Shabbat VaYigash Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 19, 2015
Do you ever wonder where things come from - simple things? Like paper clips – who came up with this nifty little device to hold papers together? Before paper, parchment was rolled up, like our Torah scrolls. But after paper was developed, pages could be stacked. In order to hold them together holes were punched in the pages and tied with ribbon. This was a time consuming task and often caused the paper to rip. Next came pins to attach the pages but pins also tore the paper by making holes, and could rust onto paper. Paper attached with pins were also difficult to distribute and it made it hard to pick up. Paper fasteners came next in response to the need from banks and others institutions which required an object that could hold papers together that would not rust or rip the paper. The initial attempts were clips that gripped the paper which made it easy to pick up and fasten the papers together but still made punctures. Advances in the understanding of metallurgy allowed the for the creation of paper clips that could be made of steel wire that would maintain its original shape even as it was stretched so it would hold the papers firmly. Many attempts were made to create a bent wire clip and the paper clip as we know it today - the Gem- seems to have won out because of its aesthetic design. But even here changes were made to improve on the clips weaknesses – early versions slipped off too easily so a frictionalized Gem was created. My expertise in paper clip design comes from Duke University Professor of Engineering Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things. He writes, “With paper clips as with all artifacts, any challenge to the long established standard will succeed only by calling attention to and overcoming the shortcoming of the Gem. The invention of a new paper clip will not occur in some amorphous dream world devoid of all artifacts save imaginative shapes and styles of bent wire or formed plastic. Rather any new clip will come out of the crowded past of reality which is littered with torn and jumbled papers and misshapen challengers to the Gem”. Petroski’s thesis about engineering is “Form follows failure”. The central idea behind this thesis is the form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, in response to their failures to function properly. On a human scale our Torah is a textbook study of the thesis “form follows failure”. From the beginnings of human procreation, brothers fail to get along. Often the sibling rivalry is exacerbated by parental choices. Cain kills Abel because God has chosen Abel’s sacrifice. Later on Ishmael and Isaac are forced apart by Sarah’s favoritism for her son. The next pair of brothers, Jacob and Esau share both parents but the favoring of Esau over Jacob by Isaac causes them to split. Eventually they reconcile but in the end the brothers go their own ways. Jacob, who has suffered because of parental favoritism, does not learn the lessons of his own pain and openly identifies the children of Rachel as his favorites. The brothers born of Leah and the concubines resent their father’s unequal distribution of love and attention. They act on their resentment by removing Joseph from their lives. Judah steps in to spare Joseph’s life by selling him into slavery. But this does not solve their problem. Jacob transfers his affections to Binyamin and the disappearance of Joseph seems to create a sense of mistrust between father and children. When the sons go to Egypt the first time in search of food, Jacob pointedly refuses to send Binyamin “lest a tragedy befall him”, hinting that danger lurks when Rachel’s children are left alone with their half brothers. The brothers recognize this failure. Each is suffering inside, guilt ridden and remorseful over their sinful act of hate and abandonment. We know this because the Torah allows us entry into their collective psyches – when the Egyptian vizier, Joseph in disguise, jails them on suspicion of being spies, they immediately acknowledge: “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.” When Binyamin is framed for theft, Judah confesses to the Joseph’s representative: “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants.” He does not have to detail what the crime is for his brothers or for us the reader. The stage is now set however for an opportunity the brothers never considered - to rid themselves of Binyamin, father’s new pet, without guilt. The Egyptian vizier revealed their youngest brother’s kleptomania! But they have learned something in the 22 years since Joseph was sold -- hating one’s brother out of jealousy for parental affection is useless and harmful to all. They respond to their past failure by taking responsibility for each other. Judah is magnificent in his soliloquy. He is sure but respectful, he is forthright while acknowledging emotional pain. After generations of failure at achieving familial harmony, Judah arrives at an approach that brings healing by not allowing his personal pain and insult to keep him from doing that which is right. Rabbi David of Kotzk asked why did Judah repeat himself before the vizier, he had already promised at the end of last week’s parasha: We will be your slaves. And why does the Torah need to tell us “VaYigash elav Yehudah”, “Judah came close to him” for Judah was already standing in front of Joseph. Rabbi David of Kotsk’s explanation is that the word ‘elav’ in the passage “Judah came close to him” is self-referential. Judah came close to himself, he looked within, he recognized his own failings. He reviewed with this ruler why it was so necessary for Binyamin to return to his father by telling the story from the beginning. After reflecting on the tremendous pain Judah had caused his father in his life, he was able to speak his words with deeper and truer emotions. The Mei Shiloach, Rabbi Mordecai Yitzhak Leiner of Izbica, saw in Judah’s confession a sign of strength that comes out of failure: this is the power that God gave to the tribe of Judah that it should never despair. This is the meaning of Judah’s blessing “Crouching and lying low like a lion” even when it appears that the lion has become submissive, “Like the King of Beasts, who dare rouse him”? He is actually ready to strike. When in last week’s parashah Judah stated before this ruler, “We will be your slaves” it seemed as though he had given up. But then he mustered his courage and approached this powerful man speaking to him words that forced Joseph to admit who he was. For too many, confession of wrongdoing and error is a sign of weakness (witness the current leader in Republican party’s presidential race) but in fact the ability to redress past mistakes, to correct previous errors is the true sign of human strength. The Mei Shiloach continues: It is worthwhile to note that until this point the brothers and Judah thought they were facing a foreign potentate in whose hands was their fate. But after Joseph's revelation they realized that from the start they were never in any danger, for the conflict they were engaged in was with their brother... Likewise in the future when God redeems us from our exile, it will become apparent to us, that spiritually we were never in fact in exile, and no foreign nation ever ruled us, only God alone. When we think about our failings, about what makes us unhappy, we come to recognize ultimately it is about ourselves and not about others. Only when we work on ourselves, and contend with our own shortcomings are we able to function more satisfactorily, more harmoniously, more efficiently. But since there is no such thing as true perfection we must constantly work on persistent shortcomings. We build on our failures. Fail, Fail again, Fail better to paraphrase Samuel Beckett. And as Henry Petroski tells us Form follows failure, so too in our human development, form as in forming our human personalities, follows failure.