Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
Fifty years ago on this shabbat, I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. It was the first Bat Mitzvah in our congregation (Southgate Progressive) but there was never any doubt about it. Thanks to my parents, I always took it for granted that I could do whatever the boys did in Jewish life. So I took to learning my sidra with alacrity and celebrated the day with great joy.
Rabbi John Rayner, my father’s friend and rabbinic mentor, and later my rabbinic mentor too, gave the address. My main memory of it at the time was that introduced me to the words ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’. But having had the pleasure of re-reading it, I realise those words were part of a sermon which told of how Joseph grew and changed, from an introverted teenager, who lived in his dreams, to an extrovert adult taking charge of the whole of Egypt.
Joseph did indeed change. The teenage Joseph could never have imagined the power and capability he would have, which enabled him to manage the seven years of plenty so that not only was there enough grain for the seven years of famine but also surplus to sell to other countries and enrich the Egyptian economy. He changed in other ways, too. Although the young Joseph seemed oblivious to his brothers’ feelings, he was not cruel or callous. In this week’s sidra, we see how different he is. Pretending not to know them, he speaks to them harshly. He takes Simeon in ransom until the brothers return with Benjamin, knowing the pain it would cause their father. Yet underneath it all, we can feel Joseph’s heartbreak. Hearing Reuben address his brothers, he turns away and weeps.
Looking back over fifty years, I remember the tensions amongst me and my siblings, even though my parents did their best to treat us equally. How much more deep would the tensions have been in Jacob’s family when he made his favouritism so obvious and treated the brothers so differently. Yet the brothers all grew up. Just as Joseph changed, so did the his brothers. Judah, especially, learns to take responsibility for his actions. Of all the brothers, he is the one who changes the most. At the start, he is heartless and mercenary, wishing only to profit from his brother Joseph by selling him. But through his experience with Tamar (Genesis 38) and perhaps, too, his realisation of the depths of Jacob’s grief for Joseph, he learns humility and compassion.
All of us have the capacity for growth and change. When we are teenagers, as I was at my Bat mitzvah fifty years ago, we see the world and ourselves very differently. What can seem important, such as perceived differences between siblings, can come to seem trivial as we grow up and come to treasure our brothers and sisters. We can grow in wisdom and understanding, both of others and of ourselves. We can learn compassion, as Judah did, and forgiveness, as Joseph did. True living is growing and changing, never ceasing to learn from life, even at its most difficult.
As we leave Chanukah behind, may we continued to be inspired by its message so that we continue to nurture the light within us and let it shine out to others in love and compassion.
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