When Joseph reveals his hidden identity to his brothers in this week's parashah Vayigash, he does so with emotion. He reveals himself in private. He asks his Egyptian aids to leave the room. He prepares himself for the big reveal. He can hardly contain his tears. He says to them: I am Joseph, od avi chai? I am Joseph, is my father still alive?
Od avi chai? Is my father still living? This is a logical question for him to ask at this moment. This is where his attention is focused. Not his brothers but his father. He wants to know the larger context. Are we still a family, a tribe of brothers connected by a patriarch on a sacred journey, or has it all blown up, and now we are just a scraggly band of wanderers? He wants to know if there is still a spiritual or moral core to this family. Are they even worth saving?
Skip to the late 1960s. Activists working to liberate Soviet Jewry asked Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to write an anthem for their movement. Soviet Jews were being oppressed for practicing Judaism and showing a connection to their tribe. They were welcome to be Soviets but not Jews. And the Jews wanted out. Many wanted to leave so they could live in freedom. And Jews all over the world came to their aid. Myself included when I was a teenage activist. Today the children and grandchildren of these Soviet Jews populate our American Jewish institutions and the Israeli population. We did right by Soviet Jews. Od Avinu Chai!
Carlebach wrote for this freedom campaign a simple and energetic song: "Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai," which means the people Israel live, our Father yet lives." Carlebach could have chosen any pasuk, a passage from the Torah, or sacred text from our tradition. But he decided on the words from our parashah this week to write one of Judaism's most well-known and influential anthems. He chose this moment of revelation and inquiry to memorialize in popular memory as a song. V'Od Avi Chai?
Why? Why this portion of the Torah? Why center a text about Joseph and his father? Joseph and Jacob. Joseph and Israel, his father's sacred journey name? Why these two and why this tense and dramatic moment in the story of the Jewish people?
Most traditional commentary on this passage says very little about the question "V'Od Avi Chai" does my father yet live? Here is a question. Does he still live? Carlebach turned it into a statement. Our father still lives! Carlebach turns an inquiry into a message. Now the father here might be God, which some call our Heavenly Father. Avinu. Not me. But some people. Those inclined towards a patriarchal understanding of God and Judaism might read it this way. As a statement of a living God. Carlebach himself was indeed deep into patriarchy in the way he lived his life and exacted his power. So this is one possible interpretation. He wrote a statement on the ongoing nature of a living God and Jewish people.
But there is another way to read this. One which allows God to be gender-free and exist outside patriarchy. The "father" is the "people." It is Jacob/Israel and his important wives who carried and raised these children from whom our people descend. The line of humanity brought forth through Israel and Rachel and Leah, Bilha and Zilpah is still going strong. Our people live; the descendants of Israel live! And this is not a given. Not for Jews. Rabbi David Meschloff writes of this song, Am Yisrael Chai:
"When I hear, see, and sing “’ Am Yisrael Chai” - the people of Israel lives - I feel intense pain, slicing through my heart. What other nation on our planet has to declare with pride and joy, “I am alive!” It is so elementary, fundamental a fact, it just comes naturally with being. But it doesn’t come naturally with us Jews."
This song, chant, and anthem are a reminder to Jews. And to the world. We sing it to each other as a love song and a reminder. We are still here, and we are here for each other. No matter how the world treats us, we are solid. Our solidarity is strong.
When the brothers come to Joseph, he has a choice as to how to exact his power at that moment. He is the second most powerful person in Egypt. He can help them, save their lives, and reconnect with his family. Or he can fully assimilate into Egyptian society: body, mind, and spirit. He can act with compassion and love towards his Israelite family, or he can turn away and let this little tribe in trouble die out. The future of this family, soon to be a nation, was in his hands. And he chose to reveal himself. His love. His connection to his father, to his people. He passed over the bad, the negative associations and experiences and centered the core of the matter: Israel, the promise embodied by his father. The Divine connection of the Jewish people from generation to generation through Jacob. The promise that we would thrive. And be a blessing to the entire world in the ways that we not only survive but thrive.
From ancient biblical times through the movement to rescue persecuted Soviet Jews until today: the core to our identities as Jews needs to include supporting and loving 🥰 our Jewish family close by and far away. Solidarity. Chesed can also mean solidarity in addition to compassion. We are standing by each other, with each other, keeping an eye out for each other, and being loyal to each other. This is an essential component of our continued existence.
This simple statement/question from the Torah portion: I am Joseph. Does my father still live? This is a question we can ask ourselves daily. I am a Jew, I am from the house of Israel, and I am part of a global family of Jews, so how can I attend to the well-being of my Jewish family? How can I show my solidarity?
We each reveal ourselves when we come out as Jews. We take off the masks of assimilation and show our solidarity. We show up. We find each other. We build connections. Like Joseph, we have this opportunity in front of us right now:
Will we turn away from our people? Or will proclaim loudly Od Avinu Chai/The children of Israel are still alive and kicking! Will we embrace our family or stay hidden?
Anti-Semitism makes us want to hide sometimes. And it is increasing in our society. But now is not the time to hide our faces from each other. When we are in danger or threatened, it is crucial to reveal your love and support. Make your connection to the Jewish people a statement and not a question in your life. Say it and mean it, and you know you are actively attending to the future of the Jewish people: Od Avinu Chai-we are still here, and we will not disappear into the fog of history. We are more significant than history. We are Am Yisrael.
This dvar Torah is dedicated to Kol Ami member Peter Zieve and family.