William Hamilton

I want in

There is something fascinating about the flow of the Hebrew calendar in this season. Just eight days after Hanukkah ends, we arrive at a Fast Day that signals the Temple’s forthcoming destruction. That’s right. The re-dedication of the Temple (Hanukkah) is closely followed by the loss of it. 

Taking note of today’s Minor Fast, known for its date on the Hebrew calendar (10th of Tevet), holds a vital lesson in sustaining ourselves through perilous periods: if you can plan for valleys, you won’t be undone by them. 

Valleys are low points. Sudden reversals. Narrow and dark times when you’re drowning in despair, with no end in sight. The pain cuts so deep. How do you endure and survive them? 

This week’s portion, the single most emotionally gripping portion in the entire Torah, provides an example we can take to heart. 

Joseph has been brought to his emotional breaking-point. He can’t contain himself any longer. Something remarkable happens when he reveals his true identity to his brothers. “I am Joseph, does my father still live (ha-Od Avi Chai)?” (Gen. 45:3). Stunned speechless, his brothers freeze in disbelief. But what I want to focus on is what Joseph is doing there and then, and what it means for us, here and now.  

Joseph knows his father is still very much alive. He’s asked and had the question answered several times. His words (Od Avi Chai) are saying, “I am Joseph, can your father still be a dad to me too?” That is, “I, ruler of Egypt, want in on restoring my place in your family. I want it, again, to be my family too.” But something even more gripping follows. And it has never stopped. And it’s never pulsated more in the history of our people than it does right now! 

The phrase Am Yisrael Chai (the people of Israel lives) originates, biblically, from Joseph’s words Od Avi Chai. This is why the song begins, “Our father still lives” od avinu chai. Sometimes that father is our Father in Heaven; sometimes it’s Israel (Jacob). But what began as Joseph’s spasm of vulnerability at a low point when his brothers were paralyzed by fear, has been transformed into our People’s exultant eruption of joyful belonging. As Joseph exclaimed, “I want in,” so too, when we exclaim Am Yisreel Chai, do we want in.

Since the first week of October, I’ve noticed three kinds of people beginning to collect: the thirsty, the curious, and the admiring. The thirsty are Jews who want to be much more than anti-anti semites. They want to be all in. The curious are open, eavesdropping on Jewish conversations more than before. And the admirers are people from all backgrounds who want in on our stories while remaining true to their respective faith traditions. There are billions of them. Watch this touching example.

Valleys can be raw and vividly real. And so are moments when belonging erupts. May we share in many such moments as we climb our way forward and upward toward safer days ahead.

Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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