Sermon: When History and Hope can Rhyme – Rabbi Michael Shire

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 5 December 2015

Our Parasha begins in Genesis chapter 37 with va’yeshev ya’akov – ‘and Jacob was settled down in the land’ but the chapter ends with  tarof toraf Yosef – Jacob believes Joseph has been torn into pieces. We would like to think, like Rashi, that old age merits a settled existence and that, despite Jacob’s failings as a young man, he did deserve this final quiet settled part of his life. But it seems it was not to be. Just as Jacob thinks he is comfortable in the land with his large family and many wives, the story takes a strange turn with many twists and turns that results in Jacob finally leaving the land and dying eventually in Egypt. In the short space of this chapter, we move from a settled existence to the presumed loss of a dearly beloved son.

And there is something else strange – from this week right through to the end of Genesis, God seems absent. God never talks to Joseph and Joseph only seems to know God through the experience of his parents and grandparents. The story unfolds as the human characters make their way through the circumstances of conflict and hatred, compassion and desperation. There is no divine voice and it’s the first biblical story where the characters are like us today, trying to discern the meaning and purpose of the events around them.

What was Joseph thinking as he left his father’s house to go find his brothers all on his own? Was he naïve in seeking his brothers who hated him for his dreams of grandeur or was he heroic in confronting them. The text tells us that he was to’eh b’sadeh – wandering in the field. He was lost: perhaps in many different ways; physically, emotionally, spiritually. But luckily a stranger described as ha’ish finds him and asks him the existential question, mah t’vakesh? –What are you searching for? This is our question too. In all of the events of the world that we wake up to every morning, what are we seeking? To understand them, to act on them, to hide from them? Jacob earlier in Genesis had woken up from his dream of the ladder and said – mah nora ha’makom ha’zeh How awesome is this place. But nora can also mean frightening and isn’t that how we feel each morning or each time we hear of another act of terror; mah nora hamakon hazeh – how terrifying is this world of ours. Do we feel we settled or are we torn?

How can we continue to respond to the question, mah t’vakesh What do you seek in these circumstances of our times?  Many years ago, some of us here, attended a youth group retreat at which Rabbi John Rayner was present. We were teenagers and soon we would leave for university. It was a time for us to be accountable for our own Jewish lives and we wondered how to make those decisions. We discussed long into the night about our Jewish commitments and observances and values. John Rayner finally capped it all when in the early waking hours he said, ‘Do what God requires of you’. I remember thinking at the time, that was a wonderful answer. But I have realised it wasn’t an answer at all – it was a question to be continually asked ‘what does God require of you? I struggle with that question when I think of  climate change and Syria and, in the American context in which I live, achieving gun control.

We need guidance and therefore we ask who is the stranger described as ha-ish and what is his role in shaping this story and its outcome? Without him, Joseph would have continued to wander and then returned to his father. Some of the rabbinic commentators suggest that the stranger is no incidential wayfarer. Rashi sees him as the angel Gabriel sent by God. Nachmanides wants to understand him as a guide to Joseph as part of the Divine plan. Thus ha-ish provides the impetus for the events that are to unfold even down to God’s direct intervention in the Exodus from Egypt. Joseph himself later on says to his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here but God. You intended me harm but God intended it for good”. It is hard to discern the flow of human history when you are in the middle of it. How can we know what action to take when we can’t see the outcome. So how can we respond?  Are these uncontrollable forces or are they just the current circumstances that need us to intervene? Seamus Heaney wrote ‘History says don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme’. Our Jewish story is that hope and history should rhyme.

This was the case with the biblical Reuben. He pleaded with his brothers not to lay a hand on Joseph intending to return him to Jacob. After the other brothers throw him into the pit, Reuben returns intending to rescue him but Joseph is gone. He says, ha’yeled annenu v’ani ana ani va. Difficult to translate but something like; ‘the child is no more and I, what shall I do?’  The potential of the child is no more when we have no hope in what we can do. We think of those children trapped on the beaches of Europe if we do not intervene.  I also think there is a wisdom here about childhood. Our traits of childhood keep our hope alive – our wonder, creativity, surprise even when we have become adults.

Reuben, our Bar Mitzvah boy, I turn to you, like your biblical namesake, you are someone who always seems positive and hopeful. You exude excitement and positive energy. You have always been open to learning and ideas passionate about sharing your discoveries with all around you. May that continue long after this experience of chronological childhood. The world needs it so much. Becoming a man – ish as you know, is not what barmitzvah is about – perhaps its more about ensuring the retention of your wonderful childhood traits as you grow.

The question of what does God requires of us is a crucial one. It keeps our  childhood and its discoveries alive. We need so much to discover how to live with this natural world, rather than destroy it. We need so much to discover how to seek justice for more than just people like ourselves. We need to learn that community is not judged by those at our table but by those who are not yet at our table. We need to teach and learn non violent ways to resolve conflict and yet preserve the principles we hold dear to our liberty and way of life. We must continue to renew our own religious tradition so that it becomes a force for public good and familial support.

The Boston based historian Howard Zinn has written: ‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives’. He suggests that the future is an infinite succession of presents and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.

On the first night of chanukah, we will light the chanukkiyah once again. The mitzvah is to light one menorah per household and yet we have taken it upon ourselves to enhance the mitzvah by many families members lighting their own. Let us, this Chanukah, increase the light of hope, each waking day, for each refugee family, for each victim of terror, for each person coming of age, and by doing so, think of that as a marvellous victory.


Rabbi Dr Michael Shire is the Chief Academic Office and Dean of Graduate Jewish Education at Hebrew College, Boston. He was formerly Vice-Principal of Leo Baeck College, London.