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Taking Action – parashat Vayeshev

By Alex Elbogen – Temple Kol Ami Temple Youth

This week’s Torah portion of Vayeshev tells the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel. Many people know of this story through its portrayal in movies and musical theatre, but not everyone is aware of its meaningful elements. Much of the story’s emphasis is placed on Joseph and how his brothers conspired to sell him into slavery, but I am going to shift the focus to his remorseful half-brother, Reuben. When the brothers intend to kill Joseph, Reuben voices his objection and therefore leaves the scene. In his absence, the brothers sit down to a meal and then sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. Reuben returns to find his brother missing and is full of outrage and helplessness. The question then arises, had Reuben remained with his brothers, could he have protected Joseph? We learn from Reuben’s actions that the time to take a stand, to voice our opinion, and take action is not in the future, but in the present. Vayeshev reminds us again that actions truly do speak louder than words.

After reading about this portion and discussing it with Rabbi, we found that the message in Vayeshev fits the mission and image of Kol Ami Temple Youth perfectly. Our mission has always been focused one thing: Taking Action. There is no better time to learn and value the importance of taking action than right here in adolescence. But don’t just take my word for it. All of the teens taking part in tonight’s service have accepted the mission of taking action not just on the local level, but on the regional and national level as well. For those who don’t know, KATY is a part of the Southwest Region of the North American Federation of Temple Youth or NFTY-Southwest for short. In NFTY, we take part in four regional events over the course of the school year where we engage in multiple programs that are centered upon this idea of taking action along with over 175 other teens from the Southwest United States. Within in each one of these programs, we generally take part in the same three-step process.

The first step is learning. We pride ourselves in learning and properly comprehending what the particular issue is at hand. The first step to taking action is knowing exactly what it is we’re fighting for or against, because reform Judaism is informed Judaism.

The second step is discussing. After taking the time to research and obtain the facts, we then participate in round table discussions where we express our thoughts, feelings and opinions about our findings. This step serves as a unique opportunity for us to learn from each other and further develop our stance on the issue.

And finally, the third and most important step: taking action. In the simplest of terms, this step is Doing Jewish: Teen Edition. This is where we take all of our preparation and do something with it. Our action comes in many different forms such as fundraisers, drives, writing letters to Congress, lobbying, spreading awareness. You name it, we’ve done it.

Every year, the North American Board of NFTY convenes and votes on the social action initiative for the year. In the 2015-2016 school year, our three step process has revolved around the relevant issues of gun violence prevention and race relations. And don’t forget, these are kids I’m talking about.

What we do to take action in these high school youth groups makes us swell with pride, but it’s only four short years. It’s only the beginning.

This process I have been speaking of is actually the process within the process. You see, my experience here in KATY and NFTY is just a small part of the overall process: the process that has lasted 18 years 2 months 11 days and counting.

The reiterated message from the portion is, “Actions speak louder than words.” I’m sure we can all relate to this, but as little kids we were probably pretty loud. When something didn’t go our way or we didn’t get what we wanted, we would kick and scream and cry until we no longer could. As young adults we continue to be loud, but instead of throwing a temper tantrum for something we desire, we instead take action. For teens like me, taking action is our outlet. It’s how we get heard. We’re still kids. We still haven’t even seen all of what the real world has to offer. So what do we know? Our words, our pleas, and our spoken knowledge are not always taken seriously. The only way for us to fix this is by showing our elders what we’re doing rather than telling them. Thanks to KATY and NFTY, we have been given the tools needed to build upon our difference making foundation. The skyscraper we intend to build with these tools will never be completed because it is up to us to pass on the value of taking action to future generations as well, reminding them that there is always a difference to be made.

We hear loud noises all the time whether it be a car horn, a school bell, screams in a horror movie, engines of a jet plane, or the shrieks of the many girls at a Justin Bieber concert, but nothing matches the noise we can make with our collective action. It’s up to us; we can flee from the problem like Reuben and later live with regret or we can refuse to accept anything less than meaningful resolve. By the end of this sermon, I will have spoken over 1,000 words. I’m not trying to brag about my unprecedented eagerness to talk, but rather I am trying to make a point. It’s one thing to talk about taking action, but it’s another thing to actually do it. I encourage you all to look to the person to your left… look to the person to your right… and then close your eyes and look within yourself. No matter if you’re young or old, male or female, big or small; we have not just a chance, but a responsibility to be a little bit louder each and every day. Thank you.