In the old days, in the days before vans and SUVs, in the days before we had DVD players and iPads to keep the kids occupied while traveling, we would pile our 6 kids in the station wagon, ply them with treats, etch-a-sketch, arrange for 20 Questions, Geography, Ghost and finding license plates from all 50 states. Eventually we would resort to putting a tape in the tape deck. And we would caution them, as Jacob does to his sons who are traveling back down to Egypt, “Do not be quarrelsome along the way.”
Not that it worked. Amidst the tunes of John Denver, James Taylor, “Free to Be You and Me”, Pete Seeger, and everybody’s favorite “”Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, we would hear “Moshe’s annoying me”, “Joshua’s sitting too close”, “It’s my turn to sit in the way back with Avi”, Sarah and Rachel’s bickering and Danya’s constant plaint, “when will we get there?” Only the sing-a-long to the swelling crescendo of “And Jacob came to Egypt, no longer feeling old, and Joseph came to meet him in his chariot of gold…” quelled the quarreling.
Although it is not true, my children claim that I cannot avoid an opportunity to moralize! And this parasha offers just such a moment.
In the Parashat Va-Yigash, Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. He loads them with riches from Egypt and tell them to return with their families so they can settle in Egypt and survive the famine under his supervision. And as they depart, to bring their father back to reunite the family, he offers them a strange piece of advice: “Do not be quarrelsome along the way.”
Why would Joseph say that, especially in the middle of a tearful, joyous reunion, amidst unexpected wealth and unanticipated success??? With his usual wisdom, Rashi offers three insights: Joseph instructs them not to engage in arguments of Jewish law. Journeys are always fraught with danger and he fear that they would become distracted by the minutiae, arguing questions. Caught up in the passion of their discussions, perhaps they would lose their way – religiously as well as geographically. We are a people who love ideas but we ought not debate in such a fashion that we lose our common purpose.
Joseph’s warning is that the brothers have now become wealthy because of his gifts. Wealth brings tension and often causes arguments for family members. He urges his brothers, now that they are a cohesive unit of 12 once again, not to allow themselves to be divided by money. Although the American Jewish community is wealthy beyond measure, we have a myriad of organizations, movements, institutions, both secular and religious, which vie for our attention, our energy and our resources. We are in danger of losing our common purpose.
Joseph fears that on their way home to their aging father, they may blame each other for having sold Joseph into slavery years. Anticipating this all too frequent occurrence, he offers his advice not to be quarrelsome and engage in recriminations of the past. Joseph wants to avoid the guilt and the conflict that the brothers feel, in order to allow them all to live in harmony as they start afresh as a united family who will inhabit Goshen, be fruitful, and grow from the 70 souls who will settle in Egypt into the multitude which will leave at the Exodus.
It turns out, folks, that families argue.
There are quarrels along the way. We, too, face that challenge. We, too, resort to insult and acrimony on occasion. On occasion we “hear” but we don’t truly listen. People complain over and over again about disagreements that occurred 20 years ago, which have not been aside. Isn’t it best now for us to unite and agree to learn from the past and together work to face the present and build the future?? To build the Jewish future is an ongoing challenge and responsibility: If we are quarreling, we will not achieve our goals. We will expend our energy on disagreement and internecine revilary instead of harnessing it to meet our objectives of vibrant Jewish lives for ourselves, our schools, our human services agencies, our synagogues, around the family dining room table – for our community.
Va-yigash means to approach. Jacob approaches his son, Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, filled with trepidation. “Approaching”, both physically and spiritually is a very complicated action. We can approach in a spirit of contentiousness, or in a spirit of contrition, or in desire for closeness. The Jewish leader often finds him or herself in situations where the manner of approach will determine the outcome. We protect ourselves, preferring our personal space, rather than approaching others with openness, with a desire to listen and understand, not always to be understood. When our ego is more important than that of the whole, we endanger rather than engage others.
At the moment of his revelation, Joseph beckons: “Come near to me”. Approach. Reunite. We need each other.
As we, the New Haven Jewish community, travel on our journey, we do well to remember Joseph’s advice to his brothers. “Do not be quarrelsome along the way.” Let us make a resolution as the secular New Year approaches to solve our problems through closeness and by approaching one another with love and compassion.
May the coming year usher in a time when we will able to look at one another and say: “I am Joseph, your brother.”