Sunday, December 5, 2021

Vayigash: Growing from our Failures

Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy [Benjamin] to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.”  Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers, for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.         -Judah pleading before Joseph in Genesis 44

From the start, our Torah is overwhelmingly a chronicle of failure.  Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden.  Cain kills Abel.  God destroys the world in the flood.  Generation after generation of patriarchs and matriarchs favor one child over another, spawning family dysfunction.  And the Israelites wander the wilderness for forty years, locked in a cycle of failure and complaint.  Even Moses fails, lashing out at the rebellious Israelites and thereby losing the right to enter the Promised Land.  

So much failure!  Why, then, do we, return to these stories year after year? I believe the timeless appeal of the Torah’s tales lies in our ancestors’ dogged persistence in the face of their failures, their willingness to learn from their mistakes and to fail in new and better ways.  

For all of us, personal growth depends upon our ability to understand our mistakes as opportunities for growth.  While no one goes out in search of failure, it inevitably finds us.  As Winston Churchill famously noted: Success is not final and failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.  If we face our shortcomings honestly and directly, we can use them to become better people.  Thus the Talmud teaches that one who sins and truly repents stands in a higher place than a totally righteous person. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yigash, Judah shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for his younger brother Benjamin.   This represents a remarkable transformation—the same brother who earlier sealed the deal to sell Joseph into slavery comes to embody the possibility of teshuvah—of real and enduring renewal.  What has changed?  In the intervening years, Judah has suffered and failed repeatedly, and in a moment of reckoning with his daughter-in-law Tamara, finally admits: “She—not I—is in the right.” As Cantor Kay Greenwald notes: “We are yehudim, the spiritual descendants of Judah.  Each of us has the power to learn and grow from our mistakes and our life experiences.  Each of us has the power to forgive and to be forgiven.”

In other words, we Jews are, by name and character, a people who, rather than being defined by our failures, see them as opportunities for growth.

Conversation Questions:

Are there parts of your identity and experiences from your past that you are actively trying to forget or erase?  How and when might you be ready to approach those difficult places with self-compassion and forgiveness?

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