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March 23, 2006

Toward Reconciliation
By Harvey Israelton

At the end of last week’s parashah, Miketz, Joseph’s brothers
had returned to Egypt to appear once again before Joseph, and they had
brought with them Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin (Joseph and
Benjamin were Rachel’s only children). Joseph had stated that Benjamin
will remain with him as his slave and that the other brothers may
return home. This week’s parashah, Vayigash, begins with one of
the most dramatic scenes in all of Bereshit: Judah making a moving plea
for mercy for Benjamin, or more precisely, for their father Jacob, so
as to spare Jacob the loss of both his favorite children.

After his plea for mercy, Judah offers to remain as a slave in place
of Benjamin. This is a very different Judah than the man we saw at the
moment when the brothers threw Joseph into the pit so many years ago.
Although Judah was among those who argued against killing Joseph, it
was he who suggested that they sell Joseph into slavery. Judah was not
concerned with Jacob’s reaction to the apparent death of his favorite
son, and Judah was certainly not concerned with Joseph’s fate as a
slave. Now, Judah tells Joseph that when they had returned from their
first meeting with Joseph and had told Jacob that the Egyptian official
had demanded that they return with Benjamin, Jacob had responded that
his wife had borne him two sons, of whom one was presumed dead, and he
would surely die if any misfortune befell Benjamin. Judah asks that he
be permitted to remain as a slave, and that Benjamin be set free to
return home with his other brothers. Judah shows no signs of resentment
at Jacob’s references to having only one wife and only two children.
The resentment at Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph, and the brothers’
consequent hatred of Joseph, that had been so dominant years before,
has yielded to a concern for Jacob and for Benjamin as well.

The JPS translation of the first words of the parashah is
that ‘Judah went up to Joseph and said . . .’ Genesis
Rabbah explains that Judah went up to Joseph emotionally as well as
physically. The S’fat Emet translates the phrase as ‘Judah
approached himself’; that is, that Judah realized who he really was’not
the brother who suggested the weak compromise of selling Joseph into
slavery rather than killing him, thereby disregarding the pain that
would be caused to their father, Jacob, but an advocate for compassion
and family harmony. From this point, Judah, though not the first-born,
is clearly the brothers’ leader.

Just as Judah has changed dramatically in the intervening twenty-two
years, so too has Joseph changed. The Torah indicates that Judah’s
impassioned plea was more than Joseph could endure. Joseph was so
affected emotionally by Judah’s words that he orders all of the
courtiers out of the room. He cries so loudly that the entire palace
hears (Genesis 45:2). In the presence of only his brothers, he reveals
himself to them as Joseph. He uses the simple words, ‘I am Joseph.’ The
Hafetz Haim has a powerful commentary on these words. He
says that as soon as the brothers heard these words from Joseph’s
mouth, all difficulties and misgivings were lifted from the brothers’
minds, and the answer to all their needs was made clear to them. He
then compares this statement to God’s words to the world, ‘I am God,’
which lifted all difficulties from the world, and it will be made clear
to all humanity that God does everything for our benefit.

We see a Joseph without recrimination or anger, and without the
self-conceit that had stirred his brothers’ hatred. After twenty-two
years, the brothers have reconciled. Joseph has resisted the temptation
to use his position of power to settle the score with his brothers, and
Judah has demonstrated that he has long resolved any feelings of
resentment toward siblings whom his father favored.

Self-growth. Forgiveness. The ability to put aside past wrongs done
to you, and to acknowledge past wrongs that you have committed. These
are all among the most difficult emotional changes for people to
achieve. World history is full of examples of grudges between nations
that lasted for centuries. The brutal war between Serbia and Croatia
ten years ago had its roots in battles that occurred in the 14th and
17th centuries. The various rivalries and hatreds in the Caucasus are
almost impossible for outsiders to comprehend. Where are the persons
who have the ability to grow and the strength to say, ‘enough’?

New years are always a great time for new beginnings. It is one of
the blessings of the Jewish calendar that we are given four new years
each year. But we need not wait for Tu B’shevat, the next Jewish new year. We can take advantage of the secular new year as well. As we read this week’s parashah,
we are only six days into the new secular year. We can use this time as
an opportunity to think whether there are relatives or friends whom you
have shut out of your life for reasons major or trifling, or people who
have acted that way toward you, and think about actions you can take to
heal the rift. The approach may not be easy, and it may have taken
years to get to the point where you are ready for outreach and
forgiveness, but as we learn from Vayigash, the rewards can be great.