Parshat Vayiggash: The Courage To Grow

     Last summer, I attended a talk given by Larry Tye, the author of an outstanding new book about Robert Kennedy. Tye’s work was noteworthy because he had access to dozens of Kennedy archives not previously available to the public. When describing Kennedy, Tye did not sugar coat his remarks. He spoke about the early Kennedy; who was occasionally ruthless and driven to success at all costs. Tye wrote (and spoke) about the Bobby Kennedy who had briefly served with Senator Joseph McCarthy, during the latter’s witch hunt to expose Communist sympathizers.  Robert Kennedy was certainly a savvy and tenacious political operative, but few would describe him as the most compassionate of the Kennedy clan. Only later on; when he witnessed poverty and discrimination first hand, did Robert Kennedy become a champion of civil rights and passionate advocate for all people in need. What made Kennedy so remarkable was his sincere transformation and growth; becoming a genuine hero to those who still retained hope for a more equitable America.  His message and his character drastically changed. Kennedy’s personal transformation was rare in politics; especially for someone growing up with exceptional privilege.
     I thought of Kennedy this week, while re-reading the poignant and touching story of Judah, brother of Joseph.  Joseph’s brothers were on their way back to Canaan, when Egyptian soldiers overran them and ordered them back to Egypt.  Joseph then accused the brothers of stealing his divination cup; an object Joseph secretly hid in Benjamin’s bag.  Joseph’s orders were clear: Benjamin goes to prison while the other brothers return home. By so ordering, Joseph was testing his brothers; to see if they had changed over the past two decades.
Would they abandon Benjamin the way they abandoned Joseph decades earlier; or would they defend young Benjamin regardless of ramifications???
 
     At this point in the story, Judah steps forward; making his plea in Benjamin’s defense.  Judah knows that his remarks could lead to severe punishment for him and for his family.  Nevertheless, he is unwavering; offering to be imprisoned in place of Benjamin.  Judah clearly represents his united family; each sibling willing to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to insure that Benjamin is set free.  At this point Joseph breaks down and reveals his secret identity.  After many years, he can re-unite with his family; a family which has grown immeasurably as compassionate human beings.
     Both Judah and Robert Kennedy benefitted from life transforming experiences. We admire them for having the courage to grow as human beings; to resolutely confront their flaws with personal commitment to change.  Judah’s speech before Joseph is considered one of the most stirring speeches in world literature; it reflects a character metamorphosis  most of us could never undertake.  This Shabbat we celebrate a happy reunion between Joseph and family; but we also recognize the potential within each of us to grow into people of integrity and character. Just like Judah…
Judah deserves our admiration and our gratitude for showing us the way…
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Klayman