Parshat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
As someone who, by nature of my profession, has the privilege of leading my congregation in prayer on a regular basis, I have long taken inspiration and instruction from a quote from the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), who said in his teaching “Azamra”:
…The one who can create these melodies by finding the good points in every Jew… is fit to be the prayer leader. The leader of the communal prayers must represent the whole congregation. He [or she] must find and gather all the good points in each of the worshippers. All these good points must be joined together in him so that when he stands before God in prayer he comes with the power of all this good.
A teacher once taught me to picture this metaphor literally, by visualizing each fellow congregant’s good point as a musical note, my task being to weave them together into a melody, a musical score if you will. Taking Rebbe Nachman’s advice, the shaliach tsibur, the prayer leader or “messenger of the community,” should strive in each moment to sense each person in the congregation and let this inform when to sing a joyful melody and when a contemplative one, when the group needs a familiar melody and when a fresh one, and how to shape the improvisations that connect the melodies. I sometimes include the favorite melody of someone I see in the room, temper the joy of a melody in respect for someone in mourning, or otherwise modulate the mood based on the feeling coming from the assembled daveners. While I can’t match every tune to the needs of every member of the community, it is essential to keep everyone in mind, to be receptive to their voices, moods, and needs, as we encounter our sacred texts and melodies together in an effort to lift up our prayers.
While Rebbe Nachman’s advice to seek out the good points in others may be important in leading prayer, it can serve us well in our lives in general, at home and at work. When someone comes to me to discuss a personal problem, when a student might act out in class, or when our board is struggling with how best to lead our congregation, I serve my congregation best when I recognize everyone’s good intentions and give them the benefit of the doubt. As it says in Pirkei Avot, Teachings of our Sages, 1:6 “Asei lecha rav, uknei lecha chaveir, v’hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zechut” “Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably.” The same applies all the more so at home; what relationship isn’t strengthened by seeing good in the other and judging one another charitably? We can learn these lessons from this week’s Torah portion.
Our portion, Vayeishev, begins the roller-coaster tale of Joseph, a journey of character that takes him, as contemporary Torah scholar Dr. Avivah Zornberg describes, from being narcissistic to empathetic, from using his talents for self-promotion to using them selflessly. In the very first sentence describing Joseph as a 17-year-old (Genesis 37:2), we hear that he brought bad reports of his brothers to his father. The Sefat Emet, the Hasidic rebbe from 19th century Ger, Poland, said that Joseph needed to undergo experiences and difficulties in order to stop being the kind of person who brought bad reports about his brothers and become the kind of tsadik, the kind of righteous person, that raised up people’s good points. An earlier Hasidic leader, Reb Simcha Bunim of Pshische, had a similar teaching about a verse shortly thereafter (Genesis 37:14), when Jacob asks Joseph to see how his brothers are doing, or what they are up to, using the phrase “R’ei et sh’lom achecha,” which literally means “see the peace (or integrity) of your brothers.” Reb Simcha Bunim comments: “Look at your brothers’ good points, not their imperfections. You who brought back bad reports, go and discover their good qualities.”
At this time of year, at least here in New England, the days are at their shortest, the nights at their longest, and a deep cold is descending. It is a time of year when many of us grow less social, crankier, and more depressed. Rebbe Nachman, who counseled joy to his followers but struggled with depression himself, writes further, within the same teaching quoted above, that not only do we need to find the good points in others, but that we need to find and nurture the good points in ourselves. This, he says, can steer us away from depression and self-doubt. And recognizing the good in ourselves can better enable us to find the same generosity of spirit towards others.
This parsha always comes shortly before Hanukkah, the holiday when we celebrate victory in the most unlikely circumstances, and increasing light shining in our windows at the darkest and coldest time of the year. As the story of Joseph unfolds over the next few weeks, he learns, matures, and changes from someone who brings bad reports of his brothers to someone more compassionate, forgiving, and big-hearted, who is able to see the good points in people despite their flaws, and who is able to nurture his better side in the process.
May we be inspired by his growth and his example. By cultivating our own good points and by seeking the good in others, may we bring warmth into the world and light into the darkness this season.
Ken Richmond has been the Cantor at Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s cantorial school in 2004 as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and was a member of the Lev Shalem Mahzor Committee. He and his wife, Rabbi Shira Shazeer (HCRS ‘10) are klezmer musicians and are raising their boys with Yiddish as their first language.