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Parashat Vayigash

December 17, 2015

by Rabbi Jill Hammer

“Your servant my father said to us: As you know, my wife bore me two sons…”
Genesis 45:27

Every year when Parashat Vayigash arrives, my breath is taken away by the same small moment. Judah approaches Joseph’s throne and makes the speech that convinces Joseph that it is safe to reveal himself to his brothers. It seems that it is the sight of Judah pleading on behalf of one of Rachel’s sons–Benjamin–that opens Joseph’s heart. Yet there’s another moment that shows the power of role reversal to create empathy–the moment where Judah quotes his father Jacob and thereby erases himself.

“My wife bore me two sons,” Judah quotes his father. In this statement, Jacob erases his other three wives and their total of eleven children, focusing solely on his wife Rachel and the two sons he and Rachel had together. This is surely the core of the rage the brothers have felt for Joseph all along–the sense of unfairness that drove them to throw Joseph into the pit in the first place. Yet Judah’s calling to mind of these words doesn’t lead him to rage; this time it leads him to empathy. “How can I go back to my father unless the boy Benjamin is with me?” Judah pleads. “Let me not see the evil that would befall my father!”

Judah has had a lesson in empathy. In Parashat Vayeshev, in the story of Judah and Tamar, Judah learns what it is like to lose a son–in fact, he loses two to untimely death. He learns what it is like to lose his wife–Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, dies during the course of the story. Judah also learns what it is like to be tricked in bed–just as his father ended up with Leah unknowingly, so Judah finds that he was with Tamar without knowing. He discovers what it is like to want to protect his youngest son Shelah, after having lost so many loved ones. He even learns what it is like to face someone he wronged; as Jacob once had to face Esau, Judah has to face and acknowledge Tamar’s accusation that he stole what was hers. It seems that Judah is being given a tutorial in what it is like to be Jacob.

It is perhaps this strange education from fate–or God–that allows Judah to become empathic with his father, to speak in Jacob’s voice and say: “My wife bore me two sons.” He has learned how to stand in his father’s place. He has learned how to do it so completely that his father’s situation now breaks Judah’s heart. This, perhaps, is what Joseph sees that causes him to begin to cry. He sees something different in Judah. This new Judah could never throw Joseph in a pit, because this Judah can now visualize the suffering of others.

While we don’t always get to stand in exactly the shoes of the others around us, I find that, on a smaller level, Judah’s experience is not so unusual. Sometimes we wrong others in small or large ways, and then, when we find ourselves in that person’s situation, it becomes clear to us what that person might have felt. This particularly happens as we get older and enter the situations our parents once faced, and have a new perspective on how things were for them. Actions that once seemed inexplicable or enraging sometimes become, if not completely okay, at least understandable. Perhaps this is the process Judah went through on his way to forgiveness of his father, and reconciliation with his brother Joseph. The ability to find empathy where he could not before is part of what makes Judah a leader among his brothers.

This process can happen even in small ways. I remember Sylvia Boorstein, a well-known meditation teacher, once speaking with me about how sometimes, in traffic, she feels angry about all the people who are in her way when she needs to get somewhere. Then she takes a deep breath and calls herself to mindfulness. When she does this, what arises for her is: “Look at all these people! They must have someplace to go, just like me.”

We are living in a time when lack of empathy for others–refugees, immigrants, workers, the poor, Muslims, people of color, transgender people (the list is long and we can add many kinds of people to it including, at times, Jews)–is part of public debate, and even part of public policy. In this difficult time, may we embody the spirit of Judah, who after several painful lessons found empathy in himself. May we, like Judah, find the ability to hear the voices of others inside ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.


Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.