This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (and he lived), is near and dear to my heart. It was my Bat Mitzvah portion when I became Bat Mitzvah during my year in Israel 10 years ago at Kehilat Ohel Avraham in Haifa. It was such an amazing day that I will never forget. My Aunt Joan was in town, and Ross and I were finally reunited after being long distance since July (Skype was brand new at the time!) My amazing friend Rabbi Gabby Dagan officiated with my dear classmates who sang so beautifully, among them were Cantor Rayna Green, who some of you might remember installed me as your cantor a few years ago. My family in Israel, the Dorfman-Kolodners, whom some of you met at Torah study 2 years ago, were right there celebrating. It was a dream come true.
It was a mincha (afternoon) service, and I will never forget my hours of preparation to read the entire second aliyah. It was here that we learn about the miracle of Jacob, having been blind for so long, suddenly being able to see his beloved grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim, Joseph’s sons whom he had brought to Jacob on his deathbed for a blessing. My D’var Torah (which I delivered in broken Hebrew!) focused on how the Hebrew root פלל (peh lamed lamed) is translated in the past tense, meaning “expected” and that this same Hebrew root is also seen in the word which means, “to pray”, לְהִתְפַּלֵל (l’hitpalel).
Despite the many other stories told in this Parsha, such as the younger son once again attaining the blessing, and the irony which that brings, I find it fascinating that part of this word that means “to pray” literally means “expect”. This way of prayer was one of the major things which drew me to Judaism when I chose it as an adult. While we have so many ways to pray and connect to God (social justice with our feet, Torah study), personal prayer or even ways to connect to the printed prayers can be daunting for many. When I realized that this was part of the meaning of prayer, a lightbulb yet again went off in my head, because for me, this type of prayer was (and still is) in concert with spirituality. Even when I had left Christianity long before becoming Jewish, I kept a regular dialogue and conversation with God. I set intentions before saying prayers and set “mantras” before going out to do important things (such as delivering song, an important meeting, etc). These actions were always a big part of who I am.
But there is so much more to this parashah. Expectation and communication don’t only happen with God, they happens between people as well. In the previous two parshiot Judah and Joseph did not display two of the very core ideas of Judaism, teshuvah and slichot (turning around your behavior and forgiving). In last week’s parshah, Vayigash, Judah approached and pleaded with Pharaoh to spare his brother, Benjamin, when he was caught stealing, and even offering up his own life. Judah was cut to the heart by his father Jacob’s pain at the loss of Joseph, despite his own deep pain about Jacob’s partiality towards Joseph. Judah displayed teshuvah; he turned from his own pain and jealousy to do right by his father. This week, Joseph displays both repentance and forgiveness. He forgives his brothers, who are so certain that he will seek revenge that they give themselves up to him as slaves. Not only does he forgive them, but he promises to care for their families. Joseph completely turns the evil around to good (teshuvah) when he comforts them by saying, “even if your intentions were evil, God meant them for good,” and promises to always provide for them and their children.
We can learn a great deal from this parashah. We are about to usher out this very difficult and challenging year and welcome in a new one. With it will come many changes. As is the case in our next parshah, “a new Pharaoh will come to power,” when we inaugurate a new president. I am certain that like Pharaoh, many feel that he “doesn’t know Joseph” (ironically, even though his name is Joseph!). There is significant turmoil and disagreement surrounding the protocols for COVID-19, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and vaccinations. We even disagree about the severity of the pandemic and how it has been handled by our leaders. As Rabbi Heaps wrote last week, we are coming close to the time when we will be able to literally (and not air) hug one another. Many will either feel anger towards those who did not follow protocols or feel anger towards authorities who are trying to keep us safe by wearing masks, which allows us, like Judah, to “be our brother’s keeper”. It is my hope and prayer that we, like Joseph, will choose forgiveness and repentance for those with whom we disagreed during this extraordinary time. Ross, Abigail, Zev, and I wish you the happiest, HEALTHIEST, and hopefully HUGGIEST 2021.