They Intended Harm, but God and We Turned it into Good

From the Rabbi’s study…

It was ironic to have protesters outside BCC as Shabbat Vayechi began (Dec. 21, 2018) and we turned to the last parasha of the Book of Genesis. Outside the entrance to our Shabbat haven people were yelling at us — holding signs about burning in hell. Was this their Christmas present to us? “What exactly did they want?” someone asked me later. And in truth I don’t know, nor was I able to ask them, as I stayed mostly inside trying by phone to make sure we were protected, and then making sure that those who had made their way through that gauntlet were feeling safe enough to come into the sanctuary for services.

Soon we’ll have some trainings for our members and friends in how to respond when people spew hate speech as we come together for Shabbat (or any other time).

Inside the sanctuary that night my service co-leader, Davi Cheng, and I tried to bring a sense of peace.

As it happened that evening I was retelling one of my favorite midrashim about the end of the Book of Genesis. After Jacob dies, Joseph’s ten older brothers fear that he will now take the opportunity of their father’s death to seek revenge after all for what they had done to him so many years before — casting him into a pit, thinking to leave him there to die, and then instead pulling him out of the pit and selling him into slavery. Eventually, Joseph turned his life around and became the most powerful man in Egypt. And toward the end of the Book of Genesis, his brothers must depend on Joseph to save their lives. Here in the final portion of Genesis, and despite the fact that Joseph had brought all of them and their families to Egypt 17 years before, moved them to the comfortable suburb of Goshen, given them work, and made sure they had all they needed, the brothers become suddenly fearful of him again. But why?

The midrash writer notes that when Joseph and his brothers go up from Egypt together to bury their father as he had requested in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah where his ancestors were buried, there is a verse of Torah that begins, Va-yir-oo akhai Yosef – “And Joseph’s brothers saw” [Genesis 50:15]

But what did they see? asks the midrash writer. And the midrash answers with a new story not in the Torah: On the way to bury their father Jacob, Joseph’s brothers saw Joseph take a little detour and they followed him and came upon him standing over the pit into which they had thrown him all those decades before. They saw his lips moving there as he looked into the pit, but they were too far away to hear what he was saying. They thought, “Surely he is making a vow of revenge!” And so they became newly afraid of him.

But actually, says the midrash, what he was really saying there when he looked into the pit where his brothers had thrown him all those many years ago was the blessing to be said “upon seeing a place where one had experienced a miracle that saved one from imminent danger.” “Blessed are you, God, our God, ruler of the universe, Who performed a miracle for me at this place.”
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam, sh-asah li nes ba-makom ha-zeh

Although they had thought Joseph intended them harm, Joseph intended only good, and God as well, as our Torah verse of that week said: Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. [Genesis 50:20]

What else was part of the “present result” described at the end of the Book of Genesis? A lasting reconciliation among siblings, a promise of peace and prosperity and safe haven.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the beginning of 2019 could bring the same? I asked that night in our sanctuary, our safe haven. It can. It will. On Friday the folks who “crossed the picket line” to come into our courtyard seemed amazingly calm and peaceful as soon as they entered the courtyard. And even more so in the sanctuary (it helped of course when we learned that the protesters left shortly after services began — and police arrived). Despite the impulse many of us felt to engage angrily with them; most of us let “the better angels of our nature” surface and rule us that night.

The blessing I was anyway and already going to recite that night, in reference to our long ago ancestor Joseph, seemed suddenly apropos for us at that moment too, given that when haters come to preach their hate one never knows which way things will go: “Blessed are you, God, our God, ruler of the universe, Who performed a miracle for me at this place.”
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam, sh-asah li nes ba-makom ha-zeh

Together in 2019, let us lean toward making our own miracles; let us lean toward Joseph in our response to mistreatment; let us lean more toward forgiveness, toward new awareness that God is with us, toward an even greater sense that within the walls of our home is a sense of safety and protection — less from the walls themselves and more from the people — us — who gather there to be there for each other.

That night, as usual when we finish a book of Torah, we recited the traditional phrase, and this time we said it with extra feeling: khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazek
Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. Indeed, let’s encourage one another in these challenging times and may the year 2019 bring us home to BCC in safety, in peace, in love.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards

BCC Featured on BuzzFeed News and other Media

“Meet The World’s First LGBTQ Synagogue,” with photos by Morgan Lieberman, follows BCC for a year and includes photos from services, holidays and events in our community.

“It’s that we be there for one another, that we gather together, that we stay strong and united against forces that would really rather divide us.”

Read the full article here

Following the BuzzFeed News article, Metro UK has published a follow up story: This is the world’s first LGBT synagogue, where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews can go to worship. Read it here

Instinct magazine also followed up with “Get To Know The World’s First LGBTQ Synagogue This Hanukkah Season.” Our building, says the article, “is a cultural landmark as it is the world’s first LGBTQ synagogue.” Read here

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