Parashat Vayeshev: No settling down in this, or any, era

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

In our book this week, father Jacob thought he was going to settle down, so he sent me after my brothers.

I couldn’t find them but I go when called. I wouldn’t make so much of that 

I don’t have the energy to be anywhere else. My present is demanding enough

to require my full attention, know what I mean? I met an angel on the way who showed me which way to go. The rest you know … 

This is a note from Joseph, when he sent a message to the future. He will not find his brothers, he will be sold into exile, and thus exile and slavery and redemption become a central part of our identity, we who are descendants of Joseph.

I want to send a return message back to Joseph, the harvester, the one who is known for harvesting events for meaning. He has harvested for me; now, I harvest for him.

I want to ask Joseph to interpret the period we are in now. It feels like a squeeze to me, it feels like we are moving through a passage into unknowns of great significance, it feels like a threshold and it feels like we are missing good guidance. It feels like the pressure of our politics combined with the pandemic has forced a breaking apart. What used to be fragile now feels broken. I don’t feel the presence of the angel telling me which way to go, and I feel we have been sold into another kind of exile.

Everybody feels the pressure of the time. We descend or ascend, and sitting next to us on a bench or on a rock is G*d or nature or one of the prophets or Prince or a prince or whatever it is you believe in that takes you beyond the silences and darkness and danger and complacency. 

I organize groups of especially sensitive people who express themselves eloquently about the pressure of this time, this place. Some of us became frustrated asking others to help spread the message. Most of the time we sat with it’s a matter of attraction, not promotion, and then someone went dark on our watch, and we became impatient. 

I wrote stories because I can and because confidentiality does not mean secrecy. At this time, secrecy is part of the problem. We could be more out loud about our struggles because it will help someone else.

I pull stories out when I’m asked to give a talk or do a program, and I share them in places where I think there are people who understand, and especially in places where I think people will not understand. I am asked to speak about mental illness and about substance abuse because I developed efforts in those areas and because we are not attentive enough to these signature problems of our time.

There was a huge opening in our community about these subjects, and we drove a truck into it with just a few strategies and nothing fancy. We started talking, writing, teaching, singing about this form of suffering.

Our purpose is to teach and inspire. There is so much room for good work in these spaces.

It’s not time to rest. Sorry, Jacob, you thought you were going to settle down at the opening of parashatVayeshev. There is no settling down, not now, anyway. 

There is the “get up and let’s get on with it” imperative. There is the matter of saving lives. 

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Central Reform Congregation and leads groups focused on mental health and addiction: Shande Means Shame There Is None, working the mental health-mental illness continuum, and Shalvah means Serenity, support Overcoming Addictions. He is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Lig