It is a time of transition: on campus the quarter or the semester is approaching its conclusion and we Hillel field staff can turn our thoughts from programs, creating and giving, to replenishing ourselves at Hillel’s Professional Staff Conference, in Israel or simply (and beautifully) with the people we love the most. Chanukah, too, is coming to an end; the menorah is moving from small light to great brilliance, reminding us, in the words of Hillel, of the beauty we experience when holiness increases. The moon in the sky is changing from waning to waxing, as we say goodbye to the month of Kislev and welcome in Tevet. And here in the northern hemisphere, the nights only have a week and a half left of lengthening before we reach the winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year, and the pause before the sunlight hours begin lengthening and driving the darkness away. It is truly a time of transition.
Our Torah portion, Vayigash, also presents us with a time of transition and two great lessons about how to deal with change. In this portion, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. He forgives them for selling him into slavery and bids them to bring their father, Jacob, and their entire family to Egypt where they can survive the famine and live in comfort. Jacob does not at first believe that his beloved son Joseph is still alive, but when he sees the wagons that Joseph sent to transport him, he takes heart and moves with his family to Egypt to see his son again.
So we have the reunion of a family – a good thing. But this is a family with a very complicated history, with lots of unresolved issues. In next week’s portion, Joseph’s brothers will express their worry about whether Joseph has forgiven them – and with good reason! We also have the move of the first Jews from the Land of Israel into Egypt. This, too, is a good thing – the family won’t starve to death. But it is taking the family into exile and we know that the sojourn in Egypt was one that was ultimately filled with suffering. What can we learn from these transitions in our people’s history that might help us with the changes in our own lives
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, an 18th-century Chasidic teacher, makes a profound observation. He says that it is significant that Joseph sent wagons (Hebrew: agalot) to his father. The word wagon is derived from the word circular (Hebrew: iggul). So according to Levi Yitzchak, what Joseph was really telling his father was this: Don’t be afraid of change. “The turning of events is likened to a wheel, something circular. Absolute compassion is like focused light (a line), but the processes of transformation are circular (translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater).”
So the first lesson is to understand that the turn of events is a circle. There are times you have to go down in order to come back up again; this exile is not where the story will end. And the ups also give way to the not so happy; the joyousness of the reunion will fade to anxiety. So Joseph’s presentation of the wagons was telling his father not to run away from change. Instead, embrace it, knowing that it is the way life (and the Divine) work.
And when we get seasick from the ups and downs, the thing that can guide us and steady us is that “focused light” – absolute compassion. Compassion is the first way the Divine is manifest in the world, according to mystical sources. Compassion reminds us of the bigger picture and comforts us as dignified human beings who are going through the vicissitudes of life together.
By understanding the nature of the changing world and approaching it with compassion, we allow the new situation to emerge with wisdom and meaning. May this time of outward change give us the opportunity to be fully present to the transitions in our own lives and to practice compassion together.
Prepared by Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, executive director of Hillel of San Diego.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayigash at MyJewishLearning.com.