I have many favorite stories in Torah, stories that are thousands of years old, but continue to speak to us today. This week’s parashah, Vayigash, is one of them as it reminds us of the crucial necessity of repentance and forgiveness, even in circumstances that seem to be near impossible. Vayigash allows us to witness the moment in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. For the reader, this account is not surprising-we know this man is Joseph. But for the sons of Jacob, this is truly a surprise, not realizing that this man was indeed their brother. We are presented with one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah – Joseph and his brothers are face to face with another.
We experience, in the Joseph story, a classic family tale of parents spoiling a favorite child, of sibling jealousies, irresponsible insensitivity, and rage. But this tale is also one of repentance and forgiveness. In Vayigash, Judah, the ringleader of the plot to enslave the helpless young Joseph, pleads unknowingly before his very victim, thereby proving his repentance, his teshuvah, for the evil deed of his youth. It is also a tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. Joseph, who was too self-centered as a child even to be aware of his brothers’ feelings, can now forgive, proving that atonement can be accepted, that reconciliation can happen.
But let’s not jump ahead to the end of our story without exploring some of its meaningful details. It may seem that Joseph’s motive in testing his brothers as he initially did – accusing them of being spies, demanding Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and then having the goblet put into Benjamin’s bag, was only revenge. However, if revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused. Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He needed to see if his brothers had changed. And then Joseph encounters Judah!
As Joseph and Judah face each other, they are also facing their pasts. Joseph may have initially been filled with a desire for revenge against his brothers, but, this intense feeling turns to a decision to forgive as Judah pleads for Benjamin’s freedom. Judah, in a most stirring speech, voices his adamant intention to save Benjamin and appeals to Joseph’s sense of justice by saying, “Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy . . . for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?” (Genesis 44:33-34) Joseph understands that Judah has undergone a transformation. Whereas Judah once did little to save his brother Joseph, he now puts his heart and soul into trying to save his brother Benjamin. Thus he showed that he loved his brother, and that he would stop at nothing to end the cycle of hatred and recrimination.
The power of that unequivocal gesture shattered Joseph’s defenses. Judah’s renunciation evoked Joseph’s response of letting go of decades of pent-up injury, humiliation, frustration, and anger. Joseph is so overcome with emotion that he can no longer hide his true identity from his brothers. He expels his Egyptian staff from the room, aware, according to Rashi, of the embarrassment that would have caused them, and, switching from the local language to his native tongue, he reveals himself to his brothers with the simple, direct words: “I am Joseph.” His stunned brothers, perhaps worried about vengeance on Joseph’s part, recoil in horror, bewildered that this high Egyptian official is actually the younger brother they once so horribly wronged. It is a moment thick with possibility-both negative and positive-and the reader cannot help but be drawn into the narrative wondering what will come next.
This moment of reunion could have gone many ways, and it is only Joseph’s careful choice of approach that causes it to come out successfully. Had Joseph handled himself differently, seeking revenge or the public embarrassment of his brothers, this reunion could easily have ended in tragedy. But his approach is far more thoughtful than that, despite what must have been his intense inner feelings toward his brothers. Joseph’s goal was not compensation for prior hurts or gain over other siblings; he could rise above his suffering at his brother’s hands for his singular goal was to assure the survival and well-being of his family.
In the end, Joseph is able to put his entire experience into perspective in a way that is surprising and admirable, and also allows the brothers to move beyond embarrassment to an eventual loving connection. Ultimately they fall upon each other’s necks, kissing and weeping. In this climactic moment, an incredible thing happens. Years of jealousy, betrayal, anger, lies, and secrets are forgiven. Together the “boys” agree upon a plan to bring their father to Egypt, and they will be a family again.
What can we learn from this complex and rich narrative? Why would one-quarter of the Book of Genesis be devoted to the story of Joseph? Perhaps it’s because the unfolding drama of the story of Jacob’s sons provides important insights for us into universal human, and particularly Jewish, concerns about reconciliation, repentance, and real growth. Surely, the text teaches us about the value of family peace. It is a powerful lesson about putting our own needs and desires in check when something more important is at stake. It teaches us to keep our focus on what really matters, and it all comes down to family connection and peace.
Joseph believed strongly that God was driving his destiny. At this point in the story, he also had the luxury of hindsight, recognizing that enduring each trial in his life formed him into the leader that he became. In the same way, Joseph’s father, Jacob, had to run away from his home in order to truly grow. Only after his tribulations did he deserve the name Israel. In much the same way in Vayigash, Joseph brings the Jewish people into Egypt, where they will withstand the sufferings of slavery, molding them into a nation fit to be called Israel.
However, I continue to wonder about the relationships within this family. I think I am a forgiving person; I certainly try to be. But I ask myself – is it really possible to always forget the past? Are there not some lasting consequences in our lives that unfortunately stay with us, or can the hurts be washed away forever in the tears of reunion and reconciliation? We certainly must do our share and examine our own actions, knowing just as we want to be forgiven for our transgressions, we must learn how to forgive those we care about for painful moments that have been endured.
Families have struggles. What is most important is how we can better deal with them. Vayigash attempts to teach us how to bring peace into our lives after difficult rifts take place in a family. It begins with repentance, but the key to convincing the other side that reconciliation is possible, is to give an unequivocal signal of turning one’s back on the past, of being able to let go of the anger, of old pain. We also begin to understand that family bonds can often overcome very deep hurts. We surely have a better chance for a sense of inner peace, a true meaning of the word shaleim, or “whole” if we can commit ourselves to try, to aim for the process of repentance, acceptance, and ultimately, forgiveness. May we, this Shabbat, as we bless one another and the day, find the inner strength and fortitude to do what we can to bring shalom into our world of family.