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Vayigash: Primary Colours (Sermon delivered at Hove Hebrew Congregation)

We are about to conclude the first book of the Torah and the family saga from Abraham to the twelve sons of Jacob that decides the future direction of our people: our trajectory and our values.

Throughout this story there has been a story of sibling rivalries: Isaac or Ishmael? Jacob or Esau? Historically, our sages see Ishmael as a metaphor for Islam and Esau for Christianity and these previous chapters were used later by rabbis to define Judaism’s complex relationship with other Abrahamic faiths. However, the final, chapters we have a battle for leadership and supremacy between the sons of Jacob. And this is where we see the final battle playing out and it is a character test.

Like good American-style primary there are 12 or 13 candidates and one at a time they drop out leaving us with a struggle between Joseph and Judah: stretching the analogy a little: Joseph, the candidate of the Sons of Rachel Party and Judah, the candidate for the Sons of Leah Party respectively… Other candidates have already dropped out. All the sons of Bilah and Zilpah are excluded as are some of the younger sons of Leah and so was Binyamin…

Reuben as the oldest tries to desperately establish himself: though he tried to save Joseph, he went missing when he was sold; he then tried to sleep with his father’s concubine and ridiculously told his father that he would kill his own son’s if he did not return with Binyamin. Serious questions about his leadership. Simeon and Levi go for an extreme form of leadership by wiping out Shechem following the rape of Dinah. In their father’s own word: you put us in danger. So we are left with Joseph and Judah.

The obvious candidate is Joseph and if we are to believe his modern-day propagandists such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber Joseph and his amazing technicolor dreamcoat win the day… Judah hardly features in the West End / Broadway muscial… And why not???

Joseph is the person that those in power find beautiful: he has lots of natural talent, he is a Prophet, he has dreams; he interprets dreams and those dreams show that he his brothers will bow down in front of him… and here they are at the start of our Sedra doing precisely that. We see a pattern throughout his life though of being a great deputy: a deputy to his father overseeing his brothers; a deputy to Potiphar; a deputy to the prison-keeper; and a deputy to Pharaoh: he serves his masters well but we see that at times he causes resentment to others.

Judah is the fourth son and when we first take real notice of him he does not cover himself in glory. He is the one that suggest selling his brother into slavery. It beats killing him for sure. However, his plan results in his father being depressed: He leaves the Israelite fold and goes into a sheep-rearing business with Hirah: as it says “About that time Judah left his brothers and camped near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah”. Whilst Joseph is becoming more and more Egyptian; Judah is becoming more and more Canaanite. He marries a Canaanite and there are suggestions in the text that he may be practising their customs: sheep-shearing customs and bizarre religious acts. It is at this time we come across Tamar: his daughter-in-law who he sees as some sort of Black widow. She has widowed two of his sons; he keeps his third son away from her so she tricks him into sleeping with her in order to have children. During the encounter Judah gives her his signet ring and cloak. Without getting to complicated some the text and commentators suggest this was an act of avodah zora / idolatry and all part of a Canaanite religious ritual: he describes her as a Kedusha. When Tamar comes to him pregnant he assumes she has been disloyal to his son: the punishment should be death. She shows him the signet ring and cloak. It is at that moment that Judah recognises his actions and declares: “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah”. She lives and gives birth to two sons who are the forebears of most of the Jews today…

Judah has descended down off the path: this is his wake up moment – self-realisation that he is responsible for his actions. He returns to the fold… to his father, his brothers… It is at the start of this week’s parsha that his journey back is complete.

Vayigash means ‘he drew near’… Judah drew near to Joseph… a Midrash on this one phrase suggests that “Judah came near to him” could mean that he was ready for battle, conciliation, or prayer… I would suggest it could also means he draws nearer morally…

Judah pleads not just for Binyamin who has been accused of theft; but for his father: having lost one son of the same mother would be broken if he lost the other. He then offers himself up as bondsman instead of his brother.

It is this idea of self-responsibility, responsibility to others and to the greater community becomes his offer. Joseph on the other hand does not change. Twice he allows the brothers to refer to his own father as Joseph’s servant; Joseph later in our parsha continues to serve his master whatever the consequences: he sells food on behalf of Pharaoh to the Egyptians for money, then possessions and land and finally he enslaves the whole of Egypt for the Pharaoh in exchange for food: setting perhaps a course that will lead to his own people ending up in chains and slavery for a Pharaoh that did not know Joseph… He is never resolved with his Jewish identity per se… he remains the Egyptian Zaphnath-Paaneah: his own children are adopted by Jacob and become half-tribes: some commentators say this is a great honour or is it their grandfather that passes on the values of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Ephraim and Manasseh… The dreamcoat boy turns his cleverness to serve others but seemingly struggles with his dual identity and the wider moral consequences of his actions.

Some will say this is a story about Teshuva and penitence but it so much more. Judah is a very real person who struggles with his actions and resolves to take self-responsibility, to take responsibility for his and his peoples future: it is for this reason his descendents become the Kings of Israel and Judah; its is why our haftorah declares that our people will reunite under his descendants and why we believe Messiah comes from that house of Kings… he drew near… perhaps Judah in this story draws near to Joseph in terms of leadership and in the view of our rabbis later surpasses it.

it is the Judah model and it is a model that I know is present here in Brighton: this a community who has a record of self-reliance, leadership and meeting need: it is no coincidence that this is one of the few communities when faced with the Lord Sack’s challenge of Jewish continuity launched its own Sussex Jewish Continuity; launched Sussex Jewish News to ensure that it could communicate to local Jews and beyond; that recognised that when the growth of BDS and attacks on Israel augmented without challenge introduced a model of local activism through Sussex Friend of Israel; that launched an early version of a Jewish Community Centre; and launched what is today one of the largest Jewish cultural festivals in the UK: the UK Jewish Film Festival… It was one of the few places that had its own Jewish Radio show, something London struggles to achieve… Again and again collectively and individually where you see a need you meet a need. Brighton is place of innovation and early adoption: when it comes together larger communities look to Brighton for its model. And in the case of at least one Chief Rabbi: he decided to relocate here for 20 years… Brighton leads, others follow.

And what of the future??? The challenge remains the same: it is about all collectively and individually taking responsibility. Size has not stopped Brighton and Hove before and if there is a collective will, then there is nothing that cannot be achieved. This synagogue has great plans ahead and is using new innovative models to secure its own future.

It is the secular new year: it is a time of year where individuals make resolutions. I know all about these resolutions: 15 months ago I was told that I had to change my diet and fitness regime and was given 12 weeks to lose weight. I lost 4 stone / 25 kilos… I know many this time of year make the same resolution: the issue is that whether you are talking about lifestyle choices or community building it is the same: there is the Joseph model and the Yehudah model. The Joseph model is if you dream it then there is no need to will it; the Yehudah model is if you will it is no dream…

We are the sons and daughters of Judah.

Comments (1)

One Reply to “Vayigash: Primary Colours (Sermon delivered at Hove Hebrew Congregation)”

  1. The story of Judah and Joseph, at the time when Judah recognises Joseph, is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, of the Torah. It had drama and theatre, not found elsewhere. I love it, and would love to see it dramatised.

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