Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Vayigash: The Redemption of Darth Vader… and Others

Vayigash:  The Redemption of Darth Vader… and Others
December 19, 2015/7 Tevet 5776
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh



A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

These words began a phenomena in America and around the world. 

Why did Star Wars become such a phenomena?  Special effects?  Not really – there are plenty of movies out there with special effects that bomb, and many that do well, but Star Wars is different.  I remember in college, I had a friend that would watch Star Wars every weekend – I thought it was a little crazy – he memorized lines and would recite them over and over: 

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

“You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? … It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.”

“You don’t need to see his identification … These aren’t the droids you’re looking for … He can go about his business … Move along.”

And of course: 

“May the Force be with you.”

What made Star Wars so enduring weren’t the special effects; it wasn’t the great acting. 

The Torah has it’s own special effects: Splitting seas, lighting and thunder, fiery mountains, magic burning bushes, clouds of fire, the earth splitting and swallowing people whole – what’s not to like?

But the Book, didn’t become the Book because of special effects – plenty of other books had those. 

What makes both the Torah and Star Wars are the compelling personal stories that we can relate to. 

The main story of the Star Wars narrative is the story of Anakin and Luke Skywalker – the fall from grace, and the eventual redemption.

Our story, the story of Joseph and his brothers, is the same story.

Joseph – thrown into the pit (called a Bor in Hebrew) – not just by his brothers, but the prison in Egypt is also a Bor. 

Finally, he is taken out, given power, but one thing stands in his way – his past.  In our parashah, Vayigash, we see the climax of this story.  But it’s not just Joseph who needs redemption, it’s his brothers. 

Last week, we read the following:

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Joseph said to them, “You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness.”

Why does Joseph put his brothers through this torture?  One might think it’s because of revenge, and that might be right, but I like to look at it differently.  The most compelling reason I heard is from Nechama Lebowitz who gleans this idea from other commentators:  Joseph put his brothers through this ordeal in order to give them the opportunity to do tesuvah. 

Maimonides (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1) notes that one’s teshuvah is not complete until one is presented with the same situation that one was in previously, and resists the temptation.

In this week’s parashah, the person who does the tesuvah is the person we are named after, Yehudah. 

In our story, the Viceroy wants Benjamin, the second son of Rachel – would the brothers give him up, throw him in the proverbial pit like they threw Joseph in?  Judah recaps the story, and reveals that they had a brother who died – and Benjamin is the only surviving child from Rachel.  But instead of giving Benjamin up, Judah offers himself. 

“32 Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ 33 Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.”

This is when Joseph sees his brothers have changed, and so has he.  All of them are redeemed.  Joseph is no longer the selfish boy who expects everyone to bow to him – thinking this is his destiny, as he says, ““I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. 5 Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. 6 It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. 7 God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. 8 So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”

In Star Wars, in the end, after all that evil that Darth Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker has done, he repents with one act.  When his son Luke is about to be killed by the Emperor, Vader kills him, and as he dies tells his son: 

Anakin: Now... go, my son. Leave me.
Luke: No. You're coming with me. I'll not leave you here, I've got to save you.
Anakin: You already... have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right.

In our tradition, there’s a similar story of redemption, of someone saving another, in the Talmud.   

Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradyon has been sentenced to death, by burning at the stake, with wet wool over his heart so he will die slowly. The Roman executioner is impressed by Teradyon’s faith and determination and asks “If I increase the fire, and remove the wool so that you die, will you take me to eternal life with you?” Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon replies “Yes.” The executioner ends the rabbi’s torture, and himself is engulfed in the flames, as a heavenly voice cries out that both rabbi and executioner are welcome in the world to come.

This is one of three examples in the Talmud of koneh et olamo b'sha'a achat – someone who acquired a portion in Olam Habah because of one act in one second. 

What the Talmud, Star Wars, and Joseph and his brothers teach us is that no matter how low we are in the pit, one act of righteousness can redeem us. 

This can be an especially powerful message for those who have committed crimes, or those who have hurt their families due to substance abuse or other vices – we can come back. 

Judah does this by giving his life for his brother Benjamin.
The executioner did this by giving Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon a quicker death, and giving up his own life in the process.
And Darth Vader does this by saving his son and turning his back on the dark side. 

If these people could be redeemed after the terrible things they did in life, then maybe each one of us can also come back from our own shortcomings. 


May the Force of all Creation be with you all, and Shabbat Shalom may you have.