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Parashat Vayigash

December 23, 2009

By Rabbi Jill Hammer

Parashat Vayigash, the Torah portion of this week, tells the story of the final reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers. The eleven brothers, including Benjamin, the youngest, are in the throne room of the Egyptian vizier, and the vizier demands of them that Benjamin remain in Egypt as a slave. The brothers are horrified. Judah steps forward, offering himself in place of Benjamin, for he fears the grief that his father will feel if Benjamin does not return. It is this selfless act that inspires Joseph and finally frees him to reveal himself to his brothers. The Egyptian vizier is transformed into the long-lost Joseph, and the family reunites.

This is the same Judah who sold Joseph into Egypt. What has changed? Judah’s moving speech – “let me not see the grief that will find my father!”- shows his newfound empathy. And, there are also hidden clues in Judah’s language. These hidden clues show the depths of Judah’s internal change.

The first clue is the phrase hanaar einenu, “the boy is not.” “How can I go up to my father if the boy is not [with me]?” Long ago, the brothers wanted to kill Joseph, and threw him into a pit. It was the eldest, Reuben, who suggested this, hoping that later he would be able to rescue Joseph. Yet on returning to the pit, Reuben saw that hayeled einenu: “the boy was not [there].” Reuben tore his clothes, realizing the boy was gone.

The word einenu also appears later in the story. The brothers go down to Egypt for the first time, to get food in a time of famine. The Egyptian vizier, who is really Joseph, asks them for their family story. Then the vizier accuses them of being spies and demands that they return with their brother Benjamin to prove their story. He keeps Simeon in prison as a hostage. When the brothers inform Jacob of these events, he rages at them: It is me you bereave! Joseph is no more (einenu) and Simeon is no more (einenu), and now Benjamin you will take from me? It is me who bears all these things!

Judah’s use of the word einenu (he actually uses it twice in a few sentences) shows that he now has internalized his father’s pain and Reuben’s pain. He has even forgiven his father for not loving him as much as he loves Rachel’s children. Judah realizes how many people he has hurt with his callous and selfish wish to make Joseph disappear. He cannot bear to be the cause of more loss.

The second linguistic clue is the word “arev“- pledged. Judah pleads: “Your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying: ‘I will have sinned before my father forever if I do not bring him back to you.'” This word recalls another past event: the story of Tamar. Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law. The first of Judah’s sons dies just after marrying her. Judah gives his second son to Tamar, in fulfillment of the commandment of yibum (levirate marriage), and the second son dies as well. Judah refuses his third son to Tamar, leaving her a chained widow (she cannot marry anyone else). Tamar takes matters into her own hands. Pretending to be a prostitute, she offers sex to Judah, and when he comes to her, she takes from him a pledge (eiravon) as a sign he will pay her. Later, when Judah finds out Tamar is pregnant, he wants to execute her for adultery (since she is still bound to his son). She shows him the three objects he has given as a pledge. Judah acknowledges that Tamar is in the right, since he has behaved unjustly with her.

This incident, too, is in Judah’s mind, as he reveals by his use of the word areiv. Tamar taught Judah that his self-righteousness was about his own ego, not necessarily about the guilt of others. Just as Judah felt justified in punishing Joseph for being a talebearer and Jacob’s favorite, he felt justified in punishing Tamar for defying the rules of marriage, even though Judah himself had made her situation intolerable. Through Tamar’s courage, Judah learns how to take the perspective of others.

This new ability Judah has to empathize, to see the world from another’s point of view, is what convinces Joseph that the family is ready to have him as a member again. Finally, Joseph is able to say: “I am Joseph.” When each of us is willing to truly hear what another feels, we too allow the hidden to emerge. We too make it possible for another to say: “I am.”


Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of two books: Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.