The tragic murder of 20 children and seven teachers in Newtown, Conn., has left us with a challenging and difficult question, one we hope never to face but all too often do: How do we respond when a child is taken away from us?
In one way, we don't have to deal with this question the way the people of Newtown and the families, teachers and staff of Sandy Hook elementary school. But all of us feel connected to what has happened, because we are close by, and because we are human beings who love others, and love children.
Of course, there are no words that can adequately comfort to the parent of a child who dies. So while we can dispense with theological rationales and false words of comfort, we are still left with a question: How do we respond?
The Torah reading this morning tells us a complicated story that confronts this question. It is a story of family that must confront the loss of a child, and come to grips with the presence of murderous violence in its midst. It is true that Joseph was not murdered. He was kidnapped, but murder was his brother's original plan when they set out against him, and by selling him as a slave they effectively left him for dead. That things eventually went well for Joseph is not credit to their favor. So these 10 brothers are a band of would-be murderers, with the exception of the feeble Reuben, who tried in vain to save his brother, and perhaps the clever Judah who suggested his brother's sale instead. And in our Torah portion these would-be murderers find themselves in front of their victim without recognizing him. At this moment, they are completely within his power. If he had wanted to exact revenge and kill them, he could have. If he had wanted to enslave them he could have. Instead, Joseph uses his power, his leverage, if you will, with these ten brothers to protect the one real brother he has left, his younger brother Benjamin. He is willing to look past his anger, look past the crime of his brothers at that moment, because his only concern at that moment is to make sure that the one who is left is safe.
Is Joseph motivated by forgiveness? Perhaps. Perhaps he is willing to forgive because after all these years he understands his complicated family dynamic that led the brothers to act the way they did. Perhaps he forgives them because he hears the brothers saying, in a moment of fear, that their crime has finally caught up to them. But I don't think forgiveness is what motivated Joseph's actions. What he wants more than anything at that moments is evidence that his younger brother has not been harmed. He remembers what happened to him, and wonders: what have they done with my younger brother? Could they have refrained from harming him after what they did to me? And who will take care of Benjamin if their father dies, who will protect him if these are his brothers? Joseph's only concern in this moment is for the well-being of the one who is left.
Far away in nearly that same moment, without communicating with each other, their father Jacob has the same concern. He does not know that Joseph is still alive, so he looks at Benjamin as his last connection to his beloved Rachel. All he wants is the assurance that no harm will come to his beloved son.
In the end, it is the words of Judah that persuade Jacob to let them take Binyamin. Judah is now more wise than merely clever. He promises his father that if something happens to Benjamin, "I will stand guilty before you forever." Judah promise assures Jacob that he takes the task of protecting Benjamin. But Judah offers his father something else; he offers his father emotional protection. He tells his father that were something to happen to Benjamin, he would relieve his father of any sense of guilt. This is the real power of Judah's promise. He says to his father: perhaps you feel guilty about what happened to Joseph, perhaps you feel you did not protect the first one. So now I will take the burden from you. I will bear the guilt if any harm comes to the one who is still alive.
In the next Torah portion, we read about how Judah and Joseph, these two great leaders of people Israel, will reconcile. But their reconciliation really begins here as they take complementary action in a common task. They both want to protect the ones who remain alive. They want to make sure that this never happens again. And Judah in his wisdom promises to take away the burden of potential guilt from the parent who wonders: did I do enough to protect my child?
On Hanukkah, we light lights to celebrate an ancient victory over evil, but the light is a promise as well, a promise that we will do whatever we can to see to it that such evil never happens again. Hannukkah always comes in a dark time. This darkness not only represents the evil in the world around us; it also represents the fear inside us, our fear that we will not have the capacity to protect those we love from harm. We cannot overcome that fear all at once, so we start with one light and add one every night. With every action to keep our promise, we build slowly conquer our fear and strengthen our faith that we can protect little ones and our innocent ones.
What do we do now in the face of tragedy? Though Joseph may have, we do not need to have capacity to forgive; that can be for some other time. Right now we need to build our capacity for light, for hope and for strength, slowly, one candle at a time. We need to protect the ones who are left, making them feel safe. And we need to give the parents and the teachers and all those charged with those children's safety the comfort of not being burdened alone by guilt. If they did not do enough, then we did not do enough either, and should anything else happen, that will be our responsibility too.
If we can do something to make sure this never happens again, we must. So let us pray for the strength to do something so it does not. Let us pray for the ability to share in the responsibility, so that others may be relieved of that burden. Let us pray for the wisdom and ability to protect the little ones who are left, and build them a world that is safer the one they were born into.
As we end this Chag Urim Sameakh, this joyous holiday of lights, may the full lights of the holiday bring us strength, hope and peace.