Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
VaYigash opens in the middle of the most dramatic and human scene in the entire Torah. Joseph, unrecognized by his brothers and the defacto ruler of Egypt tests them in a heart-wrenching fashion. There is a famine throughout the land and the brothers went to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph, who they abandoned in a pit as a youth, has risen through the Egyptian ranks first as a slave and then as a prisoner to eventually become Pharaoh's right hand; as such he administers the national food program. When Joseph recognizes his brothers, he accuses them of espionage, and holds Simeon hostage until they return again with their youngest brother Benjamin - to prove their honesty. When they return, Joseph frames Benjamin for theft, and sentences him to life in slavery. The rest of the brothers may return free to Canaan.
Last week's portion ends as Joseph passes judgment, and VaYigash begins with the brother's response to Joseph. As I see it, they have three options. One, they can leave Benjamin behind, the same way they abandoned Joseph years before. Two, they could plead for mercy, and perhaps even offer financial compensation of some sort. Although either of those approaches would make sense given what we already know of the brothers, the text takes us in a surprising third direction. Judah, who was the ring leader when Joseph was thrown into the pit, does the unthinkable. He approaches Joseph, whom he knows only as the Egyptian aristocrat Zaphenath-Paneah. Nobody does that! It is not only a violation of royal etiquette, but it could be interpreted as a threatening move by Joseph's guards, and who knows how they might respond? Yet, Judah approaches close to Joseph and offers himself as a slave in Benjamin's place, in order to save their father Jacob from grief and death.
This is the moment that Joseph has been waiting for. He reveals himself to his brothers, speaking for the first time in their own language: 'Ani Yosef! I am Joseph, your brother, who you sold into slavery. Fear not!' (Gen. 45:3-5 - paraphrased). He reassures them that he does not hold them responsible, that it was God's will that brought him to Egypt so that he could one day rescue them all from the famine.
Yet something about his response rings hollow. If his traumatic life in Egypt was really only about saving his family from famine, then why wait until now to reveal himself? Why not welcome his brothers warmly when they first arrived in Egypt?
Judah is the key. He is the leader. He is the one who was motivated to sell his brother into slavery.
Joseph wanted to know if Judah had changed, if he had made teshuvah. Teshuvah is a beautiful Hebrew word that we often translate as 'repentance,' but what it really means is 'return' - as in return to God and/or return to the best of who we are. The act of teshuvah requires us to regret and learn from our mistakes, and to change our behavior. By offering himself in place of Benjamin, Judah demonstrates the depth of his teshuvah. Even more, by making such a powerful teshuvah, Judah effectively ends three generations of family dysfunction.
I love this story because it teaches us one of the fundamental truths of Torah: we are free agents. We have the ability to change, to grow, to heal. It may not be easy, but we have power over ourselves, and over our future. Let us exercise that power with love, compassion and wisdom.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras