"I am Joseph, your brother."
Three Lessons for the New Year
Rabbi Adam Greenwald *
"Our Mishnah instructs us that the first human being was created alone, in order to teach us three things: First, that every life matters infinitely. Second, that we are all of us brothers and sisters-- that no matter our differences, we are part of a single human family. And finally, that our uniqueness is to be celebrated, not feared, for our diversity is a testament to God's awesome majesty."
Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 37:15 - 28
Source: Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University
I WILL NEVER FORGET the first question that I was asked in my interview for rabbinical school.
Rabbi Aaron Alexander, now my friend and still my teacher, opened the questioning by asking: "If you could teach only one text, what text would it be?" My answer today is the same as my answer was then -- of all the beautiful texts of our Tradition, there is one that stays with me every day and that I believe holds the key to the transformation of the world:
The Mishnah, the first collection of Jewish law, enters into a short excursus in the middle of a discussion of criminal procedure, in order to teach us about the meaning and value of human life. It begins by asking the following question: "Why was Adam HaRishon, the first human being, created all alone?"
Here is its answer:
"Therefore, Adam was created alone in the world, in order to teach that whosoever destroys one life, the Torah considers it as though he destroyed the entire world. And, whosoever saves one life, the Torah considers it as though he saved the entire world. And it is also for the sake of peace among people, so that no man can say to his fellow 'My father is greater than your father"... And also to portray the grandeur of the Sovereign of sovereigns, Blessed be God, since when a person stamps many coins with a single seal, they are all alike. But when the Sovereign of sovereigns, Blessed be God, fashioned all human beings with the seal with which he made the first person, not one of them is like any other." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Our Mishnah instructs us that the first human being was created alone, in order to teach us three things: First, that every life matters infinitely. Second, that we are all of us brothers and sisters-- that no matter our differences, we are part of a single human family. And finally, that our uniqueness is to be celebrated, not feared, for our diversity is a testament to God's awesome majesty.
In this week's Torah portion, Joseph, who was sold into slavery and later rose to become grand vizier over Egypt, is reunited with his brothers. They come to him in the Egyptian court seeking grain in a time of famine. They don't recognize him, and Joseph chooses to keep his identity a secret. Finally, after many painful interactions, Joseph is unable to restrain himself any longer and declares: "I am Joseph, your brother!" In a moment, the powerful vizier and his pleading visitors recognize each other for what they were all along-- siblings, the estranged children of a single father.
As we close a year that has been so unbearably full of pain, violence, and bloodshed-now is a time to remember that we too are all the children of a single Parent. If religion still has a vital message in this new and challenging century, it must be first and foremost to remind us of that simple fact. We may be disguised from one another, unable to recognize the commonality that links us all together. The walls that separate us-- Black and White, Jew and Arab, Sunni and Shiite-- may seem at times utterly impregnable. Yet, religion, at its best, is meant to open our eyes to our shared humanity, to reconnect us with the fundamental truth that we are all made in the Image of God, and we are meant to receive one another with love and compassion.
A Prayer for the New Year:
May the coming year usher in a time when we will be able to look at one another and say:
"I am Joseph, your brother."
May we open our arms and hearts to each other as siblings.
May we treat each other, and may we be treated ourselves, as unique and precious manifestations of the Divine.
May this be the year. Amen.
* Director, Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University: intro.aju.edu