Working Towards Full Repentance – D’var Parshat Vayiggash 8738 – given 31 December 2022

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Working Towards Full Repentance – D’var Parshat Vayiggash 8738 – given 31 December 2022
Recording of me delivering this text

When learning about the steps of Teshuvah – the repair and return to a good place that is meant to happen after we “break” a relationship, a trust, or someone else’s property – we don’t always learn about the final step – the proof that the intention behind the apology and repair was sincere and lasting – that “don’t do it again if the opportunity arises” step. Maimonides wrote “What is perfect Teshuvah? This occurs when an opportunity presents itself for repeating the offense once committed, and the offender is able to commit the offense, but refrains from doing so because of the Teshuvah – not out of fear or failure of vigor.” We see this in action in this week’s parsha. Joseph, incognito as an Egyptian official, frames Benjamin and tells his brothers that they must leave Benjamin behind. Having been that spoiled and favorited youngest child and having seen how his brothers treated him many years prior, he is interested to see what their response will be. He is moved to tears, and to revealing himself, when Judah throws himself on the ground and begs, in the name of his elderly father who has already lost one son, to keep him instead of Benjamin. Joseph dismisses his servants and reveals himself to his brothers and tells them that it was God’s doing that sent him to Egypt and that they should not blame themselves.

Some may feel Joseph was being manipulative and mean to set up this test, but his brothers wanted to kill him and “settled” for selling him into slavery. They faked his death by wild animal and broke their father’s heart. Surely Joseph is allowed to test to see if they have learned to overcome their jealousy and love even their father’s favorites. Rabbi Sacks in a d’var on this parsha says that Joseph is acting “for the sake of his brothers” in his actions so that they can perform – for the first time in recorded history – that final step of Teshuvah.

How often do any of us get a chance to make this final proof of our sincerity and change of heart when we have wronged someone? Not just for a small hurt, but a big one? One hopes that we won’t actually be back in a situation where we could again cause pain and loss to a loved one or friend. But if we are, how will we respond? Have we changed? 

This past summer I traveled to Germany at the invitation of my friend Alan who teaches at a Gymnasium in the small town, village really, of Eppingen. He teaches history, English, Spanish, and anti-racism. He and some colleagues, all non-Jews, work with teachers in Israel and have a longstanding exchange between their schools. This fall was the first time the students from Israel had visited since October 2019 and Alan’s students will travel to Israel this spring for the first time in three years. Alan invited me to Eppingen for a couple of weeks and offered me up to speak at his school and several others in nearby towns. I ended up teaching in four schools in three towns and to grades 5 – 11. I was invited by English teachers, history teachers and religious studies – primarily Catholic education- teachers. Religious or Ethical Education is part of the state curriculum and what is offered is based on the majority religions of the area with an Ethics course for those who do not want one of the denominational offerings. They also learn about other religions – including Judaism – and I was the guest teacher for part of this learning. 

Informational plaque on the Alte Synagogue in Eppingen

One of my first activities was accompanying the 9th graders on a field trip to Natzweiler-Struthof Konzentrationslager. Visiting a concentration camp is a fixed part of the history curriculum at Alan’s school and is recommended by the state authorities. The students were visibly disturbed by the camp, one boy almost passed out and had to be taken to the bus to rest. The girls were warning each other about what was in the next building as the groups passed along the roads in the camp. They were absolutely serious and somber the entire time. I toured this camp, a prison and labor camp primarily for members of the French Resistance, with Alan’s group of students who did not know who I was or why I was with them. A few asked as we walked through the camp, but most were only introduced to me during the “debrief” circle after the tour. Their reactions were varied as they figured out that I was actually Jewish – apparently saying I am a “Jewish teacher” did not have to mean that I was Jewish – just that I taught Jewish topics. A fact that made more sense to me after attending a course at the Center for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg where I was the only Jew in the classroom. Once they knew I was Jewish and a Holocaust Educator, they asked some questions about my thoughts on the camp. One question was “why would Nazis work the prisoners to death if they needed them to do the work?” This can only be answered by addressing the true evil of those in charge and this explanation was met with sad nods of agreement.

Anyone who has seen me teach knows that I love questions – asking and answering them. So, in all of the classrooms I visited in Germany, asking me questions was either the entire lesson – for example in English classes where they were practicing their language skills and learning about the US from me – or encouraged after I had presented a lesson on Judaism or on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. The questions were many and varied – I wrote a whole blog post just on questions I answered – but a few stuck out. One relates to my topic today. I will preface sharing it with the context that most of the questions made me painfully aware of how the USA is viewed overseas. This was not long after Roe V Wade was overturned and one 11th grade English class requested that we discuss separation of Church and State and role [rule? Could be either really or both] of law versus religion in the US. They had done research and presented what they had learned about religion in the US versus Germany and its influence on everyday life. In every single class I was asked about guns. So, my response to this particular question was not so far off base. I was asked by a very earnest young woman “How does it feel to be in a country with an embarrassing past?” Bold question I thought. I began with my honest opinion that we needed to be doing a far better job of teaching about and righting the wrongs of our past connected to the genocide of the Indigenous people of our country, related to African Slavery and ongoing racism…and the young woman stopped me. “I meant Germany” she said. I laughed at my error. And then I said this –

“I am Jewish. When I first was thinking about coming to Germany a few years ago I wondered how I would feel and many questioned why I was coming here. My husband’s family is from here and they never wanted to come back and visit. But I came for the first time in 2017. I came to Berlin. And everywhere I went in Berlin was a reminder of, a memorial to, a monument to the absence of… the Jews of Berlin and of Europe. “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” stands in Berlin and its museum or information center, as it is called there, is the most frank and honest presentation of what the Nazis did that I have seen and I have been to many Holocaust Museums. I know teachers in Germany who are working hard to teach the history of this time, to show what was lost and preserve what remains.” I went on to mention that I know the strictness of laws in Germany for anything connected to the Nazis. I spoke of restitution both general and specifically to my husband’s family members. I then said – “Your country faces its embarrassing past and is actively working to make sure it is not repeated here or elsewhere. My country has much to learn in that respect. I am happy to be here in Germany.”

I in no way want to imply that anyone can make up for the evil that was done by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. They cannot. Or that Germany is perfect in its work to keep antisemitism, bigotry and racism at bay. No country is or can be. But there are teachers I met at each school, including my friend Alan, whose jobs include specifically addressing and confronting these hatreds when they show up. These teachers were eager to have me come and speak to their students. To teach their students about Jewish resistance and to introduce a new idea  – being an Upstander – into their understanding of this time. The students I spoke with were visibly moved when they learned I was Jewish and had come there to speak to them. The older students who I taught about Jewish resistance were gobsmacked by the actions of Jews to save themselves and others. Learning about rescuers who willingly risked their lives to save Jewish lives brought some to tears. Discussing a German woman saving the son of her Jewish neighbors, they said “she made the right choice.” They were shocked to see the way this woman was treated when the Nazis thought she was Jewish versus when they learned that she is Aryan. They go from insults to flirting. And the students commented that the Nazis could not tell which she was without her Ausweis – her ID. 

In every little town and village that I visited in this corner of Baden-Württemberg there was either a still standing Alte Synagoge or a sign or memorial on the site where the synagogue had stood until Nov 9th, 1938 – Reichspogromnacht – or Kristallnacht. In a few places, Alan and I wandered upon these plaques while “lost” and I would comment that we clearly were not lost but exactly where we were meant to be. Where there is a surviving synagogue, it is maintained and cared for by those in the community – meaning non-Jews. While clearly there was a Jewish presence in all of these small rural towns and villages in the past, there is none now. This is not all because of the Holocaust, many had moved to more urban areas prior to the 1930s. Alan is part of a “Friends of Jewish Heritage” group that cares for some of these sites and does educational programming around them. While I was there I spoke to this group during a Stammtisch – their monthly gathering on a Friday evening – we had dinner at a pub that used to be owned by a Jewish family and still has the cut in the door frame for a mezuzah. – and also was a docent at the Medieval mikveh in Eppingen at their invite during a day celebrating Jewish life in Germany.

Memorial in Sinsheim where the synagogue formally stood
Teaching in Heidelberg

In Steinsfurt, the Alte Synagoge is cared for and shown by Jutta, the Catholic Educator at the Gymnasium in Sinsheim and she took me to see it after I spoke at her school. It was preserved, in quite good shape, because the Jews sold it to an Aryan farmer in October of 1938 before the last families left the village. This farmer stopped its destruction on 9 Nov 1938 “This is now an Aryan building. Leave it alone.” While using it to store potatoes, he also preserved the murals on the walls and some furnishings. Jutta views her work both to maintain the building and to collect the Jewish history of the village as an important mitzvah. She is also working to have Stolpersteine placed in Sinsheim and Steinsfurt. Jutta works with Muslim refugees who have moved into the area, including a refugee who has lived with her family for seven years. She clearly personifies the spirit of true Teshuvah that I am wanting to touch on. Her work, and her personal actions, are meant to create a world of “Never Again” for any population. This is that final step. And it is being done by many educators that I have known for years and those I met on this trip – in Germany and other countries where the Holocaust happened. And while many educators here strive to do the same with our “embarrassing” history, the past few years have made their work even harder.

Synagogue in Steinsfurt

I know that this is not a perfect metaphor as those who did the evil of the Holocaust are not the ones showing that they would not repeat those actions. Thank God those who did commit them were not offered such an opportunity. But it does work to explain my confusion at the student’s question. It is the same as here, those of us being asked to make right the mistakes of our country’s past are also not the ones guilty of its crimes. Some would use this as an excuse to not address the errors of the past, many do, both here and in other countries. But those who committed these atrocities are no longer alive and if we don’t address the ongoing hurt and damage, who will? Generational trauma, as many in this community sadly know, is a very real thing. So, so must be generational responsibility for working to heal that trauma and absolutely to end ongoing systematic inequalities based in those past actions.

Joseph has to manufacture an elaborate ruse to test his brothers to see if they have learned from their treatment of him and its impact on their father and family. He sees that now they place their father’s wellbeing over their envy of any favoritism towards Benjamin, and so, he is able to reveal himself. Our human relationships can be obscured by past hurts that have not been fully healed. We may have to present ourselves as someone else and hide behind disguises or positions of power to protect our feelings and safety. Forgiveness follows repentance and forgiveness allows a break from the past. Hannah Arendt states in The Human Condition “Forgiveness liberates us from the past. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge. It is the undoing of what has been done.” Rabbi Sacks states “Humanity changed the day that Joseph forgave his brothers. When we forgive and when we are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past.”   When offered with an opportunity for that final test of repentance, I hope that we are all able to both show and receive proof of sincerity and an opportunity for healing. Humanity will not move forward until this happens on both the small and large scale. 

A thank you to Yiscah Smith whose posting about this week’s parsha led me to Rabbi Sack’s writings on it and provided the Hannah Arendt quote. Shabbat Shalom. 

(As an aside – after reading this out loud I opened Twitter on my phone – the first post was about teaching the narrative of resistance by Africans in the Atlantic Slave trade and specifically the number of rebellions – and the third was about listening to Black people about what they think is best related to reparations from an account entitled “Antiracism best practices.” The one in between was about Putin.)

About nancesea

I live in Seattle with my husband Steve. I am an award winning Jewish educator, and primarily teach middle schoolers. My speciality is the Holocaust. My hobbies, when I have time, are reading, live music, and photography. I am passionate about teaching the lessons of the darkest periods history to help inspire my students to assure our future is brighter. Pre-Covid I used to travel yearly to Central and Eastern Europe to continue to learn about this history and make connections with educators there doing similar work. I hope you enjoy my writing on my travels, my learning and Jewish thought and practice. B'vrachot - with blessings - Nance

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