Doing our best: Parashat Vayeshev

In Parashat VaYeshev Reuven wants to save Yosef, but fails.  Having finally reconciled with his own brother last week, Jacob now helps create enmity between Joseph and his brothers by showing clear favoritism, and even sending Yosef to check up on his brothers.  They originally want to murder Yosef on the spot, but Reuven convinces them to throw him into a pit instead, so that he can save him afterwards.   Yehudah then comes up with the idea of selling Yosef into slavery, rather than murdering him.  It is not clear where Reuven is when this happens, but we are then told that Reuven is dismayed when he returns.  Even more than he is upset for Yosef, he asks, “what will I do?”

The entire book of Genesis is stories of first born who are not destined to take on the leadership and privilege generally accorded to the first born. Unlike many other of the first born, this story is one of several indications that Reuven is not fit for leadership.  The composite picture that emerges is of somebody who is not stable, not decisive, and somewhat self-absorbed.

Reading the story this year, I am of two minds. The common denominator is that good intentions are important, but often not enough.

My first association is with the many who share our world view regarding human rights, but are not activists.  I confess that I often wish that more people would take concrete actions to help bring about the world they believe in.   In the midrash we are taught, “If Reuben had known that the Holy One would write this verse about him, he would have placed him (Yosef) on his shoulders and brought him unto his father!”   (Genesis and Leviticus Rabbah, Midrash Tankhuma Buber).

However, part of me says this is a bit harsh and unfair.  Reuven didn’t succeed, but he did take some action.  It would be hard for me to look at myself in the mirror if the work that I do to protect human rights didn’t have some positive results reasonably often, but neither my nor anybody’s batting record is anywhere close to 100%.   All that God can ask of us, and all that we can ask of ourselves, is that we drive ourselves to do our very best.  Secondly, I have the privilege to be employed to engage in human rights work. Who am I to judge those who give of their time as volunteers, while needing to make a living in some other way?

The definition of success is not always “all or nothing,” and sometimes only becomes clear over time, if ever.  Reuven did prevent his brothers from killing Yosef on the spot, allowing for the continuation of God’s Plan that required him to be sold into slavery in Egypt.

Last night at an event here in London, we asked people to join with us in our efforts to prevent the KKL-JNF from evicting the Sumarin family from their East Jerusalem home Israel stole from them using an extreme interpretation of the “Absentee Property Law” that the government later agreed not to use any more.  Back in 2011 we thought we had saved the family after thousands wrote to the KKL-JNF worldwide, and the KKL-JNF announced a freeze of the immanent eviction.  However, they also made it clear at the time that this was not a permenant commitment, and now that freeze has become “unfrozen.”  The fact that our actions back in 2011 did not have the full effect we had hoped does not by any means detract from the importance of our efforts, or the at least eight years in their home we earned for the Sumarins.

Also here in the UK in order to present at Limmud next week, I am reminded of the session I taught last time I had the privilege to be at Limmud, entitled “Texts of Hope.”  One of my favorites is actually from this parasha, in which we have the strange interlude where the text takes a break from the story of Yosef to tell how Yehuda is tricked by Tamar into conceiving a child with her, after two of Yehuda’s sons die, and Yehuda does not wish that a third son perform Levirate marriage (yibbum) with her.  “The tribes were busy thinking about the sale of Yoesf. Yosef was engrossed in his suffering.  Reuven was thinking about his suffering, and Yaakov in his.  Yehudah was taking a woman.  While all this was happening, God was engaged in creating the light of the Messiah.  (King David, believed to be the progenitor of the messianic line, is a descendant of Yehudah and Tamar.)

This Shabbat, may we all renew our drive to do what we can to create a better world, demanding of ourselves no more and no less than that we do our best.  May we merit to see the intended results of our actions, and live with the faith that our actions can contribute to God’s Plans happening beneath the surface, even when we do not know or understand those plans.  As we prepare to celebrate Khanukah, as our Christian brothers and sisters prepare to celebrate Christmas, and as so many other cultures celebrate light at the darkest time of the year, may we be the “shamashim” (the candle we use to light the rest of the lights of the Khanukah menorah) that add light and holiness to our world.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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