Sunday, December 20, 2020

Portion Vayigash: Repentance/Teshuvah

Maimonides famously taught that the true penitent is one who finds him or herself with the opportunity to commit the same transgression they did in their past, without fear of being caught or punished, yet refrains from doing so.  Our biblical ancestor Judah embodies this teaching in our weekly parashah, Vayigash.

In one of the longest and most heroic speeches in the Torah, Judah sacrifices himself for the sake of his father Jacob and his younger brother Benjamin.  Decades after his complicity in selling Joseph into slavery, Judah is a changed man.  He has suffered enormously, losing two sons.  He has also transgressed—and publicly acknowledged his failings.  Judah transforms his personal pain and shortcomings into profound spiritual growth.  As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein notes: “This is the measure of Judah's greatness: his tragedy becomes the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.”

The Rabbis refer to Joseph as HaTzadik, “the righteous one.”  He is a powerful and important figure in our tradition.  But his almost too-pious righteousness renders him a little remote and distant.  It is hard to relate to, and engage with, Joseph.  Most of us connect more easily with Judah, the deeply-flawed man who wrestles with his moral choices and grows from his struggles.  The midrash recognizes his greatness by pointing out that his name, Yehudah, contains all four letters of God’s Name, (yud-hey-vav-hey)—and is the origin of our collective name, yehudim, Jews.  Judah is also the progenitor of King David and, by extension, the messiah.  The messianic hope for an age of peace, justice, and compassion can only be realized if we, collectively and individually, commit ourselves to the kind of self-reflection and spiritual growth that we learn from Judah.


This week’s midah/character trait is self-transformation, or repentance—in the Hebrew, teshuvah. The Hebrew term literally means “turning” or returning to our proper path, from which we all inevitably stray over time.  Many of us are familiar with this midah from the month of Elul and the Days of Awe, but teshuvah is not just for the High Holy Days.  As our Sages teach, the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gate of repentance is always open.  At any moment of any day, we can begin to change ourselves, to be the people we are truly called to become.  

Mussar Practice for this Week 

Jewish tradition points to a few important steps toward teshuvah.  First, we must recognize the attitudes and behaviors that we want to change.  Next, we confess our pertinent shortcomings, which creates an added layer of accountability.  Finally, we desist from the behavior and make amends to those we have hurt. 

This week, go through this process, looking at one area where you would like to improve.  

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Portion Miketz: Responsibility/Acharayut

In dreams begin responsibilities

When we first meet Joseph, as a teenage boy, he is blessed with visionary dreams yet he is profoundly lacking in wisdom.  He foolishly flaunts his reveries at his brothers’ expense, thereby earning their enmity.  His dreams of dominion are, in fact, accurate—but he does not yet know what to do with them.  He speaks when he should be silent.  Joseph’s prophetic gifts run deep—but they blind him to the needs and feelings of others.  He is brilliant but insensitive, rich in vision but impoverished in empathy and action.  He fails to take responsibility for the consequences of his ill-timed and chosen words. 

Decades later, in this week’s portion, Miketz, Joseph grows up.  Pain and adversity teach him compassion.  Enslavement and imprisonment open his eyes to the suffering of others.   Joseph learns how to listen, how to see into the hearts of those around him.  This wisdom enables him to develop his prophetic potential into powerful action.

Pharaoh calls upon Joseph to interpret two parallel dreams.  Joseph does this—but does not stop there.  He goes on to offer policy advice based on his interpretation: Pharaoh should set up a detailed system over all of Egypt to collect and store up food during the seven years of plenty, so that there will be provisions when the seven years of famine strike.  Here, Joseph moves from words to acts.  He acknowledges that in interpreting dreams, he is a mere vessel, channeling God.  But the choice to translate those interpretations into a course of action is his alone.  As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes: “From being a dreamer of dreams, Joseph became the person of the dream... a man who experienced the dream... as a burden and a responsibility and a course of action from which there could be no digression.  We may not all have the gift to accurately interpret our dreams.  But we can assume responsibility for them.  That is, after all, just assuming responsibility for ourselves.”


This week’s midah/character trait is responsibility—in the Hebrew, acharayut. The contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis notes that there are two possible Hebrew roots for this midah.  The first, achar, means “after,” suggesting that responsibility entails being mindful of the aftereffects, or consequences, of our choices.  The second possibility, acher, meaning “other,” reminds us to consider the effects of our choices upon others around us.  Joseph comes to understand both of these meanings of acharayut.  By the time he meets his long-estranged brothers in next week’s portion, he is very much a changed man.

The Jewish writer Delmore Schwartz wrote story whose title is adapted from a poem by W.B. Yeats: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.  Indeed.   As we grow older—and hopefully, wiser and more compassionate—our challenge is to translate our dreams and visions into well-chosen actions.  During this week, which celebrates light and miracles, let’s think about how to live up to the responsibilities imposed by our dreams.

Mussar Practice for this Week (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)

During this week, identify a societal issue that you share with others with whom you are in the “same boat.”  Take a step, however small, to assume a piece of that responsibility.