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January 6, 2017 Sermon

12/21/2016 02:35:16 PM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Parashat Vayigash 1/8/17


This past Tuesday I saw a Facebook post from a friend who works at the University of Cincinnati, up the street from the Hebrew Union College, where I went to rabbinic school. He passes by the sign for the college every day, and ever since the election has been waiting with trepidation to see if something would happen. Sure enough, Tuesday morning, someone had spray-painted a Swastika on the sign for the oldest Jewish seminary in North America still in existence. As far as I’m aware had not happened before, though I’m sure someone will correct me. Certainly I didn’t experience anything like that in my time there.


It’s ironic that this would happen to an institution that was formed to help shape an American Judaism, an American rabbinate, one that would be native to this country and speak to its Jewish and non-Jewish populations in a way that was both wholly Jewish and wholly of this nation and its values.


In so many ways this begs the question of assimilation; where do we draw the line at separating ourselves from society at large, and where do we maintain our own distinctiveness. It’s an important question, one every Jew asks of him or herself probably on a daily, if not hourly basis. Do I hide my Judaism, do I mention it? Do I make choices that make it more difficult to interact with non-Jewish society; where do I make compromises, and to what end?


We see something of that question in this week’s Torah portion. After reconciling with his brothers, Joseph wants to bring his family to Egypt to wait out the famine. But it’s not that simple; Joseph needs Pharaoh’s permission. And even though he is the number 2 in the whole land, he seems edgy about the request in the text. Joseph warns his brothers about calling themselves Shepherds, because Shepherds are ‘an abomination’ to Egypt; an idea that Rashi upholds. When he goes to present his family he takes only 5 of his brothers, Rashi suggesting that he only takes the weakest ones. What’s going on? Joseph seems to be embarrassed about his origins, and ashamed of his brothers, his family, and their Canaanite ways. Ironically, his Brothers are not embarrassed, and proudly proclaim that they are shepherds. Not only are they not embarrassed, neither is Pharaoh, who gives them legal protection, the land of Goshen, and puts them in charge of his own livestock.


So what are we to make of this?

Joseph is the first example of assimilation; he has left Canaan for Egypt—against his will—and as a result has found tremendous success. But that success comes at a price, where he had to surrender something of his difference. Not only that, but he’s found that history embarrassing, something to be ashamed of; he’d rather be more like those around him, and if that means losing some of his identity, then so be it.

His brothers are comfortable with their identity, and aren’t so interested in casting it aside. They don’t see what’s wrong with who they are—their Canaanite, Israelite, Shepherding ways. And they are able to accomplish much for themselves while maintaining their own authenticity.

And that is the question that every Jew must face all the time, and the question that is most important today. How different are we, really, from the people around us, and how different do we want to be? How much do we want to compromise our own Jewish values in order to be counted as part of society, and how much are we willing to stake out a position where we acknowledge our differences and use them to call those around us to task? Are we Joseph, who sees our dissimilarity as a sign of weakness and embarrassment, or his brothers, who see that same dissimilarity as a sign of strength, an ability to speak truth to power?

The spray paint on the sign gives us a choice: to hide or to stand up, to shrink back and try to disappear into white America, or to continue to put ourselves out there, our voices out there, and challenge injustice and wrong where we see it. I can’t tell you what to do, but I choose to side with Joseph’s brothers, to be a shepherd, even when it’s hard, perhaps especially when it’s hard.

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Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779