"For your servant assumed responsibility..."
This year the Chanuka festival of light saw the outbreak of the worst forest fire in the history of the modern state of Israel, which destroyed over five million trees and took over forty lives. As to be expected in the fire's aftermath an atmosphere of blame and recrimination has emerged. Just who was responsible for the conflagration? Teenagers are suspected of carelessly tossing embers from a friendly picnic which quickly ignited the blaze. Firefighters are accused of being entirely too slow in initially reacting to the flames. Israel's firefighting forces have been exposed as being woefully under-equiped and under-trained. Various Israeli government ministries, led by various government ministers, over an extended period of various government coalitions have been cited as being neglectful, incompetent and unconcerned over a problem of fire fighting preparedness which has been well known for many years. Proposals for improvements have been rejected. Necessary decisions have been put on hold. By all accounts, this was a man-made disaster.
Yet, had the hills and valleys of Israel not been bone dry the gathering blaze would no doubt have progressed much more slowly, giving fire fighters a better chance to put out the flames before they swept out of control. A wetter month of November, (in which no precipitation fell), might have even prevented the fire at its source. And the strong winds which blew across the Mount Carmel region last week aided and abetted the rapid spreading of the flames. Was G-d then, an accomplice to this disaster?
This is not the first time in our long history that human frailty and Divine will have conspired to create a dangerous reality, fraught with painful and devastating ramifications. And it's not the first time that the children of Israel have had to face their own failings and take responsibility. This week's Torah reading of Vayigash opens with Yehudah drawing near to Yosef. (Genesis 44:18) Tensions couldn't be higher as Yosef threatens to imprison his brother Binyamin, an act which threatens both the life of their father Yisrael and the very integrity of the brothers themselves. If Binyamin is allowed to be taken, the family will be irreparably shattered. Israel, as a unified entity will cease to exist.
Yehudah, fulfilling his earlier promise to his father, accepts complete responsibility for his brother Binyamin's well-being. His resolve in the matter is unequivocal, forcing Yosef to finally reveal to his brothers his true identity. Yehudah's unassailable resolve not to allow his family another traumatic blow is, of course, also an acknowledgment of all the brothers' complicity in the earlier betrayal of Yosef. The guilt that the brothers have been silently harboring for more than a decade has finally been transformed into a powerful expression of family unity and mutual responsibility.
Yosef, in turn, reveals himself to his brothers, comforts them, and implores them "not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you." (ibid 45:5) Even as the brothers embrace, two very different perspectives are revealed. Yosef has always looked at "the bigger picture." He has always seen G-d as the guiding force behind both his misfortunes and his triumphs. He has always responded by moving forward with his life, making the best of every situation, seeing opportunity even in adversity. By doing so Yosef was taking responsibility for his life even while acknowledging G-d's will behind every turn in his fortune.
Yehudah has also had to reckon with many difficult situations throughout his life. It was he who saved Yosef's life by proposing to his brothers that they sell, rather than slay Yosef. Later in life he had to face up to his own wrong doing and acknowledge the righteousness of his daughter-in-law Tamar. And now, once again, Yehudah takes a hard look at his own actions and their consequences as he faces off with Yosef.
Yosef has made a life out of responding responsibly to adversity that came his way through no fault of his own, but ultimately only by virtue of Divine decree. Yehudah, however, has constantly had to examine and reexamine his own deeds, draw proper conclusions, and make the necessary corrections to his actions. This has been Yehudah's way of living life responsibly.
There is no doubt that G-d's hand was revealed foremost in the great Carmel Mountain blaze. No doubt it was a wake up call to the entire nation, a call for contrition and repentance; a call to examine our ways and correct them. And no doubt, just as Yosef was always able to recognize, G-d's will, even when excruciatingly painful, is always for the ultimate good of His people.
Having recognized this "Yosef's principle" of the ultimate good of the Divine will, we must, nevertheless, take upon ourselves the "Yehudah principle" of personal accountability, recognizing our errors, correcting them, and moving forward.
The Haftorah (additional scriptural) reading which accompanies parashat Vayigash in the Shabbat service is from the book of Ezekiel, in which the prophet is shown two branches, one standing for Yehudah, and one for Yosef. G-d instructs Ezekiel, saying, "Behold I will take the stick of Yosef, which is in the hand of Ephraim and the tribes of Israel his companions, and I will place them with him with the stick of Yehudah, and I will make them into one stick, and they shall become one in My hand." (Ezekiel 37:19)
Rather than slinging accusations at one another, it is incumbent upon us to take hold of the burnt branches of the once noble forest of Mount Carmel, and place them together as one people. If we can accept G-d's constant presence in our lives, as did Yosef, yet also understand deep within our hearts our own accountability and our own ability to take responsibility and to change our course for the good, as did Yehudah, we shall truly be a great nation, and so merit G-d's promise to Ezekiel:
"And I will form a covenant of peace for them, an everlasting covenant shall be with them; and I will establish them and I will multiply them, and I will place My Sanctuary in their midst forever. And My dwelling place shall be over them, and I will be to them for a G-d, and they shall be to Me as a people. And the nations shall know that I am HaShem, Who sanctifies Israel, when My Sanctuary is in their midst forever." (ibid 37:26-28)
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven look back upon a week of terrific extremes: The joy of Chanuka against the backdrop of the devastating fire in Israel that claimed so many lives and did such horrendous damage. And in the aftermath, a little rain. And as we learn from the story of Choni Ha'Ma'agel, we never say "we've had enough rain!" so we continue to pray that the Land of Israel begins to receive bountiful rainfall. As we read of Yosef's reunion with his family in Egypt, the month of Tevet begins. What are the lessons of this month, which begins during Chanukah but yet, features a fast day over the First Temple's destruction just a week after the conclusion of Chanukah?