Rabbi Robinson Sermon December 11, 2020

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Vayeshev: Genesis 37:1ff

During these last several months, I have been thinking about the idea of responsibility, specifically the social contract we have been asked to enter since the pandemic began. We have been called to a special civic responsibility (wearing a mask, limiting contact with people, etc.), one that, as Jews, we are familiar with. Perhaps not the specifics, of course, but the idea that we are obligated to one another, and to something greater than ourselves. After all, what are mitzvot if not a sense of sacred civic responsibility?

Frequently, our society talks about responsibility by using terms like burden, as if they are somehow onerous to fulfill. Certainly, as we have watched the numbers rise and rise and rise, we have seen the fruit of that language. To be sure they may, from time to time, seem inconvenient and annoying. But in our Tradition, they are not meant to be a burden; quite the opposite, the fulfillment of mitzvot are supposed to lift us up, elevate us; not in a way that prompts an ego response or heightened sense of self, but rather help us become God’s partners. As Rabbi Shai Held writes in The Heart of Torah, to fulfill mitzvot is to be engage with that notion of chosenness, of being singled out by God.

Nevertheless, fulfillment of responsibility, and being singled out, often feels heavy to us. So, we encounter Joseph, Jacob—and God’s—favorite child. And I say child, and the text says child, even though the text tells us he is 17. We are told he is a lad, just after being told his age. Why is God wasting ink, telling us both? Wouldn’t one description suffice? The midrash is instructive: it tells us that he acts like a lad, childishly. He tattletales on his brothers. He tells everyone his dreams, even after it makes them upset and angry. He wears his multicolored tunic as if to flaunt his favored status. And how often do we think we deserve special treatment because of our being singled out? Not necessarily as a people, but as individuals? As if acting responsibly is not merely what should be expected, not merely fulfillment of our sacred obligation, but somehow worthy of a gold star, or a scratch-and-sniff sticker if you are a certain age (always go for Root Beer by the way).

It is notable that the Haftarah for this portion, the Prophet Amos serves up a counterpoint to this position. “I have singled you out from among the nations, therefore I will call you to account for all your iniquities.” As Held points out, as God’s elect, we are not entitled to privileges as much as held accountable for our service. So, it is with Joseph, who, despite beginning his tale steeped in entitlement and immaturity, grows through his painful experiences. By the time he encounters Pharaoh, after service Potiphar, being assaulted by his wife, and rotting in jail, he attributes his capabilities to God, not anything within himself, and that his gifts are meant to help others.

So, it is with us as well. May we learn to see our responsibilities not as a burden, but as a privilege; to see our chosenness not as an invitation to ego but as a call to action. And may we continue to act in a way that the fulfillment of our sacred obligations lifts us up but lifts each other as well. Amen.

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