Table for Five: Vayigash
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to the brothers.
– Gen 45:1
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
Joseph is the only one of our Biblical ancestors honored with the additional title of “Tzadik” – Jewish tradition refers to him as Yosef the righteous one.
How did he earn this unique tribute? Perhaps the key is this story. Victimized by his own brothers, sold into bondage by his own family, enabled then by virtue of special talent as well as divine favor to gain great power as second in command to Pharaoh, Joseph makes the difficult decision counselled in contemporary times by Nelson Mandela: “When a deep injury is done to us, we never heal until we forgive.”
But there is one additional part of the story that is even more relevant: Before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he sent everyone else out of the room. Because Joseph would not commit the sin of publicly slandering his own family.
We live at a time of growing anti-Semitism. The ancient and inexplicable hatred of Jews has more than enough disciples; there is a striking absurdity when Jews feel obliged to join the chorus of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish invective. When Ben and Jerry, ignoring all other evildoers of the world, justify their singling out of Israel as the only ones deserving of their boycott with the response that they can’t be accused of being anti-Semites because “they themselves are Jewish” – they ignore the unfortunate reality that some of the worst anti-Semites of history were Jews!
Joseph understood – the sins of our own are best kept in the family!
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Author, Reaching New Heights series
The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that a sign that teshuvah is complete is that when placed in a situation similar to the one where you previously failed, you succeed in doing right. Yosef arranged a situation where Binyamin, the youngest brother—their father’s last treasured connection to his favorite wife and son—was at risk: Would the others give him up as they given up Yosef, or would they give their lives for their innocent brother? Yehudah, by offering himself in his brother’s stead, to spare their father the crushing pain of losing this son as well, completed the rectification of their earlier act of un-brotherly harshness.
This was not a revelation that could be made in front of others. This was not even between Yosef and his brothers—it was between the brothers and Hashem. Yosef had no desire to punish or shame his brothers. He did not want them to be mired in negativity or feelings of despair that perhaps Hashem had not forgiven them. “Yosef could no longer hold himself back” from proving to them—not to himself—that they had indeed overcome their jealousy and purified their souls.
Yosef hoped the brothers’ feelings toward him had changed, not because he wanted them to love him, but because he wanted them to love themselves. Whether as a spouse, a parent, a teacher, or a friend, our hope is that our loved ones will pursue teshuvah for themselves—as if “there is no one else about”—for the sake of their souls.
Aliza Lipkin, Writer and Educator, Maaleh Adumim, Israel
Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him, stripped him naked, and threw him in a pit as he screamed for his life. He was sold as a slave, imprisoned, and estranged from his family for 20 years. Most people would seek revenge.
Joseph was unique in that not only did he not take retribution for the years of suffering he endured, but conversely took extra care not to embarrass his brothers.
Rashi says Joseph could not bear the Egyptians standing beside him to witness the brothers being embarrassed when he revealed himself to them.
Despite the fact that Joseph suffered tremendously at the hands of his brothers and was in the position to exact punishment, he did not. Even more so, when he could barely contain himself and was bursting to reveal his identity to his brothers, he held it in until his attendants left the room. His sensitivity to their feelings at that moment came before his deep-seated pain.
Joseph displayed monumental growth and transformation in his anticipation and consideration of his brother’s feelings. When he was 17 and shared his lofty dreams with them he was egocentric and oblivious to their hatred and jealousy. During his years as a slave and a prisoner, he chose to learn to be a more caring considerate person instead of mulling over their actions and stewing in anger. In doing so he ended up second to the king, saving countless people from starvation and bringing his family back together in peace and harmony.
Rabbi Mari Chernow, Senior Rabbi Temple Israel of Hollywood
The Torah breaks from its usual reticence about emotion in this scene. Joseph’s outburst is raw, dramatic, and as the text tells us, irrepressible. What causes this sudden departure? Let’s look to the preceding verse, the climax of Judah’s plea before Joseph. Judah begs Joseph to release Benjamin from jail, explaining, “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.”
Jacob still favors one son – Benjamin – over the others. This is clear from other verses in Judah’s speech. It is the very same favoritism that set the family on a painful trajectory of envy, conflict, and estrangement. All these decades later, Jacob has not changed.
And yet, Judah has. He is a father himself now. He has had years to reflect on his role in selling Joseph to strangers. Or he has simply decided to heal.
Our tradition is unyielding in its belief that growth and transformation are possible. Here Torah teaches that there are times when we can change even when no one else does.
In verse that follows, Joseph outright sobs. His grief, relief, heartache, compassion and regret are more than he can bear, and more than the Torah can ignore. So too is his realization that Judah has taught us how to survive – and thrive- in a world filled with flawed human beings. We need not wait for them to change. Healing and hope can be ours.
Nicholas Losorelli, Third Year Ziegler Rabbinical Student
Through all the heartbreak and confusion from Canaan to Egypt, Joseph made the best out of a bad situation. He rose to the highest possible position next to Pharoah, and overcame impossible obstacles. However, his comfortable Egyptian existence was completely turned on its head, when the very brothers who betrayed him, and robbed him of his past and future, showed up on his extravagant Egyptian doorstep.
Joseph put his brothers through the wringer, and whether it was revenge, a test, or part of a larger divine plan, Joseph couldn’t deny his truth or keep up this Egyptian charade any longer; he broke, revealing himself to his brothers. After having long ago shut the door on the possibility of ever being who he once was, that long-lost truth was given the possibility of expression once more.
Writing this on a sunny winter day in Jerusalem, I find myself reflecting on how my own life has led me on a winding, confusing, and beautiful path leading me to our spiritual home, for the academic year. There have already been so many moments where that which craved expression within me, finally found its moment, here in Israel. The possibilities of Jewish expression in Israel have opened my heart in a way that I have yet to feel elsewhere, and while this land is complicated, to say the least, it is still an extraordinary expression of that undeniably Jewish impulse to honor that same deep truth that Joseph could no longer deny.
With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Miriam Yerushalmi, Aliza Lipkin, Rabbi Mari Chernow, and Nicholas Losorelli
Image: Joseph Recognized by Brothers by Francois Gerard, 1800
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