What does it take to change?

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits
Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits
Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits

Director, LA / Southern California Region
New Israel Fund

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits was previously the Assistant Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.  His commentaries were written during his tenure.  Rabbi Pelcovits is currently the Director, LA / Southern California Region of the New Israel Fund.

posted on December 14, 2015
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Parashat Vayigash , our Torah portion for this week, opens with a still disguised Joseph playing yet another trick on his bewildered brothers who have shown up in Egypt looking to purchase food many years after having sold him off as a slave to a caravan of Egypt bound merchants. While Joseph, now viceroy of the mighty Egyptian Empire, immediately recognized his long lost brothers, they fail – time and again – to recognize this tyrant who insists on torturing them with his absurd requests.

For Joseph, these audiences with his brothers are more than just an opportunity to lord it over his former oppressors, they are a fulfilment of the dreams he had dreamt long ago, the vision that began this saga, when he was surrounded by images of his family bowing before him. Suddenly however, Joseph’s hard mask of imperial power cracks. He hears his brother Judah’s lengthy plea that opens our portion, and we read: "V’lo Yahol Yosef L’Hitapek," "And Joseph could not restrain himself (any longer)."

Why now? What has so radically shifted to make this angry, broken-hearted, former family darling, weep and cry and offer to welcome his siblings, and one time oppressors, into his new home?

According to Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, better known by the name of his magnum opus, the Shem MiShmuel, as soon as Joseph witnessed his brother Judah offering to go to jail on Benjamin’s behalf, he realized that his brothers had repented, and that they were no longer the same people who sold him off to Egypt many years before. At that moment, he knew that they had done teshuvah, and immediately, the light of forgiveness clicked on for Joseph too. He was ready to embrace them.

Reading this commentary of the Shem MiShmuel reminded me of the one of the most powerful experiences of my own rabbinical school journey – training as a military chaplain with the US Navy. What made that experience so special was the intimate time and rich conversations that were constantly available with religious people from the broadest swath of our culture. In fact, my two closest friends from that time became a Lutheran pastor to be, and an almost Catholic priest. Going out to dinner with them felt like the beginning of a crummy joke, "So a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar…" One of the many lessons I learned from my Christian colleagues was the way they spoke about their path to the ministry as "a calling." "When did you receive your call to the rabbinate?" I was regularly asked.

The first time I heard the question it needed clarification, "What do you mean by ‘calling?" I asked one of my new friends. But as the time in the Navy wore on, the language began to make sense. I realized that major life changes are more than choices where we rationally weigh the pluses and minuses of a decision, and go with the path that makes the most sense. Our biggest decisions in life are influenced by something bigger, that thin still voice that helps guide us to committing to live our lives with the person we love, to becoming a parent, to moving to a new city, or…perhaps even becoming a rabbi! Sometimes that "calling" comes out of nowhere, pushing us to radically shift our lives in ways we could not have believed about ourselves just a few months or weeks before, much like Joseph forgiving and embracing his so recently despised brothers, "V’lo Yahol Yosef L’Hitapek." At other times, that calling comes after long years of deliberation, just barely nudging us to take one path rather than another. Hearing that voice is never easy, and so, in honor of this Shabbat of history shifting callings, I give you, dear reader, my blessing that you will find that beautiful and quiet call, and heed its appeal to love, to friendship, to community and to forgiveness.

May your life be enriched by a calling all your own!

Shabbat shalom.