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Loving Those Who Can’t Change #704

12/10/2021 05:17:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Vayigash
“Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” 
(Genesis 44:34)

Loving Those Who Can't Change

I would guess that within each of our lives, there are those whose behavior sometimes challenges us.

A habit. A bias. An attitude.

Stubbornness. Inflexibility. Rigidity.

In particular, it becomes more difficult to change entrenched behavior as family members or friends age. Indeed, there are many relatives or friends around us who frustrate us just as we, perhaps, challenge them.

The question remains: “How do we deal with the behavior, if not the flaws, of others?”

It’s an interesting question, which, in some ways, the Torah deals with this week, as Jacob’s sons negotiate for food in Egypt.

Times are difficult for Jacob’s family back in Canaan. A famine is engulfing the region. When Jacob’s sons are sent to procure food, they find themselves in contact with Joseph, who has become Egypt’s head of state.

Benjamin, Jacob’s favorite son, is left behind.

It’s been more than two decades since the 10 brothers have seen Joseph. They don't recognize Joseph, who has taken on an Egyptian identity. His name is Egyptian. His family is Egyptian. He dresses, talks and walks like an Egyptian.

Joseph, however, recognizes his brothers and decides to toy with them. Some would argue he has every right to do so. These are the brothers who more than 20 years earlier threw him into a pit.

Joseph entraps his brothers, accusing them of theft and agrees to release them only if they return home and bring Benjamin back to Egypt, “so I may set eyes on him.”

The request is more challenging that it seems. Jacob is the father of 12 sons and a daughter carried by four mothers; Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. Benjamin is Joseph’s only full brother, borne of Rachel Jacob’s one true love.

How frustrating and hurtful it must have been for the other 10 sons and daughter to accept that Jacob loved Joseph and Benjamin the most.

Joseph, Jacob’s favorite, had been given up for dead. But now, the transformed Joseph has requested that Benjamin be taken from his father and brought to Egypt.

Judah tells Joseph that if the brothers were to comply, their "father would die." He tells Joseph that Jacob continues to dote on Benjamin. Says Judah, “The boy cannot leave his father.”

As he continues to plead his case, an older, wiser Judah then teaches us an important life lesson. He notes that sometimes, those around us will not or cannot change. In so doing, he shows remarkable empathy for his aging father.

“Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father,” says Judah.

What do we make of this?

This was the same Judah who participated in the original plot against Joseph. Although he never favored killing Joseph, he was complicit in his disappearance and ultimately his sale into slavery.

Now, more than 20 years later, it seems that Judah’s sense of compassion has deepened.

Yes, his father continues to play favorites. But Judah sees past that. Judah ultimately becomes more concerned about his father’s feelings than his own resentment.

There is a complex dynamic at play here. Indeed, the situation is not straightforward or simple. But there is a life lesson that Judah teaches in this parashah: There are many in our lives who may not be capable of change.

What do we do then?

As family members and friends, we accept a responsibility to point out the flaws and errors of others, but we must do so constructively. Our spouses and siblings in many ways are also there to help us.

But there does come a time when we realize that some biases and behaviors can become entrenched.

I recall studying in rabbinical school, a question posed by one Sage: “What happens if your son strays from Judaism what do you do?” And he answers, “Then you love them even more.”

The same sentiment applies to Judah and to Jacob. Perhaps Jacob is too old to change. Burdened by grief, he holds on to Benjamin, the last remnant of his love for Rachel.

Yet, in spite of Jacob’s flaws, Judah decides to empathize with his father even more.

Is there anyone in our lives who needs to be accepted even more however difficult that may be? There are so many challenges and battles family and friends face these days.

Behaviors. Attitudes. Different views.

Before we engage in an argument or a dispute, let us ask ourselves, whether or not we agree with the other position, “Will my words, my anger, my frustration change that person?”

If not, how do we move forward?

In many ways, that is what Judah exemplifies as he begs Joseph to protect Jacob by leaving Benjamin at home.

It is not an easy leap to take. Following Judah’s example is sometimes difficult. But this week, the Torah gives us an alternative to perpetual battles between two immovable forces.

Love first.

Let our empathy override our egos. When we encounter an immovable force — as hard as it may be — we love that person not for one attitude or for one behavior, but for the sum of who they are.

We cherish the core of our friend or family member. For that is more important than one attitude, behavior or opinion.

Judah inspires us to consider that sometimes all we can do is change our reaction. In so doing, we show empathy and patience for those we ultimately love.

Let us therefore be inspired by Judah’s sense of compassion — however difficult and challenging at times that may be. 

When faced with someone who does not possess the capacity to change, we follow Judah’s example from this week’s Torah portion. 

We show empathy and compassion.

And we love them even more.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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