Breathless Freedom: Parsha Va’eira

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites that God will free them from slavery. The text says that the Israelites did not hear Moses in their suffering – literally due to shortness of breath, or spirit. I’m sure many of us have been in a space where we are too exhausted, too dispirited, to believe that goodness will come to us. A friend has told me that depression feels like something sitting on her chest, a suffocating heaviness that makes it impossible to believe in freedom. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because they, too, were suffering.

When God then tells Moses to demand the Israelites’ freedom, Moses says “Behold, the Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me?” The 19th century Hasidic rabbi and scholar known as Sefat Emet points out that we know why the Israelites didn’t listen. As we just explored, they couldn’t hear Moses in their suffering. Sefat Emet asks, what does the Israelites’ anguish have to do with Pharaoh’s ability to listen?

Sefat Emet posits an answer that demonstrates Moses’s leadership skills. “Moses knew that the power of a leader derives from his people. If he had not succeeded in penetrating the Israelites’ hearts, he would not be able to achieve anything on their behalf.” Sefat Emet is saying that a leader needs “buy-in.” A leader needs to meet people where they are. A leader needs to understand not only what the people need – but also the way they need to hear it. This is the only way to make change.

However, the rest of the parsha seems to disprove this concept. Moses and his brother Aaron do approach Pharaoh, over and over again, asking Pharaoh to free the Israelites. You know the story from Passover – this parsha contains the first seven of the ten plagues. Moses moves forward with the plan to free the Israelites, even though they were not ready to hear him yet. It took a long time – and many plagues, miracles, and years of wandering in the desert – before the Israelites believed that salvation was real, and that this life of freedom was theirs to hold.

Where, then, does this leave us with regard to leadership? Should Moses have waited, organized some focus groups, and taken a vote before approaching Pharoah? In this case, it was probably more important to get the process started, and to get that buy-in along the way. Maybe not the best example of organizational change management, but it got the job done.


There are many other angles to explore in this Torah portion, but for now, I’ll return to the beginning – to the Israelites in bondage, not yet ready to believe in the promise of freedom from a God they did not know. And I want to leave you with a few questions to consider.

When you are dispirited, unable to hear the voices saying that freedom is coming, what is it that finally brings you hope? Has there ever been a moment, a miracle, a person, a reminder of some kind, that helped you believe in the future? When have you been that reminder for someone else? And when have you, like Moses, decided to act, to make a change, even if your community wasn’t ready for it?

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. If your soul has been in bondage too long, may you find the path to freedom you need this week. And if you have a message of hope for others to hear, sing it. You might just be the miracle we’ve been waiting for.

Telling Our Stories: Parsha Vayigash

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? In this week’s Torah portion, Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, who came before him in Egypt to ask for help in the midst of famine. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Yosef’s jealous brothers cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Yosef’s brothers then lied to their father, Yaakov, saying that a wild beast killed Yosef, and they had not seen their brother since then. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is quite a dramatic story), Yosef eventually rose to a position of significant power in Egypt. When his brothers approached him in this Torah portion, Yosef was the governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh had given him a new name: Tzofnat Paneach. According to some translations, Yosef’s new name meant “revealer of mysteries.”

This Yosef, this Tzofnat Paneach, whom the brothers entreated on his throne, was quite different from the Yosef who was their father’s favorite son, the Yosef they threw into the pit, and sold into slavery. This Yosef was even different from the Yosef who lived in the Egyptian prison. It’s no surprise that, although Yosef recognized them, his brother’s did not see Yosef on the face of Tzofnat Paneach, the Egyptian governor.

Yosef tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benyamin, of stealing a silver cup that Yosef planted in Benyamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Yosef threatened to enslave Benyamin. Fortunately, the brothers passed the test: Older brother, Yehuda, offered himself in Benyamin’s place, so that their aging father, Yaakov, would not have to grieve the loss of yet another favored child.

When he learned that his father was alive, the Torah says, v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek” – Yosef could not afak – contain – the secret of his identity. He asked everyone to leave besides the brothers, and he began to cry. “Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” he told them. “Ha’od avi chai?”: “Does my father still live?” When he heard about his father, Yosef remembered where he came from  – he was not only Tzofnat Paneach, governor of Egypt. He was also Yosef, the Jewish son of Yaakov and Rachel, the boy from the pit and the prison, the interpreter of dreams. When he asked “Does my father still live,” “Ha’od avi chai,” the word “od” means still, continuing, again, iteration. If his father continued, then so did Yosef. He was still, after all, himself.

His brothers were frightened and could not answer him, worried that their brother would exact revenge. But Yosef was not angry – they passed the test and showed that they had changed. Come near me, I pray you, Ani Yosef,” he said again. “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” He explained that they should not worry, saying that God sent him to Egypt to ensure their safety during these years of famine. He told his brothers everything that had happened since they sold him into slavery, and Yosef sent them back home with food and other provisions, so that the brothers could return with their father and the rest of the family.

“Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” appeared twice within a few lines of this story. Why did he say his name more than once? Maybe the brothers were disbelieving, and Yosef wanted to prove his identity, explaining that he was, in fact, their brother, whom they sold into Egypt. Or maybe it was because Yosef was reclaiming his own identity. It’s significant that Yosef could not afak, he could not contain Yosef, once he learned that his father was alive, even though he rose to power under a new name, Tzofnat Paneach.

It’s also significant that Yosef told his story as one of triumph, in which God had sent him to Egypt to save his family, instead of a story of victimhood, in which his abusive brothers sold him into slavery. Both of these things were parts of Yosef’s truth. Sometimes, trauma doesn’t have a purpose – it just sucks. And part of me wants Yosef to be really angry about what happened to him. And maybe he was. But in telling his story, Yosef had a triple revelation. First, he revealed his identity to his brothers, then he revealed that everything that happened was part of God’s plan, and the resulting third revelation was the most powerful of all: Yosef revealed his own truth to himself. After everything that happened, his father was still alive, and he was still Yosef.

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? What does Yosef’s story teach us about our own stories, about our own hidden traumas, our own pits and prisons?

Yosef tried to keep his identity a secret, but eventually, he remembered who he was, and he could not contain it any longer. By revealing himself, the story Yosef told became something that happened through him, instead of something that happened to him; the trauma of the pit and the prison became part of a larger narrative that led to Yosef’s ultimate success. When he remembered where he came from, Yosef and Tzofnat Paneach, the boy from the pit and the governor of Egypt, became one, so that Yosef could reunite with his father once again.

There are many lessons we can pull from this Torah portion, but in the week to come, I challenge you to reveal one part of yourself that’s hidden, to reclaim just one part of your story by sharing it. Shape your narrative. Define your own meaning. You might be surprised to find what’s been inside of you all along.