to let them inherit their father’s estate because they had no brothers. But Moshe tells them that it was God who decided the issue; and midrash tells us that Moshe wanted the daughters to feel honored that God—and not humble Moshe--would decide in their favor. So, here again, Moshe willingly deflects attention away from himself.
There’s a saying that good leaders always take the blame and never take the credit for what happens. That’s a really hard lesson to learn. It’s so much easier to pat ourselves on the back when things go well, and to point fingers when things don’t. Moshe is a good leader because he knows who he is and he doesn’t need accolades or adoration. So maybe humility and confidence go hand in hand. If you’re truly confident, you can afford to be humble. You know who you are and you don’t let others’ doubts or successes blind you to that awareness. Let us pray that we might all learn this lesson from Moshe Rabbenu.
In this week’s parsha, SHMOT, we see the evolution of a leader, of our first rabbi, Moshe. Remember that Moshe lived the life of a prince, and his life in the Egyptian palace could have remained as comfortable as it was. But an event changes Moshe’s life and his destiny. And that event occurs even before Moshe’s conversation with God at the burning bush, where God tells him that He has taken pity on the Israelite slaves. But, even before that, we know that Moshe, in anger, kills an Egyptian, who was beating a Jew. And the Torah tells us that Moshe looked around, saw no one, and killed the Egyptian. But there’s an interesting phrase that we read just before he makes the decision to kill the oppressor. The line is “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.”
This line tells us that Moshe isn’t simply feeling compassion for someone who is being wrongfully hurt. It also tells us that Moshe experiences a connection with the victim. He is, the Torah tells us, his KINSMAN. So we know that Moshe, even with his privileged background, identifies as a Jew. VaYigdal Moshe VaYaytzay el Echawv VaYahr B’Sivlotawm. Moses became great when he went out to his brethren and saw their suffering. More than any other quality, a true leader has to have compassion.
At the end of today’s parsha, Moshe asks God two questions: The first question: Oh, Lord, why did you bring harm upon this people?
And the second: Why did you send me?
כבוַיָּ֧שָׁב משֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהֹוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֨תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי:
I think today we continue to ask that first question—why is there evil in the world? Why do good people suffer? And, as you’ll soon hear, God does not really provide much of an answer to either of those questions. But I think in Shmot we have a glimpse of an answer to that second question—Why did you send me?—as we see Moshe Rabbeynu’s compassion for the Israelite slaves, even as they complain to him that his attempts to free them have only made their lives WORSE. We see Moshe identifying with the downtrodden, when it would have been so easy to return to his comfortable life in Pharaoh’s palace. We see Moshe deciding to link his fate with the fate of the Jewish people. As God tells him, “Just as you believe in Me, so you must believe in them.”
Just as Moshe begins to believe in the Jewish people, so they begin to believe in Moshe and his leadership. This is all because of his great compassion.
This week’s parsha includes Yaakov’s blessings and curses on his sons; daughter Dinah is completely absent, and that probably shouldn’t surprise us. And, though some sons receive blessings and some receive rebukes, Jacob never tells them that he loves them. We probably shouldn’t be surprised by that, either, given that we know that our ancestors are unlikely to win any parenting contests. And there is also something else missing here, which is that, no matter how harsh the curses, Jacob never mentions the brothers selling Joseph into slavery. What might that tell us? Perhaps the most obvious answer is that he didn’t know. But it’s also probably true that the brothers had no way of knowing whether Joseph had told his father what his older brothers had done to him. That uncertainty led the brothers to fear Joseph’s retribution, a retribution for which Jacob’s death might clear the way.
In fear, then, after Jacob’s death, the brothers cautiously approached Joseph. Remember that Joseph is the second most powerful person in Egypt; they had good reason to fear him! And, knowing what their actions had cost Joseph and Jacob, perhaps they recognized that they were deserving of a harsh punishment. With that in mind, they say to Joseph:
“Your father commanded [us] just before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to Joseph, “Please forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you.
Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’”
And following that statement, Joseph wept.
We have to assume that the brothers are lying. Scholars have wondered whether this is another moment in the Torah where a lie might be justified for the sake of shalom h’beit, peace in the household. Much as God lies to Abraham about why Sarah laughed, here perhaps the brothers’ lie is a way for them to admit responsibility but also to ask once again for forgiveness. And Joseph weeps—why? It seems likely that he weeps because he realizes that his brothers have not made the ethical or spiritual progress that he himself has made. They are still in the mindset of small children, expecting to be scolded for a wrongdoing.
It’s also possible that Joseph cries because he can’t help but wonder if his father really believed that he would harshly punish his brothers, that he was waiting for his death for just that purpose. It appears that, no matter what the reason for his tears, the brothers of Joseph will never become the tzaddikim he had hoped they would become. And his father appears to be a tired, demoralized old man. Joseph has endured profound suffering, and Jacob has been robbed of years and years of time with his beloved son. But it is Joseph and Joseph alone who fully realizes that his journey—as harsh as it might have been—was part of God’s plan. He alone has the faith to realize that God had a plan for him.
We know from our reading of Breishit that God gave Adam dominion over the animals. He is even given the power to name them, a clear sign that he is in control. But on what is that control based? The Torah is noticeably silent on that question. Why are human beings dominant over the rest of the natural order?
Some people have assumed that the answer is obvious. But it’s not really so clear when we dig a little more deeply. So many theologians, psychologists, and philosophers have tried to answer that question. For Aristotle, we are the rational animal. For others, we are tool makers. Marx argued that we are the only animals capable of productive labor. Many have claimed that human beings alone have a soul, and that means we are truly created in the image of God. Though all of these answers have some merit, I want to suggest a different possibility which emerges from this week’s Parshah.
That Parsha, Vayigash, is one of the most beautiful of the Torah. Its seemingly straightforward narrative belies the many unanswered questions embedded there. It relates the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers, a telling that moves from alienation, sibling rivalry and cruelty to care, compassion and reconciliation.
We realize from the Parsha how much Joseph has yearned for a re-connection to his family, despite what his brothers have done to him. Midrash tells us that Joseph has remained faithful to the mitzvot for more than 22 years, observances that were his alone in Egypt. Perhaps he weeps for his loss of Jewish community beyond his immediate family. We also see him weep with Benjamin, his full brother from his beloved mother Rachel,-the only other fully innocent character in this narrative. He weeps for the mother he has lost and the brother he has found.
We are told that Joseph’s sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharoah’s palace. Joseph the Tzaddik is moved to tears by his brother Judah’s pleas for the life of Benjamin and Judah’s offer to take Benjamin’s place in prison to avoid further heartache for their father Jacob.
This story is an incredible story of forgiveness. Listen to the words of the Torah at the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers:
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here, it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharoah, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”
In Joseph’s words we seem to have found an answer to the question of why he forgives his brothers. It was God’s plan that depended on their selling him into slavery, a plan that includes his imprisonment and rise into Pharoah’s inner circle. He forgives them and lets them know that the difference now is not in him but rather in them. No longer jealous or angry, they feel shame and fear before him. They finally see their own sins and guilt and as a result of these insights, they are able to pass the tests Joseph had designed for them.
Not only does Joseph forgive them, he refrains from referring to years of suffering or to what they have done to him. As we read these passages, we cannot help but be reminded of other stories of jealousy-between Rachel and Leah, between Jacob and Esau. These stories frame the story of Joseph and his brothers and at last provide us with a sense of peace and reconciliation after the noteworthy silence about these other rivalries.
Why forgive? There are lots of good pragmatic reasons to forgive-to end a feud, for example. To think about how self-poisoning resentment becomes if one doesn’t forgive. But the primary reason to forgive, it seems to me, is to restore a lost relationship. Remember that it’s often those closest to us who have hurt us and need forgiveness. Think about someone you have finally forgiven or want to forgive. My guess is that it’s not some anonymous stranger who cut you off on the highway. Those little injuries evaporate quickly. Wrongs from those closest to us do not. So, forgiveness matters because the people closest to us-Joseph’s brothers, for example-matter. Who are we without them? What does that isolation cost us?
In answer to our original question about what might separate us from the animals, perhaps the answer is forgiveness. This may be because forgiveness may run counter to all of our basic instincts for survival.
There are no rules for forgiveness. Joseph forgives his brothers and goes far beyond forgiveness to restore them to life and health and property and standing. But he gains even more for himself through his act of forgiveness. Through his forgiveness he becomes whole again.
So may it be for all of us. Amen.
A rabbi whose name I’ve forgotten was taking a walk through the streets of Jerusalem. At one point, he stopped to observe a group of garbage men who were collecting that day’s trash. They all had a very clear and consistent system: each truck was staffed by two people—one person would be on the ground, running around picking up the garbage; and the other person would be on top of the truck, taking the garbage and throwing it into the truck. The rabbi watched for a little while, and he started to feel that the system was unfair: the person on the ground had to do so much more work than the person on top of the truck. But, as he was about to comment on it, something changed: the two people switched positions, and the person who had been on the top went down to street level and started picking up the trash, and the person who had been on the street moved to the top of the truck to toss it.
It turned out that every half hour the two people switched roles.
I love this story, and not only because it’s yet another reminder of Israeli ingenuity. I also think that it tells us so much about the story of Joseph. Remember that when we left him last week, he is in prison. He has asked the butler to remember him, but the butler, once freed, has completely forgotten Joseph. Joseph is the lowest of the low. But then, two years later, when Pharaoh dreams, the butler recalls the boy in the prison who could interpret dreams. And Joseph, in just a few lines of MI KEYTZ, is saved. Not only saved, but remade: he is cleaned up, he is given a haircut, new clothes, and a signet ring. He becomes a VICEROY, the second in command in Egypt, after Pharaoh. If you’ve been to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and seen the Egyptian rooms, you can probably imagine what Joseph looked like—so stylized and ornamented.
So, what does this story tell us? I think it tells us, like the story of the Israeli garbage collectors, that we should always remember that life is full of ups and downs. We do not always get what we want, and there are times when we get so much more than we expected. We may be planning our next step in life---a promotion at work, a new job, a home purchase, a retirement—and somehow things don’t work out the way we expected. Or we may be thinking that life is going to continue as we’d mapped it out—we are NOT expecting change—and somehow, unexpectedly, we are facing a new challenge that we weren’t prepared for. It’s a cliché, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves: into each life some rain must fall. Imagine what a movie would be like without ups and downs—just plain boring!
We can learn a lot about people, we can learn a lot about ourselves, when we look at how and WHETHER we change during these ups and downs that are so typical of a normal life. Do we become haughty when we are at the top of our game? Do we become demoralized when we don’t get what we wanted? Do we keep our faith when life treats us well, and curse God when we face difficult challenges? I think that Joseph matures, and he never forgets that God is with him, whether he is at the top of the garbage truck or on the street. This is surely a message for all of us, especially as we are about to enter the secular new year. 2021 has been a very tough year for many of us—on both a personal and a global level—but we look for moments of joy and peace even as we recognize that there is so much that we cannot control.
A Joyful and Light Chanukah to all!