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Rabbi Doug Sagal Headshot

'I Am Joseph, Your Brother'

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This week, we read of an extraordinary happening in the Torah. After generations of family turmoil, of disunity and even hate, we finally read of a family that unites together in forgiveness and love.

The architect of this unity is Joseph, sold by his hateful brothers into slavery decades ago. Yet when he confronts them and sees that they have undergone a change of heart, he embraces them and unites the family with the immortal words "I am Joseph, your brother." (Genesis 45:4).

The book of Genesis, in many ways, is a book about learning to come together in unity and love. From the moment that Cain slew Abel, the stories in Genesis have largely been about disunity and division. Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, even Joseph and his brothers -- until this week, when we read about a family learning to put aside differences and come together in common purpose. Overarching all these stories are the haunting and prophetic words spoken by Cain: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

As a former small-town Rabbi in Connecticut, I am profoundly affected by the events in Newtown, but no more so than all of you, I am sure. The deaths of these precious children and their brave teachers will remain in our consciousness forever. The question is; can we, like Joseph, finally put aside the hate and division that has riven our country asunder and say to one another "I am your brother, I am your sister"?

It will mean confronting several powerful and intractable problems in our society. We willingly gave up our rights in the wake of 9/11 in the interest of public safety, but every year there are 10 "9/11s" -- in terms of casualties -- due to guns, and we do nothing. We have to question whether ownership of a powerful military assault weapon capable of firing high-powered rounds is inviolate, in a way that wearing shoes in a security line is not, or carrying a pocketknife on a plane is not. No one needs magazines that fire 30, sometimes 100 rounds before [requiring] reloading. I understand that there are hobbyists and enthusiasts that love these weapons, but it is time we figure out where the right to "bear arms" collides up against the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

We need to devote more resources to helping families deal with children and others who are mentally ill. It is scandalous that parents have to fight for every service and resource when their children are suffering from a mental illness. We have the money, it is simply a matter of national priorities.

Now is the time for mourning. Our tradition teaches that we "do not offer comfort when their dead lie before them." But the time is also here for a serious national conversation. We need to ask ourselves [if] we can say, as did Joseph, "I am your brother."