In this week’s parasha, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers after years of separation. Joseph has every right to be angry and upset with his brothers, afterall, they sold him into slavery and told Jacob, his father, that he was dead. Joseph suffered time in servitude and in prison, wrongly accused of a crime, before he worked his way up to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. Yet when it came time to tell his brothers his true identity, Joseph took them into a private room and said: “I am Joseph.” The Torah tells us that the brothers were afraid, they were scared of what Joseph would do to them now that he had them alone in a room, and they were nervous about the punishment he would mete out to them. Joseph senses their anxiety and he allays their fears, telling them that everything which happened to him was part of God’s plan and they should not be afraid. Joseph could have treated his brothers harshly, he could have harmed them in revenge for all that they had done to him, but he did not. Instead he gently took them aside, to a private place where they would not be embarrassed, he told them who he was, and then spoke with them kindly, trying to assure them he meant them no harm and held no malice towards them. What a remarkable act of grace and compassion. But this is not the only example of such behaviour in our parasha.
Amongst the names of the people who left Canaan with Jacob and came to live in Egypt, was Serach bat Asher. Nestled amongst the list of people was this woman who is mentioned in only one other place in the Torah, also in a list of names, this time, the one of those who came out of Egypt more than 400 years later! The Rabbis of the tradition say that it is not a different Serach bat Asher, rather it is the same one who has been granted an extremely long life to reward her for her kindness. They say that she was a gentle, beautiful soul who was entrusted with the task of telling Jacob that his son Joseph was alive. Everyone knew that Jacob was an old, frail man and the shock of discovering his son was alive could have been catastrophic, so the way the news was broken was all important. That is why Serach bat Asher was given the task. She had all the qualities of goodness and compassion which were required, and she told him so gently that he was able to hear the news and celebrate rather than being overcome by shock.
Both Serach and Joseph remind us how important our words and deeds are, how crucial it is to be compassionate and kind in our speech and to be ever vigilant to ensure that we do not use our words or actions to cause pain or harm to another. This week I was horrified to read the words of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in response to the devastating fires in Israel. He said that the fires were punishment for not observing the Shabbat. How can such an accusation ever be acceptable let alone from a religious leader? What effect do such hateful comments have upon people who have lost loved ones, their homes, their livelihoods? Words such as these need to be condemned, we must distance ourselves and our religion from pronouncements such as these and turn our thoughts, words and actions towards healing, comforting and helping the people who are suffering, a nation which is in mourning, a country and a people who have endured so much now having another terrible tragedy with which to grapple. May we always remember the lessons of our parasha, to speak and act from a place of compassion and love.