Monday, January 1, 2007

The Power of a Smile

Last night, Miha Ahrononvitz posted a moving commentary on Parshat Vayigash in the comments to "The Pottery Barn Jew" - a short article by Sephardic Rabbi Pinchas Allouche of Phoenix, Arizona.

Even if it's a little schmaltzy, it's a great piece, so I'm putting it right here:

There is almost no doubt that the most touching episode in the Bible appears in this week's Torah portion. Joseph, who has miraculously become the viceroy of Egypt after being sold as a slave 22 years earlier, faces his brothers who do not recognize him. Convinced of his brothers' repentance and overcome with emotion, Joseph finally reveals himself to them. I invite everyone to delve into the verses in Genesis 45 that unravel this story. It is impossible for the reader to remain indifferent. Tears unwittingly stroll down the eyes, as the heart trembles with an inexplicable tremor of fear and compassion.

Yet it seems that our Sages did not consider including this episode in the selected name of our Torah portion. They preferred the name "Vayigash", "and he came near". And I ponder: if a name is a 'reflection of the soul' as Kabbalah explains, how does this name reflect the heartbreaking soul of our portion?

In the years preceding the holocaust, the great rabbi of Danzig, Germany preached to his community the age-old Jewish custom of greeting every passerby with a pleasant face. As a good teacher, he too would offer a warm "Gut Morgen" (good morning) to every person that crossed his way in the busy streets of Danzig, including a certain farmer, Her Muller. "Gut morgen Her Muller" he used to exclaim to him. "Gut Morgen, Her Rabbiner", the farmer would reply. When the dark cloud of evil descended upon Germany , the rabbi was sent to Auschwitz. As he stood in Mengele's infamous line, where he would decide who would live and who would die, he saw the farmer from Danzig standing before him in an SS uniform. The rabbi was gaunt and starved, hardly recognizable, but when he saw the farmer he said "Gut morgen Her Muller". The guard was surprised but instinctively replied Gut Morgen, Her Rabbiner, and quickly motioned that he should move, not towards death, but toward the work details, to life. By divine providence, my eyes crossed this astounding story just a few days ago, as I was looking for a satisfying answer to the aforementioned question. And I heard it echo loudly a simple yet vital lesson: When a person "Vayigash - comes near' to another, when he demonstrates genuine care toward his surroundings, he is also inadvertently tracing himself a path of personal freedom that may eventually affect his life profoundly.

In fact, Joseph's own redemption began with a similar gesture. If you recall, when Joseph sat in Egypt's prison, he noticed that Pharaoh's butler and baker were worried. So he asked Pharaoh's officials: "Why do you look so bad today?" (Genesis 40:6-7). They tell him about their troubling dreams, he accurately interprets the dreams, and the rest is history. This is perhaps why the name of our Torah portion is Vayigash – and he came near. Because Joseph's redemption, his unforgettable encounters with his brothers, his moving revelation, all began with a simple "vayigash", an unpretentious display of sincere care and concern for his fellow human beings. And ultimately this led Joseph to experience this climax of unprecedented emotions that we tearfully read about in this week's portion.

The renowned author Shay Agnon, once wrote: "Take care that the face that looks out from the mirror in the morning is a pleasant face. You may not see it again during the day, but others will." This is the lesson we ought to learn from 'Vayigash'. So when you conclude reading this article, and make your way out to the streets, don't forget to lend a hand, an ear, or just a few words of candid care to strangers and acquaintances alike. Who knows? It may eventually change not only their lives. But also yours.

1 comment:

  1. My comments are just a quote from Rabbi Pinchas Allouche commentary on Vayigash. (See )In a true talmudic tradition, it complements and enriches Rabbi Yisroel Gordon's blog.

    Miha Ahronovitz