December 16, 1999
Narrowing It Down
Parashat Va-Yiggash (Genesis 44:1 8-- 47:27)
The grocery store used to be a painful place for my 10-year-old son. He has trouble making decisions when there are too many choices. Hence, when in search of an after-school snack, Ralph's became his private, post-modern, market-driven hell. "Okay Aaron, what's it gonna be?" I'd ask, with the largess of a dad secure in the knowledge he can afford anything in the store.
"Are you hungry?"
"What do you feel like?"
"I-da'know. What would you get?"
"I'd get a cookie."
"I don't want a cookie. What else do they have?"
"What do they have? They have anything you want. Come on Aaron, it's late. Make a decision."
That's when it happens -- first at the temples, just below his backward-facing Dodgers cap, then spreading across his round, freckled face -- redness, panic, psychic gridlock worse than the 405 on Friday afternoon. "Forget it. I don't want anything. I'm not hungry."
"Aaron, I know you're hungry, you said so yourself."
"Well, now I'm not."
We leave angry. Mission incomplete. It's a quiet ride home.
It took a while for us to realize that "Ralph's syndrome," which manifested itself at other times as "What to wear in the morning," or "What to order at California Pizza Kitchen," or "What to get your friend for a birthday present" syndrome, all boiled down to the same problem for Aaron -- too many choices. Once we figured this out, the solution was just a minor parental intervention away -- we narrowed it down.
"Okay Aaron, what's it gonna be? Chips or candy?"
"Potato or nacho?"
"Cheese or cool ranch?"
Mission accomplished. Much happier ride home.
The Torah narrows things down too. Imagine back to the ancient Pharaoh's chambers now controlled by the mighty Joseph. Years before, he taunted his brothers with the fact that he was their father's favorite. It was to him, after all, that their father gave a coat of colors brighter and more beautiful than the sun -- a coat shimmering and delicate, rare and graceful as butterfly wings. It was he, after all, who had dreams which foretold his greatness.
Jealousy raged in Joseph's brothers like a firestorm, until finally, while shepherding in the fierce desert, they threw him into a pit, dark and lonely, leaving him for the snakes and the vultures. Dehydrated and dying, blistered and delirious, Joseph awaited his end. Luckily, a wandering caravan of merchants passed by and the brothers sold them the haughty Joseph rather than watch him die.
But now things are different. Joseph has risen to power in Egypt. He determines who shall live and who shall die. He controls the bursting grain and fine oil, and now his brothers, not recognizing him, stand before him. They have traveled from Canaan to beg the mighty Joseph for food. With the hollow eyes of the starving, they stand unknowingly before the brother they betrayed.
After so many years, so much hurt and anger, arrogance and deception, hatred and fear, Joseph is finally alone with his brothers. They have no idea it is him, and he can do with them as he pleases. He can have them killed or spared.
At first Joseph toys with them, seeking revenge by creating an elaborate scheme to frighten them. But then, as he looks at his starving brothers and hears them speak of their love for their father -- his father -- Joseph, still unrecognized by them, tells his servants to leave the room. And what does the mighty Joseph do? He "kisses his brothers and he weeps."
Joseph had a choice -- essentially he had a choice of memory. He had to choose whose wrong to remember: his arrogance or his brothers' jealousy. The wrong he inflicted or the wrong he suffered. He had to choose whether to remember the good or the bad, the sorrow or the joy, and then narrow it all down to one simple question: Do I hold a grudge or do I forgive?
Are we really any different? Our friendships, our marriages, our brothers and sisters, our parents and children are filled with shortcomings, with occasional pettiness and greed, frustration and anger. But so too are they filled with generosity and kindness, with caresses and comfort, self-sacrifice and love too constant, too deep and profound for words. We all have to draw up a memory balance sheet. Do we self-righteously remember the wrongs done to us, or humbly recall the wrongs we committed ourselves? Do we remember the one explosive moment or the more constant love tended through the years?
The Chassidic folk singer Shlomo Carlbach once said, "If I had two souls, I would waste one on hating. But since I have only one soul, I do not want to waste it on hatred."
Sure, families and friendships are complicated, but it all narrows down to a pretty simple choice, for Joseph, Shlomo Carlbach and the rest of us too. I hope Aaron always chooses forgiveness. It's a much happier ride.
Steven Z. Leder is rabbi at Wishire Boulevard Temple.