As Reconstructionist Jews often say, following the thought of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, we are living in two civilizations: American and Jewish. This is most apparent during the "holiday season" that we are in the thick of right now. It can feel strange to be drawing up a set of New Year's resolutions for Jan. 1, when we have so recently resolved to be better people at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yet this time of year gives us an opportunity to reflect on personal change and how it takes place. And the Torah portions that come around right about now can assist in the process. New Year's resolutions are notoriously hard to fulfill. But in Vayigash -- the climax of the Joseph story -- we see some striking examples of change.
I will focus on the moment of change when Jacob hears the news that Joseph is still alive. Jacob has long been convinced that his most beloved son is dead, and he has been mourning ever since. "His heart went numb, for he did not believe them."
Jacob is in denial. He is so accustomed to believing that Joseph is dead -- and to living in and with that sadness -- that his heart closes up to the idea of anything different. His reality is being a bereaved father. It is an awful reality, but it is absolutely his.
This is the truth of the impossibility of change. We often don't want to believe that things can be better, because we are used to them being the way they are.
Jacob's next reaction shows us the greatness that he -- and we -- are capable of. After he hears about Joseph's successes and sees the wagons his son has sent, "the spirit of their father Jacob revived. 'Enough!' said Israel. 'My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.' "
What an inspirational moment! All these years Jacob had mourned for Joseph. He resigned himself to even more grief by allowing his other beloved son, Benjamin, to go down to Egypt. His heart is too numb to accept that Joseph is actually still alive.
And yet, he accepts it. He changes his spirit to meet the new reality in which Joseph resides. He is determined to act in order to see Joseph before he himself dies.
A Change of Heart
The word Jacob uses at the moment of his change of heart is rav, translated from Hebrew as "enough." It's a word that describes an abundance; Rashi reminds us that this can be understood as Jacob having enough joy and happiness now that he knows that Joseph is alive. The English might be read in the sense of "Enough moping around. My son is alive, and I must see him."
But the Hebrew gives us a clue as to what makes this change of heart possible. It's the relationship between change and hope. Jacob is able to accept that Joseph lives when he realizes the abundance of happiness this will bring to both of them. We are only motivated to change when we can hope for something more.
Jacob still requires reassurance on his way down to Egypt. Change is not easy, even once we have resolved to make it. God calls to Jacob in a vision and assures him he is not alone. "I Myself will go down with you to Egypt."
In this secular season of renewal, may we all follow Jacob's sacred example. May we find the courage to embrace change and move toward joy -- and may we be accompanied on the way.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.