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Vayechi: December 22, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

We have come a long way in the book of Genesis. At the very beginning, in the first chapters, God asks the question to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain answers “Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God then replies, “Wrong Answer!” Now you will be punished for killing your brother.

The entire book of Genesis is about God looking for a better answer to the question, “Where is your brother?” The people during the time of Noah don’t give a good answer to this question. They are a generation that is filled with violence to each other. It is so bad that God decides that the world will have to start over with Noah and his sons. But after the flood, the world is not better, and the three sons of Noah are not all good sons. Noah has to curse his son Ham.

Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. These two boys seem to get along, but their mothers do not get along and they separate the two boys. To this day, the relations between the descendants of these two sons, the Jews and the Arabs, has never been categorized as good. Ishmael teases, plays games at his brother’s expense. They go their separate ways even after they come together to bury their father.

The relationship between Isaac’s children is even worse than the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau seem to be fighting even before there are born. The two boys adopt very different lifestyles. Esau seems to be the stronger of the two, but Jacob outsmarts him several times. There is no great love between these brothers. It almost seems to border on bodily harm. And while they seem to kiss and make up after many years, they also go their separate ways and never see each other again.

With Jacob’s twelve sons, the relationship turns murderous. They so hate Joseph that they attempt to kill him, they sell him into slavery, tell their father he is dead and are happy to be rid of him. Joseph, on his part is vain, bossy, and obnoxious. And when Joseph rises to power, he plays with his brothers’ lives for the sake of revenge.

And Yet… Yet… Yet, something happens that changes the arc of history. Judah, in a surprise, stands up to defend his brothers. He will not let the angry ruler take away Judah’s youngest brother. Judah makes an impassioned plea to the second most powerful man in Egypt, offering himself in place of Benjamin. The fiasco of Joseph will not be repeated. Judah will have no more lying and deceit. He will sacrifice his own personal freedom to ensure that Benjamin returns to his father.

And in that moment, the hatred between the brothers crumbles. Joseph breaks down in tears and confesses his identity. There is a realization that the entire history of Joseph and his family is all part of God’s plan. The path of Joseph may have been long and hard. Joseph has suffered enslavement and prison, injustice and ingratitude, and still Joseph rose to power and it all was part of God’s plan to save Jacob and the family. There is hugging, weeping and amazement as the brothers reconcile and end their jealousy and anger. The family will be reunited and Jacob who spent the first seventeen years with Joseph, will now spend his last seventeen years with Joseph. The family will be together in Egypt and the scene will be set for Moses and the Exodus.

The second question of Genesis has finally had the answer that God has been seeking. The brothers have been reunited and they affirm that they are their brother’s keeper. Even after Jacob dies, and the brothers have a moment of fear that now Joseph will have his revenge, there will be no revenge. Joseph never tells his father what his brothers did to him over 20 years ago. Why should he? If Jacob ever found out, he would have exploded in anger and banished the other brothers from his home. Jacob’s home has had enough anger and division. It is better that Jacob will never know.

And so, the lesson comes down to us. The question of Genesis is our question, “Where is your brother?” On a primary level, if we have a brother or sister, do we know who and where they are? Are we working together with our siblings to build a strong family or are we feuding with them because of arguments that trace back to our childhood? Will we tear our family apart just so we can be right, or can we see a bigger picture and forgive our siblings and forgive even our parents for their failures as we were growing up?

There is a story told about a beggar who asks a man for some money on the street. The man stops and begins to search his pockets for something to give the beggar. The beggar waits patiently as the man checks and rechecks his pockets. Finally, he takes the hand of the beggar and says to him, “I am sorry, my brother, I just don’t have anything to give you today.” The beggar shakes the hand of the man and says, “You have given me much today, because you called me your brother.”

Can we really answer the question, “Where is your brother?” when so many people around us are invisible? Do we look at the faces of the people sitting around us and see their joy or see their pain? Are we so tuned in to ourselves that we no longer see the hurt or joy in others who may be so near? Is the person sitting in front of us or behind us or down the row from us a stranger? Then we have to make sure that before they leave this room we introduce ourselves and make sure that they will know people when they will return. Everyone is a stranger at some point in our lives, just as we appreciated those who introduced themselves to us, so too we must pay it forward.

When I first came to this synagogue, I asked many people how they became members of the congregation. They all told the same story. They came one day, and someone welcomed them to the synagogue and made them and their family feel at home. When I first started Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, I came to town and didn’t know anyone. The school was moving to a new location and there was nobody there who could tell me where I should live. Michelle and I finally just picked a synagogue and went into the office. We told the receptionist that we were new students at the seminary and we were looking for a place to live. We put our map of the city on her desk. She looked at it for a while and then made a small box around a neighborhood. “Live here” she said. We did live in that neighborhood for three years until we moved to Israel. We eventually got jobs at that synagogue and they helped us find a community where we could feel at home.

I will tell you that we went back to the school and told them that if any other student came to town without anyplace to go, they could stay with us until they figured out where to live. A number of students thus passed through our apartment using our home as the base to begin their search for a home. We could not just ignore the plight of our fellow students. We could not ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters.

I was walking with my daughter through Central Park in NYC. All the people around us were oblivious to each other. But suddenly our daughter, Ashira notice a couple looking at a map of the park and looking puzzled. She stopped and approached them. “Where are you trying to go?” she asked. They told her, and she showed them, on their map where they needed to go to get there. They thanked her very much and were off. My daughter turned to me and said, “New Yorkers are not supposed to care about anyone else.” She put her finger to her lips, “Don’t tell anyone that I helped.”

Where is your brother? Is she struggling with a difficult decision? Is he stuck and doesn’t’ know where to go? Is she in need of help? Does he need a word of encouragement? It does not matter if the person is from a different country, a different city, from a different race or religion or even from a different political party. God calls us every day, “Where is your brother? Where is your sister? Where is your fellow human being?” We are not allowed to be indifferent. We are not allowed to push aside the question with “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That is the wrong answer. The correct answer is to stand ready to reach out a hand to your brother, to pick him up, to bring her to safety and to hold out that hand to encourage them and to keep them steady as they face the winds and storms of life.

If we can bring a small part of redemption to each other, then we will be worthy of the even greater redemption to freedom and peace.  Or as one Hasidic Rabbi said, “If you can treat every person you meet as if they were the messiah, and they are waiting for one act of kindness in order to bring about the redemption of the world; if you can treat every person you meet with caring and kindness … even if that person is not the messiah, it doesn’t matter. You are still bringing about the redemption of the world.

May we be worthy of all God blessings by seeing and caring for the stranger who is our brother as we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, December 22, 2018.

Thu, May 28 2020 5 Sivan 5780