Below is a sermon about this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, that I wrote as part of my final for Professional Development class.
An article in the Jewish Daily Forward on Friday, December 05, 2014 tells of four Rabbis being arrested for marching peacefully and saying Mourner’s Kaddish. They were attending a rally organized by a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, protesting the fact that, a few days earlier, a police officer who was caught on camera choking a man to death was not indicted. These Rabbis did nothing wrong, in fact, they were doing their duty as Jews to step up and speak out for those who do not have a voice, or, in this case, someone whose voice was strangled out of him in a moment of extreme helplessness. The Rabbis were striving for justice, but justice escaped them.
We see something similar happen in this week’s parashah, Vayeshev. Potiphar’s wife continually tries to get Joseph to lie with her, and he does the right thing and refuses. On a day when no one else is inside, she coaxes him again, and he still does not give in, but “ya’azov beegdo b’yadah va’yanos va’yetzei hachutzah” he left his coat in her hand and got away and fled outside. Yet when Potiphar returns home, his wife accuses Joseph of lying with her, “va’yikach Adonay Yosef otoh va’yitnehu el beit ha sohar”, and Joseph’s master had him put in prison. Joseph flees from a potential sin, but justice escapes him too.
Justice seems to be an elusive thing in our country these days. There have been a rash of legal proceedings that have ended controversially, and social media shows that many are frustrated, disillusioned with and disheartened by our supposed justice system. It is almost 2015, yet legal decisions are happening based on skin color, not content of character. In the musical Ragtime, based on the EL Doctorow novel about the turn of the 20th century, a group of firefighters trash Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s brand new car because he is black, and then no one wants to advocate on his behalf, because he is black. In a moment of desperation, his fiancée Sarah, who is also black, goes to plead with the Vice President, and as she is screaming and crying for help, policemen see her as a threat and shoot her. Sound familiar? Her friends and family mourn her with these words: “There’s a day of peace, a day of pride, a day of justice we have been denied…it will happen again…why does nobody care? We have voices and souls. What is wrong with this country?” Acting on pure emotion, Coalhouse becomes aggressive, goes on a killing spree and ultimately gets killed himself because of his violent actions.
In this week’s parashah, Joseph reacts to his injustice in the opposite extreme, and does not violently protest his fate. After Joseph gets thrown in jail, the Torah tells us that he did well, because God was with him. God shows kindness to Joseph and inclines others to behave favorably towards him. But Michael Brown and Eric Garner did not have a God watching over their every move, and their lives ended tragically too soon. In a modern world in which we shape our own fates, how can we raise our voices to combat injustice? Can our country heal from its internal wounds and move forward progressively, so that we disprove the lyrics of the song, and these things won’t happen again?
In his Dvar Torah on this parashah, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner quotes the Sefat Emet, which he says is one of the greatest texts about Jewish spirituality ever composed. The Sefat Emet comments that the language used in the Torah throughout Joseph’s ordeal does not change. The Torah continues to use the word “vay’hi”, meaning “and he was” to describe Joseph’s state, and we should take this as a symbol of Joseph’s inner strength. Rabbi Kushner quotes the Sefat Emet as saying, “Joseph did not change who he was in any of the many and radically different places in which he wound up. No matter where his astonishing journey took him, Joseph remained the same Joseph.”
Our first step in pursuing justice is not to change ourselves in reaction to the injustice around us. While we might want to act on our passions, letting raw anger overwhelm our emotions, such as Coalhouse did in the story, we need to act like Joseph and maintain our own inner strength. Many protestors in Ferguson became violent mobs when the officer was not indicted, and their reckless actions caused permanent damage to innocent people who happened to have their cars parked nearby, or owned stores on surrounding streets. Those people did nothing wrong, and there was no reason to spread the injustice to them. We do not want to become perpetrators of violence just because there is violence around us.
In an article for Ten Minutes of Torah, Rabbi Jacob Segal writes that our Torah “comes to teach us a lesson about responding to violence in the world without compromising our own humanity…Jewish tradition imposes limits on our use of force…it invites us to consider how to fight evil without becoming evil.” In this way, we play a key role. We need to respond to the injustice we see in the world with dignity, not evil, otherwise we will never be able to break out of that cycle of anger and hostility and move forward.
At the same time, we cannot just sit back. We need to remember that as Jews and as American citizens, we have voices and souls, and unlike Sarah’s friends in Ragtime, we are not helpless. We can use our voices and souls to make a difference, seeing the actions of the Rabbis who were unfairly arrested as an example. The Huffington Post writes that, after being held at the police station overnight, Rabbi Jill Jacobs commented that the protest was crucial to her as “a religious act” to highlight the “dignity of every single human being…Rabbis and all Jews need to stand up and say that every single person is a creation in the divine image — that black lives matter,” Jacobs said. “We put our bodies on the line to show how crucial it is that the systems meant to protect us do protect all of us.”
We may not be directly involved in the injustice occurring in our country, but it is happening all around us, and we have the ability to be allies. It is important to read the news and be informed, and also for us to use our voices when we can, as a reminder that we are all human beings, and we all deserve respect. Each one of us- black or white, gay, straight, Jewish, Christian, Muslim- was made in the image of God, and as American citizens, each one of us has unalienable rights. When those rights are not honored, and when people are not respected based on who they are, it impacts all of us.
On one of the occasions in which Potiphar’s wife is trying to get Joseph to lie with her, there is a special trope mark, a shalshelet, above the word “va’ymaen”, “he refused.” This mark only appears a total of four times in the entire Torah, so each time it is present is significant. As our country continues to struggle with what justice means and how to execute it, this shalshelet seems to be to be a call to action. Just like Joseph, we have the power to refuse sin, even when we are in the most vulnerable positions. Just like Joseph, we can refuse to compromise our actions even throughout changing circumstances. Just like Joseph, we have the inner strength to maintain our identities, and act on our good impulses, refusing to give in to the evil in our world and refusing to let it overwhelm our humanity.
In painful circumstances, it is easy to be like Coalhouse and let our emotions get the best of us, compelling us to kill and to destroy. But if we are going to contribute to a better future, to that day of peace, pride and justice that, so far, we have been denied, we need to refuse to yield to those impulses to fight back violently. We need to act with the dignity we expect from our government and from our legal system, honoring the sparks of the divine within our own selves as much as the ones within others. We need to remain “vay’hi”, strong and steadfast, throughout changing circumstances, and be inspired by those Rabbis who peacefully prayed for the victims of injustice. We need to refuse to move backward.
Sarah’s friends’ song of grief for her unjust death ends with these words: “Let the new day dawn, oh Lord, I pray. We’ll never get to heaven till we reach that day.” May we be inspired by these words, and the actions of our role models, from our ancestor Joseph to the four Rabbis arrested last week. May we refuse to let injustice win by remembering the sparks of God in each of us. May we work towards that new day with dignity, peace and pride. Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may these words be worthy of coming true.