“Then Judah went up to him and said, Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 44:18)

            Sometimes when I am conducting a Jewish funeral, the family requests the singing of Amazing Grace.  I strongly discourage it.  It is a beautiful and haunting hymn, but it is deeply rooted in Christian tradition.  It reflects values that are not Jewish.  Of course, if the family absolutely insists, I cannot stop them.  It is their loved one’s funeral.

            What is non-Jewish about Amazing Grace?  Let us look at the first verse, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”  The words may be beautiful, but they reflect the idea that we humans are lost.  Without God’s grace we are mired in sin.  We do not have the power to remove ourselves from a life of sin, from being a wretch.  To my Christian friends, it is God, or Jesus as God incarnate, Who must save us from sin.  We cannot do it on our own.

            I have a deep respect for Christianity, but my own tradition takes a different view.  We humans are not mired in sin.  We are capable of change.  We can turn our own lives around.  We are not blind but can see the proper path.  We need to take action to return to that proper path.  The name Jewish tradition uses for that action is teshuvah which means “return.”   Every day God waits for us to do teshuvah, to try to return to the proper path, to turn our lives around.  Judaism does speak of chen or God’s grace, but that grace begins only after we begin the process of teshuvah.

            One of the earliest examples of humans who turned their lives around is in this week’s portion.  Joseph, born to Jacob’s beloved Rachel, was the favorite of their father.   His brothers, jealous and angry at Joseph, tossed him into a pit and then sold him down to slavery in Egypt.  Now years had gone by.  Benjamin, the youngest son and the only other child of Rachel, has become the favorite.  Jacob reluctantly allows Benjamin to travel to Egypt with his brothers.

            In Egypt, Joseph hides an expensive goblet in Benjamin’s sack and then accuses him of stealing it.  Benjamin will now become a slave in Egypt.  Joseph puts his brothers to the test.  Would they sell out Benjamin the same way they sold out Joseph years before?  Would the brothers abandon Benjamin as they had abandoned Joseph?  Were the brothers still bent on revenge?  Or had they changed their ways?   At the beginning of the portion, it is clear that the brothers have changed.  They will not abandon Benjamin.  It is at this point that Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers.

            People can change.  They are not wretches, wallowing in sin.  They have the power to turn their lives around.  This portion proves this point.  This is the theme of the Jewish High Holidays, particularly Yom Kippur, which is built on the centrality of teshuvah. 

            What is the role of God in this entire process of people changing their ways?  Does grace play a role?   The answer is best illustrated by one of my favorite Hasidic stories.  A king had a son who badly misbehaved.  The king was so angry that he banished his son to a far corner of the kingdom.  There the son lived for several years.  Then one day the king heard that his son wanted to return to his father in the palace.  The son had begun the journey home.  The king told his servants to saddle his horses.  He would travel and meet his son halfway.

            The message of the parable is clear.  God waits for us to begin the process of changing our ways.  When we begin the journey, God meets us halfway.  God is with us for the rest of the journey.  That is the Jewish version of amazing grace.  We can begin the journey back to the proper path.  Once we begin that journey, God is there for us.  God accompanies us the rest of the way as we begin the return to the path where we belong.