Friday, December 25, 2009

Yosef and the Consciousness of Redemption

A friend once told me a story about two relatives of his that were survivors from the Holocaust; they were a brother and a sister named Yaakov and Sarah. I don’t remember all the details, but like so many families during the war they were separated and sent to labor camps.

After the war, Sarah, still only a young adult, somehow made it to America on her own. She never found conclusive evidence for the deaths of her family, including her beloved brother Yaakov. Many years passed, and no new information surfaced; she had no reason but to assume the worst.

Thirty years later, the phone rang. She said hello, but there was only silence. She said hello again, and still silence. Then she heard two words that sent a chill through her body: “It’s Yaakov.”

I don’t remember how Yaakov made it to America, or how he had survived the war and the years after, but I’m reminded of this haunting story every year when we read the Torah portion Vayigash.

The climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers reaches its momentous peak with possibly the two most evocative words in the entire Torah: Ani Yosef, I am Yosef.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as the Ishbitzer, one of our great Polish Chasidic sages, gives us a broader insight into the impact contained within these two words. He explains that the story of Yosef and his brothers is the model for the future redemption of the Jewish people.

From the brothers’ perspective, their journey has gone completely awry. Binyamin has been taken captive by an Egyptian ruler for a crime he did not commit, and the consequences for returning without him are too great to bear. After hearing the news, their father Ya’akov would be dead to the world. The brothers had no hope in sight.

Yet Yehuda’s plea to take him as a servant instead of Binyamin opened Yosef’s heart: “I am Yosef,” he cried out. It was not you, but God who sent me here to provide for my father and for our family. Suddenly, salvation arrived from the very source of their impending tragedy.

Everything changed the moment Yosef revealed himself. Yet the only real transformation was the perspective of the brothers. Salvation arrived through a shift in consciousness.

Whether the redemption that we’re searching for is big or small, we can find solace in the story of Yosef and his brothers – that salvation arrives in the blink of an eye, and from the most surprising of places.

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