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Chizuk Amuno Congregation

Who is your brother? Who is your sister?

We at Chizuk Amuno, like the vast majority of Conservative congregations, are on the triennial cycle. That means that we read only one-third of each Torah portion each year, and this year we are reading the middle section of each parasha. So, what happens if the lesson that the rabbi wants to teach is in the beginning of the Torah reading, a section that is not being read on that particular Shabbat morning?

S/he says the following to his or her congregation. “Please turn back to page 274.”

And what do we find on p.274? Judah’s powerful, honest, moving, heartfelt speech before his bothers and the Egyptian official. He talks about his father, and the special relationship that his father has with Benjamin, the child of his old age, and he speaks of Benjamin’s brother who is no more. And he shares his father’s reticence in allowing Benjamin to leave him, but what could he do, as the famine was severe, and they needed food from Egypt, and the. Egyptian official told us him that unless they brought the youngest son, he would not see them.  And now that Benjamin has been accused of theft, he, Judah, is prepared to take Benjamin’s punishment, to take his place as slave, as he could not stand to return to Cannon and see his father’s demise.

According to our sages, this is exactly what Joseph was waiting for. He needed to know that his brothers, at least their leader, Judah, had done Teshuvah, repentance, for their earlier crime.

What is Teshuvah, according to our rabbis? Teshuvah is when one is faced with the same circumstances that led him or her to sin in the first place, and this time overcomes the temptation, and does the right thing.

Once before there was the beloved son of their father, the child of Rachel, who was in a vulnerable position, and Judah could have saved him, but instead sold him into slavery, and left his parents bereaved. And now, once again, there is a beloved child of his father and his wife Rachel, Benjamin, and once again that child is vulnerable, about to begin his life as a slave, and once again Judah can save him or he can repeat the past, and report to his father that the beloved son of his old age was lost. And this time Judah does the right thing.

This speech touches Joseph so deeply, that he dismisses the Egyptians who are in the room, and reveals his identity to his brothers. First he says, “Ani Yosef. Ha-od avi hai? I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

The brothers were so caught off guard by these words, that they were confused. So, Joseph spoke once more.

“Ani Yosef ahikhem. I am Joseph your brother.”

That is the climax of the Joseph story, the longest single narrative in the Bible.

Joseph is overwhelmed by Judah’s compassion for his father, and for his brother, Benjamin. It is not only that Judah is willing to take the place of his brother, but that he does not want to contribute to his father’s pain. Aviva Zornberg expounds in Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, “Initiated into the fellowship of pain, Judah becomes capable of investing the whole force of his personhood into preventing its recurrence.

With his compassion and courage, Judah demonstrates before Joseph’s very eyes what it means to be a brother. Humanity has finally proven that it can shoulder the responsibility of brotherhood.”

To get a better perspective on the significance of what is happening here, turn back in the story to Jacob’s charge to his beloved son, Joseph. On page 228, line 22.

One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shekhem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shekhem. I will send you to them. Go see how your brothers are, and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.”

What a set-up for disaster! Yet, Joseph says ” Hineni, Here I am. I am ready to go.”

When he reaches Shekhem, a man came upon him and asks “What are you looking for?” And Joseph said, “I am searching for my brothers.”

And the rabbis commented that Joseph wasn’t really inquiring as to their geographical location.

Rather, he was asking a deeper question.

“Where are my brothers on the scale of menschlickeit? Can I count on them to finally treat me like a brother should treat another brother?

It was a good question, because the history of brotherly interaction thus far in the Torah was not stellar.

Can kills his brother Abel, Isaac displaces Ishmael, Jacob deceives his brother Essau, who vows to kill him once their father Isaac dies.

And you know the story of how Joseph was treated by his brothers, who ripped off his coat of many colors, the symbol of the favorite position he enjoyed vis a vis their father, and they threw him into a pit without water, to die there. At Judah’s urging, they instead sold him to a caravan of traveling Ishmaelites or Midianites, and brought his coat, now covered with blood, to their father, who mourned deeply for the death of his beloved son, Joseph.

Let’s return for a moment to the story of Cain and Abel.

What does Cain say to God, when He asks him, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“HaShomer Ahi Anokhi? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

That’s the question that Judah addresses in his speech. Yes, we are our brother’s keeper. Yes, we are responsible for our brothers and our sisters.

So, here is my question to you this morning. Are we only responsible for our Jewish brothers and sisters?

In my home in Detroit, in the 1950s and 1960s, when we talked about brothers and  sisters, we were talking about our Jewish family. My father and my maternal grandmother grew up in Europe and lived through pogroms, and family that was left behind after they came to the United States and to Canada respectively, were mostly killed by the Nazis. My parents and grandma saw the world as us and them. It was the Jews and the other.

This was the home that I grew up in. They hated us, and we hated them.

How many of you have heard of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a congregation in Detroit, who, in 1936, had a radio audience of approximately 30 million people. He hated Jews.

He accused the Jews of supporting Communism, claimed that Jewish bankers were behind the Russian Revolution, and that Bolshevism was  Jewish led.

He reprinted the fraudulent, anti-Semitic text, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He received funding from Henry Ford. He said that the treatment that Jews received under Hitler was nothing compared to what will happen to them here if they continued to support communism.

If you were Jewish, living in Detroit, and were constantly reading about Father Coughlin, you were confirmed in your beliefs that there was no hope for love between Christians and Jews.

And then, Nes Gadol Haya Shom. A great miracle happened there.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was the papal nuncio in Turkey during WWII, and saved thousands of Jews. After the war, he did everything he could to influence Catholic countries to support the establishment of Israel. And then he was elected Pope. When he ascended to the papacy, he chose the name John the 23rd.

The first thing that he did was to direct that the liturgy of the Catholic Church be amended to eliminate any negative language concerning Jews.

In 1962, he convened the bishops of the church from around the world in order to discuss the Church’s path in the modern era, and one of the most important matters was the relationship of the Church to the Jewish people. This was major. For the first time, there was a declaration negating the claim that he Jewish people was responsible for the death of Jesus. Moreover, the document that came out of this conference, the Nostra Aetate, In our Age, rejected the doctrine that the Jews had been cast out by God and the Church had come to take its place. The document ratified the eternity of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, alongside a firm condemnation of Anti-Semitism.

Now, Guiseppe is the Italian name for Joseph.

Whenever he met with delegations of Jewish visitors, he would say to them, “I am Joseph your brother.”

Thank God for such a brother.

In 1962, that same year, Peter, Paul and Mary came out with their own rendition of Pete Seeger’s song, “If I had a Hammer.” I was a high school Sophomore, and together with millions of other Americans of all ages, fell in love with their music. This particular song, that some of us heard a few weeks ago at a concert at the Gordon Center, featuring Peter Yarrow, the Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary fame,  quickly became a top-ten hit on the Billboard charts.

The song sings of danger and warning. What was the danger and what was the warning? The song addressed the danger of segregation, racism, sexism and labor rights.

What I loved about this folksong was that everyone was addressed as our brothers and sisters. That universal view of the world was not the one that I grew up with.

It was rather the lesson that God taught us when he answered an emphatic “YES” to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”And, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, it was also the deduction that one can make from the fact that only one man was created, namely, that all of us are descended from the same man, and that we are all brothers.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy struggled with the inequities of wealth and poverty. One day, as he walked down the street, Tolstoy passed a beggar. Reaching into his pocket to give the beggar money, he found that his pocket was empty.

Looking at the poor man, Tolstoy said, “I’m sorry, my brother, I have nothing to give.” To his surprise, the beggar brightened. He said, “You gave me more than I asked for…you called me brother.”

So, who is your brother and who is your sister? After your Jewish family, everyone who is in need is your brother and your sister.

Please join with me and the hazan in singing the song together.

If I had a Hammer