Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Parashat VaYehi: Spread Your Blanket

Spread Your Blanket
A Message for Parashat VaYehi 2017
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Following the death of Yaakov, a somewhat familiar scene unfolded between Yosef and his brothers. It harkened back to the events surrounding Yosef’s self-revelation to them seventeen years earlier (44:14-34). The brothers again felt guilt and fear for their past treatment of Yosef, they again prostrated themselves before him, and yet again offered themselves as slaves:
“And they charged Yosef, saying: “…And so now, forgive, pray, the crime of the servants of your father’s God” … And his brothers then came and flung themselves before him and said, “Here we are, your slaves.” (50:15-18)
Yosef’s response echoed his past reply, as well:
And Yosef said: “Fear not, for am I instead of God? While you meant evil toward me, God meant it for good…” (19-20)
He assured his brothers once more that he would not exact revenge, and attributed all that had transpired to a grand providential plan.

There is, however, a significant difference between the two scenarios. Whereas Yehudah had singularly set forth the offer of self-slavery in the past (44:16, 33), that suggestion now came from all of the brothers. In contrast to Yehudah’s past performance as a “lone leader” of the group, he was now joined by all of his brothers in an approach of Yosef.
* * * *
Difficult situations challenge a community to decide between the opposite reactions of “dispersal” and “cohesion.” Dispersal refers to individual, self-centered thinking and action. Faced with adversity, members retreat from the collective whole in search of individual safety. Cohesion, however, is when a community comes together to find a solution. Realizing that no individual can singularly handle the situation, members of the community tackle the dilemma with the input and support of a larger group.
* * * *
Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, once described his first encounter with my rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, of Yeshivat Mir. He and a group of prominent American businessmen had the opportunity to briefly meet with Rabbi Finkel, whereupon the rabbi asked them, “Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?” Rabbi Finkel dismissed the various answers suggested by the men, and then proposed his own:
“As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way – by railcar...After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps…They went off to the bunkers to sleep. As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket when he went to bed had to decide: “Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?”
Reaching the climax of his description, Rabbi Finkel concluded the lesson:
“It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to the five others.”[1]
* * * *
Confronted by the fear of revenge upon their earlier encounter with Yosef, the brothers stood back as a disparate group of individuals with only one vocal leader. They “clutched their blankets tightly” and shared them with no one. Reexperiencing the same emotions seventeen years later, however, the brothers now “pushed their blankets” to one another and stepped forward as a unified unit before Yosef.

Difficult times present us with the decision of “dispersal” – when we keep our blanket to ourselves, or “cohesion” – when we push it to others. Find your blanket and push it to others.

[1] Yehuda Heimowitz, Rav Nosson Tzvi (Brooklyn, NY, 2012), pg. 380-81. It should be noted that this message was based, in part, upon his uncle R. Hayim Shmuelevitz’s well-known explanation of a passage in Sanhedrin 20a. See Sihot Mussar (Jerusalem, IS, 2004), pg. 153.