Dvar Torah for Temple Israel Annual Meeting on Sunday, December 14, 2014
We traditionally refer to ourselves as “Ahm Yisra’el” (the people of Israel) or "Bnei Yisra’el" (the children of Israel) --- or simply “Israel”. And, of course, that’s the name of our congregation as well: Temple Israel. Israel, as we know, is the name given to Jacob by God after he wrestles with the angel in Genesis 32:29. There the angel declares: לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ--כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. ("Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel ["yisra'el"] , for you have striven ["saritah"] with beings divine ["elohim"] and human, and have prevailed.")
This idea of striving, struggling, wrestling with issues both philosophical and practical is indeed an important characteristic of Jewish life.
However, during this time of year when our Torah reading cycle features the story of Joseph, I often feel that Ahm Yosef ("the people of Joseph") might be an even better name for us. The Torah teaches that various patriarchs and matriarchs prior to Joseph experience God directly and explicitly. Indeed the same claim is made for Adam and Eve and Noah before them. God speaks to them and appears to them directly.
Joseph, on the other hand, is more like us. God never addresses him directly. And yet, Joseph models for us the religious behavior of a much later age: He doesn’t experience direct, unmediated revelation. Yet he understands that God’s presence is reflected in the visicitudes of his life. In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams he insists the dreams and the interpretations ultimately come from God (see Gen. 41:25) . And when, in next week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, he and his brothers are finally reunited, Joseph forgives them for having sold him into slavery, asserting that it was ultimately God who sent him ahead of them to Egypt in order to be able to save lives. (see Gen. 45: 5-8)
So to with our lives: We each have our ups and downs, our joys and our heartbreaks, and it’s easy to succumb to despair at the seeming meaningless and randomness of it all. But, following the lead of Yosef Ha-Tzadik ("Joseph the Righteous"), our Jewish tradition teaches us to look for God’s presence, to look for meaning, to look for a bigger picture.
When in our Temple’s mission statement we see that Temple Israel is to be " a center for Jewish life" --that’s an important part of that mission: providing opportunities -- through worship, study, social action and communal camaraderie--- to experience the Divine that infuses the everyday.
One more teaching I’d like to share about this week’s Parasha. In the very last verse of Parashat Miketz (Gen. 44:17) Joseph sends his brothers off to return to Jacob telling them “Alu leshalom el avichem” (literally, "Go up towards peace to your father.")
By contrast, in Genesis 1515, Abraham is promised by God that he would die and be buried “beshalom” ("in peace").
Of the contrast between the phrase “lekh beshalom” (go in peace) verses “lekh leshalom” (go towards peace) the Talmud, citing a couple of other biblical verses, teaches:
ואמר רבי אבין הלוי הנפטר מחברו אל יאמר לו לך בשלום אלא לך לשלום שהרי יתרו שאמר לו למשה (שמות ד) לך לשלום עלה והצליח דוד שאמר לו לאבשלום (שמואל ב טו) לך בשלום הלך ונתלה: ואמר רבי אבין הלוי הנפטר מן המת אל יאמר לו לך לשלום אלא לך בשלום שנאמר (בראשית טו) ואתה תבא אל אבותיך בשלום:
R. Abin the Levite also said: When a man takes leave of his fellow, he should not say to him, 'Go in peace' (lekh beshalom), but 'Go to peace' (lekh leshalom). For Moses, to whom Jethro said, Go to peace, (Ex. 4:18) went up and prospered, whereas Absalom to whom David said, Go in peace, (2 Samuel 15:9) went away and was hung. R. Abin the Levite also said: One who takes leave of the dead [upon leaving a funeral procession] should not say to him 'Go to peace', but 'Go in peace', as it says, But thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace. (Gen. 15:15)
May our incoming board and the congregation as a whole lekh leshalom/ go towards peace – towards increasing fulfillment, fellowship and vitality in the year to come.