Heeding the call of conscience

By Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen
Parashat Vayigash

Skydiving? That’s one big step — that one where you pick up your foot even though you know there’s nothing there for your foot to touch next. Somehow, having decided you’re going to do it, you lift that foot up and move forward into — exactly what, you’re not sure. When it’s the thrill of a sport, even one that can be as dangerous as skydiving, we make a choice for the purpose of showing ourselves we can do it — and to experience the exuberant euphoria of something as rarefied and unique as free fall into a jet stream. When one takes such a step in the service of his or her country, it’s not the thrill but the sense of duty that compels, informs and can provide enough courage to take it. But for most of us, the moment we may experience such a sense of high stakes is not when we step out of an airplane, but rather when we own responsibility in our relationships, or take responsibility in the face of a moral dilemma. Everything we are and aspire to be may be on the line. We can face the loss of our very self, even perhaps our soul, if we fail to heed the call of our conscience.

This week in parashat Vayigash, Judah takes such a step. Advancing toward Pharaoh’s powerful viceroy (who Judah doesn’t yet realize is his brother Joseph, whom he once sold out), Judah offers his life as a surety in the place of his youngest brother, Benjamin. Judah seeks to redeem his conscience and the well-being of his father Jacob by securing the freedom of this lad, Jacob’s last remaining link to his deceased wife, Rachel (Genesis 44:33-34). Judah has grown in these last chapters of Genesis from a callous man who avoided family and moral duties, to a baal teshuvah, who now determines that he himself must be the one to answer for the overwhelming need he recognizes in the situation. It’s momentous when any one of us recognizes such stakes, and summons enough courage to take that step of owning our responsibility. Judah’s eloquence, as he explains himself to Joseph, stands out in all of Torah as a beacon of what nobility can emerge, even in a human being as compromised by his past as was Judah. No longer trying to hide his sins of the past from himself, Judah wins Joseph over to accept the brothers who once did him egregious wrong. Judah could not have been sure that his step taking responsibility would put him on solid enough ground to keep him alive. But listening to the voice of his conscience, he heeded and thus received the gift of soul that God makes available to every human being. Responsibility is required of us to really own our roles as spouse, parent and child. May each of us be blessed with the courage to heed the call of our own consciences, and dare to take that step.

Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen is director of Rabbinical Services and Pastoral Care at The Legacy Senior Communities, Plano. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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