By Rabbi Jason Bonder
There is a wonderful teaching about a student who approached a rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, why is it that we read the Torah year after year?” The rabbi replied, “The beauty of reading the Torah each year is that while the words of Torah are always the same, we return as different people each year.”
It was when I sat down to write this commentary that I realized I had written about this very portion, Vayigash, in the Jewish Exponent last year as well. (Go ahead, I’ll give you a moment to type “Vayigash Jewish Exponent Rabbi Jason Bonder” into Google.) The teaching above holds true here. The words of Vayigash remained the same. But I have returned to them a different person.
When I realized that I wrote on this portion last year as well, I typed those very words above into Google myself to check if my memory was correct. Sure enough, I found my article and saw the date, Jan. 3, 2020. Suddenly, the memories came flooding back.
I remember the strong smell of coffee that Shabbat morning after the article was printed as I sat in our library at Congregation Beth Or where our weekly Torah study was held. Congregants brought in printed copies of my article to share with me. I remember the smiling faces of our group as we gathered, and I remember smiling as I witnessed one member of our community embracing friends after they had returned from a hiatus of just a few weeks from our class.
Toward the end of our study session that morning, I remember the familiar sound of chatter upstairs. Hundreds of people were gathering for a Shabbat morning service as two b’nei mitzvah were quietly, and nervously, rehearsing their Torah portions one last time before being called to the Torah for the very first time. Things I once looked at with nothing but joy — sitting together in a small room to study, embracing those we have not seen in some time, and being in a large crowd for prayer — I now see as risky endeavors.
Last year, when I read this week’s portion, I saw the sons of Jacob standing across from one another, face to face, fundamentally changed. I attributed the root cause of their changes to their behavior toward one another. Joseph’s years of flaunting his status as Jacob’s favorite son, and the brothers’ act of tossing Joseph into the pit, had left scars on these now fully-grown men.
This year, I come face to face with Vayigash as a changed person, living in a changed world, and that is reflected back to me in the way I see this week’s portion. This year, I see brothers who were profoundly changed not only by each other, but by a problem of pandemic proportions — famine.
When Joseph’s brothers don’t recognize him, I think, with a smile on my face, about the people in my life who have become unrecognizable due to “pandemic beards” or new hair styles. But I see and identify with Joseph in other ways which are not nearly as lighthearted.
I see myself in Joseph — a man longing to see a parent, knowing they are just a moderate journey away. I see myself in Joseph — a parent raising two children who often ask him, “When can we go back to our grandparents’ homes?”
Last year, I understood the verse about Joseph’s crying as a release of the anguish of his childhood. “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” (Genesis 45:2) This year, I encounter these words with bittersweet hope, seeing in this moment a time when Joseph can, even if just momentarily, set down from his shoulders the pressures of living through a famine, and I pray that our world can experience this too amid our trying times.
Last year, I read the verse about Joseph and his brothers embracing one another as a willingness to put their past behind them. “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. Only then were his brothers able to talk to him.” (Genesis 45:15). This year, I see this as a mutual recognition of the suffering everyone had endured through the ongoing famine and a promise to hold onto a hope that times would soon be better.
The Torah can act as a mirror for us. When we return to the same words, they show us something about ourselves and the times in which we live. If we can see a bit of ourselves in Joseph and his brothers, and if we can see our hard times of coronavirus in the great pressures of the era that Jacob’s sons endured, that gives me great hope.
If we can see our reflection in the words of Vayigash, then we can see ourselves embracing once again, learning from the obstacles we are enduring, and working together toward a safer and brighter future. l
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.