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On seeing Avinu and not just Avi

In today’s parasha Vayigash, that Ilan has read so fluently and beautifully, the drama reaches its crescendo when Joseph breaks down in tears and begins to cry. First he takes care to send out any non-family members from the room, yet when he weeps, the Bible tell us that the Egyptians and the whole house of Pharaoh could hear his cries.

Finally he is able to muster five words: “ani Yosef, haod Avi Chai?” – I am Joseph – is my father still alive? His brothers, shocked and stunned, were unable to reply, and the text relays their fear at this sudden turn of events. So Joseph continues, in an echo of the name of this Torah portion: “g’shu na elai” – please come close to me. Vayigashu – and they came closer. And he repeats to them: “Ani Yosef” – “I am Joseph”, adding “Achichem, asher mechartem oti mitzraimah” – I am Joseph, your brother, me whom you sold to Egypt. In case there could be any doubt, he stabs them with the reminder that he knows exactly what they did for him.

Or does he? The brothers felt guilty for leaving him for dead, and the earlier text was unclear about the exact mechanism with which Joseph was taken by Midianite traders, sold to the Ishmaelites who took him down to Egypt to be a slave. The part of the story that Joseph recounts to his brothers may already be a softer version of the tale. And in the following verse, he spells out his intentions for reconciliation. “Don’t be upset, don’t be angry with yourselves, because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph, rather than twisting an accusatory knife in revenge at his brothers chooses a different narrative, which he develops over the verses that follow. He repeats: “God sent me before you…it was not you who sent me here, but God. Go and tell my father: God has made me lord of all Egypt, come down to me without delay.” It’s a beautiful and poignant moment of reconciliation, facilitated by faith.

And yet, his honeyed words provide balm but not without a gentle barb that may have been designed to sting his brothers just a little. He has listened to Judah say repeatedly “avi” - my father”, referring to Jacob, or “avinu” – our father, when referring to Jacob being the father of Judah and his brothers. Joseph however refers to Jacob only as “avi” – “is my father still alive?” “Go and tell my father how well I am doing!” For all his tears and the outward acts of largesse towards his brothers that follow, nevertheless in his own mind Joseph seems wholly unable to share his father with his brothers. And this continues throughout the Torah portion, as the brothers bring Jacob to Egypt and he sees his son’s success. Until Jacob’s dying day, Joseph never uses the word “avinu” – our father, but continually refers to him as “my father”, avi.

This insistence to own things, particularly our parents, and not to share them, especially with our siblings, seems to be quite a human one. As a sacred relationship, there is little that compares with a child’s love for your parents, and we know that with every new-born sibling there is always the risk that the older child goes green with jealousy and has difficulties adjusting to the new situation. We also know that it’s possible to love more than one child with a full heart, and that parents can love children equally, if differently. Jacob did not help this situation by favoring Joseph over his brothers, the roots of which were to be found in his ending up marrying two sisters, Rachel and Leah, the former of whom – Rachel, the mother of Joseph, he loved more than the latter, and the ramifications of this love thundered down from one generation to the next.

If we move from the level of the family to draw a wider conclusion from this tale, perhaps we can think of the Abrahamic family as a whole. We know that Jews, Christians and Muslims stem from the same, original faith. All understand themselves as the children of Abraham, and the different religions have been formed at different times. Yet they retain the same patriarch, Abraham, and ultimately the same father, God. And nevertheless we know too well that often we find it all too easy to say that God is our God (that is to say, the particular God of my religion), rather than to share God with others, and acknowledge that God is theirs too, and that each has a valid claim to this divine daddy. Like small children fighting to hold their father’s hand, we poke our siblings and diminish their claims. In doing so we diminish ourselves and our own standing. But perhaps by reclaiming the theological vision of Joseph – the understanding that sometimes our brothers do things to us when they do not comprehend the outcomes – we can find a way forward to true reconciliation with our brothers and sisters of other faiths. And unlike Joseph, perhaps one day we will be able to see Avinu and not just Avi – that our inkling of a vision will be ultimately backed up by faith.

Ilan, you are a product of such a harmonious vision. You stand here this morning as an adult member of the Jewish Community, a proud bar mitzvah who has worked hard and achieved much already in your thirteen years. And you also stand here as someone who has not only Jewish roots, but also Catholic and Muslim roots as well – epitomized by all four of your grandparents who stood together next to you, supporting you and blessing your reading as you chanted the Torah. You should be proud of your heritage, of all of your heritage, and may you embody these values as you step forward into adulthood. Mazel tov Ilan – to you and your whole miraculous family – and Shabbat shalom!

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