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Parashat Vayigash 5779

December 13, 2018

Reconciliation is Difficult
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayiggash
by Rabbi Len Levin

“Then Judah went up to him and said, Please, my lord…” (Gen. 44:18)

“And Joseph could no longer refrain before all those standing before him…” (Gen. 45:1) 

Reconciliation is difficult.

This week’s Torah reading provides the climax to a narrative that has been unfolding for the past several weeks. This narrative begs to be read on two levels—on the level of a specific family, and on the level of social groups.

On the specific level, there is a clash of personalities, such as we experience in many families. The personalities are sharply different, and the sharp personal differences generate conflicts that escalate to critical proportions. In a family of strong personalities, Joseph is extraordinary, and he demands to be treated as special. The brothers resent his superiority attitude and find dubious ways to be rid of him, at great cost to their integrity and their relationship with Jacob, their father. Eventually, Joseph finds a career worthy of his talents in a strange land and uses his power to manipulate his brothers further, leading to a dramatic crisis with no solution in sight.

It is Judah who breaks the impasse, and in so doing he teaches us many things.

First, he places the welfare of the group as his highest priority, for which he is willing to sacrifice his private interest. Up to this point in the Joseph narrative, everyone has acted defensively, with a lot of ego on the line. Judah’s move here is the first truly selfless act, and it moves the action—and the family—in a new direction. In the previous opposition of ego-driven strategies there was symmetry and deadlock. Judah’s self-sacrifice breaks the symmetry; it breaks the deadlock. It moves Joseph to reciprocate and reach out positively and sincerely toward his brothers, and the story moves forward toward resolution.

Second, Judah keeps his promise and proves his loyalty, to his own cost. When he promised his father Jacob that he would do whatever it would take to bring Benjamin safely home, he could not predict what that would require, what course events would take. Now he knows that it will require his own self-sacrifice to achieve it. He remains steadfast and pays the price to carry out the fulfillment of his promise.

Third, Judah takes responsibility for his previous mistakes. It was Judah’s advice twenty years earlier to sell Joseph into slavery. The biblical standard of justice is middah k’neged middah—measure for measure. His willingness to accept personally the penalty of slavery in order to spare Benjamin is thus an equal and appropriate atonement and reparation for his previous sin against Joseph.

To repair the breaches in our own families, it would be wise for us to emulate Judah in all these respects—to admit to our previous failures and make reparation for them, to keep our promises to one another, to put the welfare of the group as our highest priority, and where there is deadlock of competing egos, to be willing to be the one to break the symmetry by an act of sacrifice leading to reconciliation.

But the narrative can also be read on the level of the Jewish people and its component subgroups. The story tells of an avant garde, represented by Joseph, which was advanced in assimilating to the norms of a ruling civilization, while another group of the people remained ensconced in their traditional ways. Joseph has adopted the dress and grooming style of the Egyptians; he and the brothers must sit at different tables; he speaks to them through an interpreter to bridge the language gap; he even has an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife. When the brothers settle in Egypt, they dwell in a different neighborhood than the Egyptians, so as not to give offense by their different customs.

All this sounds very familiar. In ancient times, Israel was divided into the worldly, sophisticated northern kingdom of the Ten Tribes and the backwater monarchy of Judah. In Second Temple times, the aristocratic Sadducees vied with the plebian Pharisees. In the Middle Ages, there was first of all the division between the Rabbanites and the Karaites, and later between the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim (not to mention, between the philosophers and the kabbalists). In the eighteenth century, the Talmud-studying Litvaks competed with the mystical Hasidim. In American Jewry, there were successive waves of immigration, with the German Jews feeling a social distance between themselves and the later east European Jews. In Israel, the Ashkenazic Zionists who founded the state had to bridge the gap between themselves and the Edot ha-Mizrah (Middle Eastern Jews) who immigrated for the most part after 1948 and had to work their way up. And we still, as world Jewry, need to work hard across the ocean to maintain the unity of the Jews in Israel and those in Diaspora.

In the Haftarah, Ezekiel hears God telling him to take two sticks, one the stick of Ephraim and the other the stick of Judah, and to hold them together in his hand so that they become one stick. This is symbolic of the bridges that must be built in every generation, and the reconciliations that must take place, in order for the Jewish people to overcome its many rifts and become one people. May we all pitch in and do our share toward that goal.
Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism: Honoring the 60th Anniversary of AJR.