Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Until VaYigash, our family story has been both sublime and dysfunctional. The sublime we know well: the covenantal relationship established between Abraham and God, and the introduction of an entirely new way of life to the world through the realization of that covenant, have inspired generations of our people. However, we also know the dysfunction, even if we downplay its role in the tradition. From the moment the then-barren Sarah sent her servant Hagar to Abraham to have a child on Sarah’s behalf, and Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael, the generations of the matriarchs and patriarchs struggled with intense jealousy, favoritism and more.
In VaYigash, Judah and Joseph break the cycle. How does it all happen? The famine has now come to the land, affecting not only Egypt but the entire known world. Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt is the only place where food has been stockpiled, and people come from near and far to purchase food to survive. Among the many who came to Egypt for food, were Joseph’s brothers – sent by Jacob. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. After all, how could they think that a great Egyptian lord dressed in gold and covered in makeup could be the brother they left long ago in an empty pit?
Joseph does not reveal himself right away. Instead, he sets up his younger brother Benjamin, his only full-brother and the new favorite son, by framing him for theft. Joseph sends his troops to arrest Benjamin and gives the brothers permission to leave in peace – so long as Benjamin remains. The brothers, however, refuse to leave – and Judah, the ringleader who originally wanted to kill Joseph steps forward and offers himself in Benjamin’s place.
Judah’s extraordinary act of selflessness was the necessary first step to breaking the cycle of dysfunction. Jealousy is a function of selfishness. Judah was motivated by jealousy when he threw Joseph into the pit. He was concerned with his own pain and desires, and nobody else’s. By offering himself as a prisoner in Benjamin’s place, Judah demonstrates that he grown as a human being. He has replaced his jealousy with resolve, courage and love. Instead of abandoning Benjamin the way he did Joseph, he offers himself – a free-will sacrifice – for the sake of his younger brother and their aging father. Sacrifice is an act of selflessness. We can only make sacrifices when we place the needs of others before our own. When Judah offered himself in place of Benjamin, he unwittingly demonstrated to Joseph that he had moved from a place of extreme selfishness to a place of profound selflessness.
Yet, Judah’s action on its own was not enough to break the cycle. Joseph, too, needed to act. As a Prince of Egypt, Joseph now had the brothers who had wronging him so terribly under his absolute power. He could do whatever he wanted to them. Whatever the temptation may have been, Joseph chooses a different path. Instead of punishing his brothers for what they did to him, he reveals himself as their long-lost brother. While he holds them accountable for what they did, he also forgives them and tells them not to be afraid, that it was all according to God’s plan so that he could protect them.
Make no mistake, this is an enormous moment, requiring strenuous effort from both Judah and Joseph. Judah is prepared to give up his freedom. Joseph is prepared to give up any hope of punishing his brothers. Both choose to let go of the worst of who they were in the past to create a new present and hopeful future.
During the High Holy Days we talk about teshuvah, about making amends, changing our ways and reconciling to heal our relationships. In VaYishlach we see how teshuvah can transform even the most dysfunctional of relationships – if we are willing to change.
The bottom line? We always have a choice.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras