Parshat Vayigash: Looking at Egypt’s famine through the lens of COVID-19

Rabbi Sonya Starr
Rabbi Sonya Starr (Courtesy of Columbia Jewish Congregation)

By Sonya Starr

This week’s Torah portion, a continuation of last week’s, is the story of Joseph’s brothers’ willingness to do anything, including emigrate, to save their family. It is a recurring story, seen today as well.

At first, emigration was not Joseph’s brothers’ intention. They traveled with the hope of bringing home food for everyone else, just as my grandparents did when they came to this country.

In Vayigash, Judah met a man who he did not recognize, dressed strangely, speaking a language he barely knew, who grilled him: Where do you come from? Who else is in your family? Why should I believe you? How do I know you are not thieves or spies?

Even with all the trickery, Joseph’s brothers were lucky they had someone inside to sponsor them. In the end, Joseph forgave them, and gave them food and sponsorship. Many immigrants are not so lucky. They have to buy a sponsor, lie or sneak into the country in order to live in a secure environment.

At the end of this story is yet one more story about how those in power treat those without. Joseph forced those who were hungry to first pay for their food with money, then livestock, then land, making them and their children sharecroppers. Joseph chose to profit off the famine, taking advantage of all who are less fortunate, ensuring that the Pharaohs had laborers to take advantage of for 400 years.

I cannot help but wonder what they will say in 100 years about how we treated those in our community who had the least during this deadly pandemic. Did we give them financial support so they could have shelter? Did we provide computers and internet access, so they could learn and work remotely? Did we provide health insurance and affordable vaccines for everyone around the world? Did we set up physical and mental health treatments for long-haulers and health care professionals with PTSD? Were we making money off others’ pain or were we ready to remember what it says in Isaiah 58:6-7, “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, … To let the oppressed go free; …. It is to share your bread with the hungry … When you see the naked, to clothe him.”

Columbia Jewish Congregation, a founding member of Howard County Coalition of Immigrant Justice, is working to end Howard County’s contract with ICE and fight for immigrant justice in our communities. The coalition is working to hold true the lessons of Isaiah. Like our Facebook page to get updates and find ways to take action.

Rabbi Sonya Starr is the rabbi of Columbia Jewish Congregation.

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