The Talmud teaches:
You must set your eyes on three things in order to avoid sin: Know where you come from, know where you’re going, and know how you will be judged and evaluated in time” (Pirkei Avot 3:1).
Know where you’re going, where you come from, and how you’ll be judged. The Musical Hamilton conveys a similar admonition with its refrain, “history has its eyes on you.” Both remind us to have our eyes on history.
In our Torah reading, here is where we come from and where we’re going:
We have nearly finished the book of Genesis– just one more portion to go. In two weeks we begin Exodus. The bridge between these two books is more salient than any other— we do not start Exodus without knowing the end of Genesis. And there is no right way to end Genesis without knowing “l’an atah holech,” where we’re going, without holding in our minds eye that we are headed toward Exodus. This is how we stitch together Genesis and Exodus: with hindsight and foresight.
Our portion begins with great emphasis on Joseph’s power and prestige in Egypt. His brothers beg him for help, and they still don’t know who he really is, other than the most powerful politician in the world. The text opens with Judah pleading with Joseph, and formally addresses Joseph as “Adoni-my lord” no less than 7 times. I think we’ve seen that number before….
Joseph himself proclaims his prestige as well. After he shocks his brothers by revealing himself, he tells his brothers what to tell his father Jacob. Of all the possible messages to convey— he instructs them: “tell my father that Pharoah made me ruler of all of Egypt. Tell my father about all the honor I achieved in Egypt!” Of all the messages to convey–not, “I’m alive!” but “Dad, I have achieved honor in Egypt!”
The brothers tell this to their father, and Jacob is so shocked that he faints. He cannot reckon with this reality— he can’t hold the past and present in his mind at once and remain conscious. Reckoning with reality…. believing the unbelievable… That’s one theme this portion hits us over the head with. That Joseph could ascend from the pit to the palace- unbelievable. That the brothers would be groveling before him– and that he’d nourish rather than punish them– unbelievable. That he’s even alive, for Jacob: believe the unbelievable. When Jacob regains his consciousness, he says that all he wants to do in life, his only remaining objective is to see Joseph with his very eyes.
Now, Jacob of all people understands the importance of eyesight. After all, the torments of his life all stem from the inability to see truth with one’s eyes. From Esau’s infatuation with the sight of stew, to Rebecca and Jacob tricking the blind Isaac into blessing him, to the famous “wife-swap” that Laban pulled on Jacob… he’s seen enough to know that he must see in order to know. So naturally, Jacob’s ultimate aspiration is to see his son, to know what’s real, to know what’s true.
Knowing the truth, the Talmud teaches us—truly seeing—involves three things: hindsight, foresight, and the insight into who will be judging us in time.
He’s coming from a life of deceit and optical illusion. He’s going to Egypt so his family can live and he can die in peace. His whole family – the fate of his progeny – will stand in judgment before Joseph.
That’s what we see in our text this week. But we know much more– because we read the same text, year after year. We have the insight of narrative hindsight and foresight. We know that in two weeks we begin Exodus. We know that in two weeks all the power Joseph accrues will fade. We know that in two weeks, “a king will arise over Egypt who does not know Joseph.”
Therefore, despite the honor, the riches, and political power that Genesis delivers in its final chapters, we read with a brooding anxiety. Because we know we are descending into Egypt. In two weeks time we tumble into Exodus.
We need to know three things in order to avoid sin, in order to see the truth: where we come from, where we’re going, and how we will be judged in time.
In our time, we know where we come from, but we do not know where we are going. In exactly two weeks, as we begin Exodus, we will inaugurate a new President of the United States– a new king will arise….
In two weeks, a President will arise who shows disregard for speaking the truth, who holds no reverence for da’at, bina, v’chochma–for the knowledge, wisdom, and Intelligence that enables the American Jewish community to live in perhaps the safest place we’ve ever lived in our entire history.
It’s not partisan to name reality, to speak truth, to state facts– it’s Jewish, the very word “Torah” means teaching! And in it we ground ourselves in values.
Our President-elect habitually hurts people with lashon harah, the evil tongue. He derides those among us who are most vulnerable–the proverbial “stranger, widow, and orphan.” He brags about sexually abusing women. And he’s surrounding himself with individuals who have only demonstrated overwhelming disregard for the values that our tradition urges us to uphold: to protect the environment, care for the sick, embrace the Other, support the impoverished, uplift the fallen, give tzedakah.
I know my words may aggravate some. I am clearly making full use of the exercise of freedom of the pulpit, which Temple Israel of Boston grants its clergy. But I don’t assume it comes with a mute button to congregants. If you’re among those frustrated by this reading of Torah into our world, I yearn for the opportunity to listen to you, deeply and genuinely.
Because I trust that we can all agree that this campaign season mobilized, even mainstreamed, a white supremacist movement that we all oppose. I would only urge this: that the basis of our conversation be our Talmudic text: We need to see three things in order to avoid sin: where we come from, where we’re going, and how we will be judged in time.
We come from Genesis. We come from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We come from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We come from Joseph, the most powerful man in Egypt, who brought us there safely.
Where are we going?
In two weeks we’re going into Exodus. We’re going into powerlessness, We’re going into the darkest Book of Torah. And in that dark book, the Israelites will somehow become a people. In that dark book, the Israelites will enter a Covenant with God to become, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “the voice of hope in the Conversation of humankind.”
Hope, not optimism, but hope.
Optimism is, in the words of literary theorist Terry Eagleton “simply a quirk of temperament.” Optimism is cute, hope is critical. Hope comes from a darker place, a place of blunt realism. Hope is what Judaism demands of us. There is very little optimism among us individually. But as a community, we are guarantors of hope. We search for it together.
That is what we are doing next weekend. Next Friday night we’ll pray with a thousand people from dozens of faith traditions. We’ll learn from an inspiring leader, the NAACP’s Michael Curry. We’ll hear from our youth and student from Beacon Academy and listen to where they find hope.
Then we’re going to spend Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, as long as it takes to ensure that we’re on the right side of history.
“History has its eyes on [us].” And we have our eyes set on three things:
Where we come from, where we’re going, and how we will be judged in time.
We came out of Egypt.
We are in this for the long hall.
We will be judged by generations to come.
And with enduring hope, we will pray together, we will march together;
With this inalienable hope, we will organize together, we will stand together, we will fight together;
With relentless hope, we will together do what the Jewish people have for thousands of years sworn to God that we will do: Inaugurate another chapter of the story of redemption.
Then- and only then- may we one day stand in judgment and say to our children, what Joseph says to his father: look at the honor that we achieved in Egypt.
(Sermon delivered at Temple Israel of Boston, Jan 6, 2017/5777)