Vayigash: The Uncrossable Divide

As 2019 comes to a close and 2020 is upon us, it’s hard not to look back at the decade that was without a real sense of consternation and dismay at the continued rise of hate crimes. The ADL put out a report describing the decade’s Top Ten Incidents of Hate. From the mass shooting in El Paso, the bombing in Boston, to the massacre in Squirrel Hill, there seems to be many, many times where we forget our humanity. In an ever connected age where we can see friends half a world away, it seems like we are farther apart than ever.  In a world where you can feel close to someone on a continent far away, why is the deepest chasm and the uncrossable divide between one person and their neighbor? 

To hate someone is not to dislike what they do or disagree with their ideas. We all have disagreements and differences, hatred is deeper than that, it is personal. Having hatred in your heart is to adopt a disposition towards another person —another life — separate from their choices or actions.  It is more than deed, it is creed.  

The energy that fuels hate is pumped from the well of separation.  We all want to feel unique, because we are all are. You are stamped with God’s love for goodness and holiness.  You have infinite potential because your soul was created by the Infinite. Hatred begins when we forget that others carry their own soul-stamp.  Most hatred is born out of ignorance. You don’t know that person or people like them, and so you rely on what others tell you. Antisemitism, for example, has always relied on lies told to the public by the powerful so that the populace is divided against itself. We hate when we cannot cross the divide from our soul to another person’s soul and when we forget that we are all forged for goodness and friendship.  

Hatred, separation, distance: the uncrossable divide. 

Much of the same energy is expressed in the week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. After years of relentless famine in the land of Canaan, Jacob sent his sons down to Egypt in search of food. Word comes back to Jacob that the Egyptian viceroy will only give out food if Jacob would send his youngest son, Benjamin, along with the other brothers. (Gen 44:23) Simeon is also being held hostage in Egypt as collateral. (Gen 42:24)  Jacob despairs because he believes he has lost his son Joseph and now Simeon is held in captivity.  

This is the deepest moment of despair, when the divide between the family seems uncrossable.  Joseph and his brothers who through a cycle of arrogance and violence became ever more distant, (Gen 37: 18) now stand at the opposite sides of the chasm. To Jacob and to Joseph it is no longer the misdeeds that matter, it is their very souls that are at stake.  Jacob says, “If you take this boy from me, and he meets with disaster, I will go down to Sheol in grief.” (Gen 44:29) The chasm is opened and everything is on the line.  

How do you pull back from the brink?  

We hate because we forget that each of us is filled with a soul capable of so much love and goodness.  We hate because we forget everyone of us carries pain. We hate because of our ignorance, and so we fill the uncrossable divide with the greatest lie ever told. A lie that says there is an “us” and a “them” and the only way for us to be holy is to destroy them.  

To move across the uncrossable divide, is to remember who you are. You are stamped for holiness.  To pull back from the brink is to remember the greatest truth ever revealed —

 that God is One, and God is in everyone. You are God’s partner and God is yours.  The Midrash teaches that when you are in pain God is in pain, when you are afflicted God is afflicted. (Shemot Rabba 2:5) God is with you in sorrow and in joy.  You are never alone, and God can help you cross the divide. 

In the Torah, God partners with Joseph and his family, who have been divided by a distance of time and hatred to cross the chasm and to make teshuvah.  God says to Jacob, “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself shall also bring you back…” (Gen. 46:4) When we remember God’s Oneness, we can allow the love to flow through us, and turn our hearts to each other.  

Joseph, after hearing the pleading of his brothers and the suffering of his father, closes the distance.  He bursts into tears and reveals himself to them. “I am your brother, Joseph…come close to me. (Gen 45:3-4) ” The chasm collapses and the divide is crossed.  When we remember who we are, that we are all partners with God, we can come back from the brink and cross the uncrossable divide. 

May this coming year be one in which we find God’s light in each other’s eyes. 

Shabbat Shalom 

PS: If you want to hear me speak about these themes more, please listen to my interview on NPR from December 30th.  You can listen here.

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