Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Vayeishev 5783

When to surrender and when to fight?

Thank you, Haile, for your immensely thoughtful and deep d’var Torah. I know we’re all praying for your grandmother’s healing. Thank you for teaching us about her inspiring example. Your theory is that Jacob didn’t intervene in Joseph’s suffering because he trusted God. He trusted that even though Joseph was suffering there must have been some larger plan or greater good, so he waited. And we’ll find out in a few chapters that Joseph trusted God and believed that his brothers’ actions were on God’s behalf.

So we might learn from these two patriarchs of our people that when bad things happen we should surrender to them. We should trust and believe that there is something more going on than we can see. That is a clear message from the Joseph story in the Torah.

But here we are on the Shabbat before Chanukah, about to celebrate a very different reaction to adverse events and conditions, when the Maccabees rose up against the tyranny of the occupying Greeks, resisted their edicts, engaged them in guerilla warfare, and won.

So which is it? When bad things happen, whether they’re terrible large scale events: an occupying army, societal injustice, antisemitism, environmental devastation, or even if they’re smaller personal challenges: a betrayal, a sickness, a failure. Do we surrender, and trust that it will all work out on its own, or do we confront the situation, do we fight?

This is a question that has divided the Jewish world. The most strict Orthodox Jews will often say that we should not act but trust in God. That led some not to be Zionists even after the Holocaust, trusting instead that when God is ready for us to return to the Promised Land, God will bring us there and protect us there. I remember a few years ago when there were violent attacks happening against Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights and I was among a group of progressive rabbis who spoke with leaders of the Hasidic community offering our help and solidarity, and they looked at us, bemused, and said, “There’s no need, this is in God’s hands.”

In contrast, a cornerstone of liberal Jewish theology is tikkun olam, the notion that we human beings have an active role to play in repairing the world. Whether in Lurianic Kabbalah or in Reform Judaism, this concept is that the broken shards of the world need to be lifted up and reunited into a whole, and that God is actually dependent upon human action, whether through blessings or activism.

Chanukah, our holiday that begins tomorrow night, celebrates a fight taken up by a traditional faction of Jews, the Maccabees, against assimilation of Jewish life under Greek influence. In the 150 years after Alexander the Great conquered the entire region, the Jewish people living in Judea were surrounded by Hellenistic influences and many simply wanted to blend in. In particular, circumcision was considered barbaric by the Greeks and many Jews tried to physically reverse their circumcisions in order to participate in the naked activities in the gymnasium. They felt ashamed of their bodies and their culture and wanted to be more Greek. Then Antiochus IV, the Seleucid emperor, outlawed Jewish practices, including circumcision, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, sacrificing to God in the Jerusalem Temple, and teaching or even possessing Torah texts. If anyone was caught doing any of these things, they were publicly executed. A statue of Zeus was erected on the Temple Mount, and Jews were forced to sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods and eat them. In response, the Maccabees rose up and defeated Antiochus’s army in the year 164 BCE, beginning what became known as the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea.

In contrast, after the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the year 70 CE, while many Jews were killed and many more were sold into slavery, most Jews surrendered and lived in Judea under the often brutal Roman occupation. But after the Romans built a new city over the ruins of Jerusalem and put a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount, one of our most important Rabbis, Akiva, decided to join the rebellion against the Romans led by Bar Kokhba. In 135 CE, that rebellion was utterly smashed by the Roman army, leading to devastating destruction and bloodshed, and the end of any significant Jewish population in Judea. Most of the Jews who survived were forcibly removed, sold into slavery, and scattered throughout the world.

So when do we fight or confront the situation, and when do we surrender or accept the situation?

In support of your interpretation of our parasha, Haile, we see that when Jacob’s sons bring him Joseph’s bloodied coat telling him that Joseph was probably killed by a wild beast, the text tells us that Jacob yema’en, refused to accept consolation over Joseph’s death. He did not say aloud that he didn’t believe the story told by his sons, but he also refused comfort as if his son Joseph was dead. He continued, the sages say, to pray for him and send love to him. When, down in Egypt, Joseph was almost seduced by Potiphar’s wife, but he would not be intimate with her, the same word yema’en, refused, is used. The sages say that “the image of his father appeared before him” in that moment, giving him strength to resist. Rabbi Art Green suggests that father and son were in some sense communicating, through prayer, through love. “The radiance of that continuing parental love reached him, all the way off in distant Egypt. That is what gave him the strength to resist and remain faithful.”

This teaches us that the dichotomies between surrender and fighting or between acceptance and protest or between trust and doubt are false binaries. Instead, there are a whole spectrum of approaches to a situation that can include subtle, even invisible action, like prayer, like love. To add further complexity, we should realize that we only see Jacob and Joseph in particular moments over a long course of time. Those of us who do trust, who do have faith, know that even the most steadfast believers are full of doubt. We may vacillate, as I suspect both Jacob and Joseph did, between rage and acceptance, between panic and trust, between plotting revenge and acknowledging God’s wisdom.

When bad things happen, we often do not know what to do. It often is not clear whether to fight or accept the situation, whether to protest or acquiesce, whether to resist or surrender. But what I do believe, what I do know, is that no matter what path we choose and no matter what the outcome, we are being held. No matter how much we flail, no matter how much we doubt the God we don’t believe in, beyond all the doing and the arguing and the building and the tearing down, beyond all the living and all the dying, we are being held.

Shabbat Shalom.