Torah Teaching from Rabbi Kelemen – Published in WUPJ Newsletter

“Joseph Reveals Himself: How to Deal With Shame” on Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27)

by Rabbi Katalin Kelemen, founding member and spiritual leader of Sim Shalom, Hungary (Sim Shalom is the first  post-war Progressive Hungarian Jewish Congregation)

WUPJ: Torah from around the world #44 – December 9th, 2010 issue

Ha’eir eineinu b’toratecha… Let our eyes see the light of Your teaching and our hearts embrace Your commands .Give us integrity to love You and fear You. So shall we never lose our self-respect, nor be put to shame, for You are the power which works to save us.”

When I first heard this prayer sung, I was struck dumb by the meaning of the words. It happened in the early nineties at a Shabbat Service in Finchley Reform Synagogue in London. At that moment I felt a wall falling down – a strong wall which had built up between me and God, between me and prayers in the years when I was growing up in Communist Hungary. As a member of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, shame and lack of self-respect were dominating threads in our lives. We did not know who we were or where we came from – growing up in a family of confused silences and half-uttered truths and badly disguised secrets about our family history. In the Shoah my parents and grandparents were put to the greatest shame ever for being Jewish, and after the war in a secular Communist world neither they nor their children were able to completely come out of it.

Thus, the concept of God as a saving power from shame was a revelation for me and the start of a healing process. In later years, studying the prayers together with my community members, I found out that I was not the only one who experienced the revelation that in Judaism God has something to do with getting rid of shame.

In this week’s parshah we have another beautiful example of the principle that shame should be avoided. Joseph, through his transformational process, can understand now that avoiding shame is part of God’s intention. This can be understood from the way that he manages the big reconciliation scene with his brothers.

But before we get to this story, let’s consider the meeting of Jacob with Esau, which we read a few weeks ago in Genesis 32. It is a parallel story of the reconciliation of two brothers who have been in conflict, though now the brother who committed the sin is the one who initiates the reconciliation. But out of fear, Jacob humiliates himself because he doesn’t feel that he and Esau are on equal terms with each other. He sends gifts, hoping to buy Esau’s good will, and addresses him in a submissive way. The two parties can’t be on equal terms when shame or humiliation are part of the relationship.

Getting back to Joseph, we learn that he is sensitive to the implications of shame. A. G. Zornberg in “The Beginning of Desire” (p. 333,) points out that many commentators have asked the question: How is it that Joseph was not able to communicate with his father during all the years of his success?  For the answer she refers to Or Ha-Hayyim 45:26:  Joseph is paralyzed by the prospect of his brothers’ shame if he reveals himself to his father.

Joseph now has the insight to realize that he has to manipulate the drama so that his brothers’ shame is neutralized bringing them all to an equal level and hence can be truly reconciled. It helps that he learned earlier that his brothers were repentant about having sold him into slavery. In Genesis 45: 1–15 he sends all the servants out of the room before revealing himself to his brothers. Then he says: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt”– not being silent about their main sin, but including himself into their midst, showing that he was not completely innocent in the episode. By identifying himself as their brother, he shows that he is now ready to reconnect with them.

Joseph knows that we cannot change the actual events of the past, but we can change how we feel about them by giving a new interpretation to them. So he says to his brothers: “God sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth… So, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45: 7–8). In this way he generously helps his brothers to get rid of their guilt feelings.

The next step in his strategy for eliminating the shame of his brothers is that he makes it their task to inform their father about his favorite son’s “resurrection”. In this way they have an active role in the reparation process. He finishes his message to his father and his brothers with a beautiful vision of the future in which separation and isolation will be no more, and the family be reunited and close to each other.

The WUPJ Newsletter can be read here.

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