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The Unmasking

Sermon Shabbat Vayigash 5781

This is always the time of year when we read the fabulous story of Joseph, one of the greatest literary creations of the ancient world. And it is at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash that we reach the climax of the Joseph-and-his-brothers epic, the moment when all the cleverness and the subterfuge, all the games and manipulations finally end. When Judah comes forward and courageously admits the errors of his and his brothers’ ways, in a remarkable and bold speech, he brings Joseph’s internal conflict to a crisis, and compels the powerful commander of all Egypt to finally reveal himself and his true identity as a Hebrew.

That speech of Judah’s, that narrative climax, comes with a confession that literally moves the powerful Joseph to tears.

In the poem, Masks by Elizabeth Topper, she writes:

As Judah draws up close

to the poker-faced vizier

he registers the shuttered mask

stretched taut with lines of pain.

Softly Judah tells him

of the father and his sons:

of the one who has been lost;

and the one who soothes his heart.

Then Judah’s voice is stilled, and

he waits beside the throne.

And in the silence, Joseph’s mind

revisits bitter years

and bursting from a pent-up dam

the words begin to flow.

One by one, as in a flood,

the masks are washed away:

the mighty prince dissolves

and becomes a wretched slave;

the youth, both loved and hated,

is now the orphaned child.

Unguarded and alone,

he stands before them all;

as a wellspring billows forth

he cannot stay his tears.

The Midrash in Breisheet Rabbah 93:4 understands the phrase, “Then Judah drew near to him,” to mean that Judah approached Joseph emotionally as well as physically. That is, he not only came close to the throne but close to his heart.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson comments, “Every human being is a mystery that never fully unfolds…Like an eddy of water that the current passes by, the human soul has unplumbed depths that never fail to astonish, to delight, and to dismay.”

He continues, “The manifold layers of human personality is nothing new. It extends back to the earliest beginnings of humankind, and finds expression in our biblical heritage as well. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph is one whose hidden depths drive an entire story. Recall that in his youth, his having been favored by his father led his brothers to consider killing him and ultimately to selling him to slavery. In Egypt, his faith in God resulted in his ability to interpret dreams, and granted him an audience with the Pharaoh. Finally that led to his being able to save all of Egypt from starvation during a terrible famine, and made Joseph the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. And it was at that point in his life, at the pinnacle of power and fame, that Joseph’s brothers appeared before him, although they were unaware of his true identity.”

We are asked here in Vayigash to ponder the complexity of Joseph. At this point, he seems to have reached the top: he is blessed with a wife and sons. He is wealthy and powerful. But underneath that, we can imagine his inner turmoil when his brothers show up, forcing him to revisit the painful route he has come, and his brothers’ cruel part in it.

Regarding this interaction between Joseph and Judah described in Parshat Vayigash, Bereisheet Rabbah quotes Mishlei (Proverbs) 20:15, “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.” The comment reads, “This may be compared to a deep well full of cold and excellent water, yet none could drink of it. Then came one who tied cord to cord and thread to thread drew up its water and drank, whereupon all drew water in that way and drank from it. In the same way, Judah did not cease from answering Joseph word for word until he penetrated to his very heart.”

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen describes a master class she attended when she was a young physician on the faculty at Stanford. It was taught by the pioneering humanistic psychologist, Dr. Carl Rogers. Dr. Rogers’ approach to therapy was called Unconditional Positive Regard. Dr. Remen describes her initial skepticism when she heard about it, but as the results of his therapy were rumored to be incredible, she decided to attend the session.

She explains that Dr. Rogers first described his method, how he worked with his patients. It seemed to Dr. Remen that Unconditional Positive Regard boiled down to sitting in silence and accepting everything the patient said without judgment or interpretation, and she could not see how it could possibly prove helpful.

Finally, Dr. Rogers offered a demonstration of his approach and one of the doctors attending the class volunteered to be the client. Before he began, Dr. Rogers turned to the group and said, “Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.”

Remen continues, ”The session that followed was profound. Rogers conducted it without saying a single word, conveying to his client simply by the quality of his attention a total acceptance of him exactly as he was. The doctor began to talk and the session rapidly became a great deal more than the demonstration of a technique. In the safe climate of Rogers’s total acceptance, he began to shed his masks, hesitantly at first and then more and more easily. As each mask fell, Rogers welcomed the one behind it unconditionally, until we finally glimpsed the beauty of the doctor’s naked face. I doubt that even he himself had ever seen it before. By that time many of our own faces were naked and some of us had tears in our eyes. I remember wishing that I had volunteered, envying this doctor the opportunity to be received by someone in such a total way.”

In her book, Dr. Remen talks about the ways we heal each other. She says, “People have been healing each other since the beginning. Long before there were surgeons, psychologists, oncologists and internists, we were there for each other. The healing of our present woundedness may lie in recognizing and reclaiming the capacity we all have to heal each other, the enormous power in the simplest of human relationships: the strength of a touch, the blessing of forgiveness, the grace of someone else taking you just as you are and finding in you an unsuspected goodness.

“Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal… Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.”

Rabbi Shavit Artson continues the Midrash, “As the midrash portrays their encounter, Joseph had locked up all his pain, regret, shame, rage, and sorrow behind an impenetrable wall. No frontal assault could hope to release all his repressed feelings and grant him some peace, no superficial conversation could hope to handle his depths. Judah, made wise by his lifetime of living, made responsible by what had befallen him and his family, was able to speak to Joseph — patiently, slowly, and persistently. As layer upon layer was peeled back, Judah was able to gain sight of the hidden Joseph within, and was able to allow the true Joseph to come to the surface. Just as the one who gained access to the deep water made it possible for all who came later to drink, so Judah’s patient listening and his gentle encouragement allowed the true Joseph to surface and to remain on the surface.”

Shavit Artson concludes, “Each of us can provide attentive listening and persistent questioning for those around us. All of us have our wounds, our secrets, our shame, sorrow, and our rage. Often those scars feel so threatening that we wrap ourselves behind them and trap ourselves within, even as we distance our friends and our families.

“Judah allowed Joseph to emerge into the sunlight by giving him the most precious gift of all, the gift of soul. Through a willingness to truly listen, to truly care, and to truly be present, we too can give such a gift.”

The irony here, of course, is that the very one who wounded Joseph, who sold him into slavery, is the one who unlocks this healing. It is part of the genius of the great Biblical narrator that this extraordinary text is able to bring the wound full circle with the healing.

But the greater truth is that we need not be healed solely by the words of the one who wounded us. We each have the capacity to heal one another. And in this year in which we have all been masked, may we seek to help each other unveil our own hidden wounds, and so allow each other, and this wounded world, to heal fully.


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