Commentary on Parashat Vayigash, Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
The moment of truth has arrived. With Benjamin framed for stealing and sentenced to enslavement, Joseph waits to see how Jacob‘s other sons will respond. Joseph believes that his well-orchestrated ruse will finally expose his brothers’ true colors.
This week’s parsha opens with Judah appealing to his brother Joseph, the Egyptian viceroy, to free Benjamin and to enslave Judah in his place. Judah’s eloquent petition recounts his brothers’ interaction with this Egyptian official as well as the familial circumstances of Jacob’s household. Benjamin, the youngest son in the family, occupies a valued place in their father’s eyes, Judah says, because he is the last living remnant of Jacob’s deceased wife, Rachel. In conclusion, Judah asserts that if he were to return home to Canaan without Benjamin, he could not bear to see his father’s immediate and long-term pain and suffering.
Judah’s words arouse Joseph’s soul, as the Torah tells us that “V’lo yachol Yosef lehitapek. . .”–“and 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 his brothers” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 45:1).
Witnessing Joseph’s intense reaction to Judah’s appeal, we wonder what exactly pushes Joseph to his emotional limit? What does Judah say or do that compels Joseph to reveal himself at this moment?
Our most trusted biblical commentator, Rashi, surmises that since Joseph’s emotional outburst is juxtaposed with evacuating his Egyptian servants, Judah’s self-incrimination embarrasses Joseph. The viceroy of Egypt fears that when these alleged spies are introduced as his brothers, the family’s reputation, and his by association, will already be tarnished in Egypt and in Pharaoh’s court.
Rashi’s analysis helps us to understand the momentary reality, yet other interpretations exist, which incorporate the larger context of Joseph’s dreams and the patriarchal covenant. As soon as Joseph “unmasks” himself, he urges his brothers not to be upset about their having sold him into slavery many years before: “Kee lemeheeyah shelahani Elohim lefnayhem“–“(for) it was to save life that God sent me here ahead of you” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 45:5). Joseph believes fervently that God’s preordained plan for him involves maintaining life for his entire family and the civilized world. Thus, Joseph stores food for Egypt for times of feast and famine, and secures safe passage to a new land for his family.
Actualizing the Covenant
The outcome of Joseph’s story not only affirms his childhood dreams, but also actualizes the first part of God’s covenant with the patriarchs and matriarchs. As Jacob’s family settles in Egypt, Act I of the epic of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob comes to a close. With such an immense epiphany — that his dreams are realized and the future of his people secured — how could we expect Joseph to contain his emotions?
Additionally, sustaining brotherhood, one could argue, is humanity’s first ongoing challenge, upon being escorted from Eden. After slaughtering his brother, Cain utters the timeless question, “Hashomer ahi anohi“–“Am I my brother’s keeper” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 4:9)? Nahum Sarna asserts in the JPS Torah Commentary of Genesis that “the sevenfold stress in this chapter on the obvious fraternal relationship of Cain and Abel emphatically teaches that man is indeed his brother’s keeper.”
By repeating the Hebrew word for brother, “ach,” in Genesis 45, Joseph responds as much to Judah’s words and actions as to the first disastrous confrontation between the first siblings in the Torah. In other words, Joseph’s emotional outburst stems from hearing Judah’s passionate plea beyond their own family’s story, in a larger context that affects all of the children of Adam and Eve.
The overarching challenge of being one’s brother’s keeper, however, continues throughout Genesis. Sadly, the partnership efforts of generation after generation become impeded and frustrated by jealousy, competition, and greed.
At the beginning of his amazing odyssey, for example, Joseph ventures to talk to his brothers on his father’s behalf. Having lost his way, Joseph speaks to a stranger, who asks Joseph what he wants. “I am seeking my brothers” (Etz Hayim, Genesis 37:16), he says, which sounds like a straightforward request for his brothers’ physical location, but constitutes, in actuality, a deep-seated desire to be in concert and live in harmony with his brothers. Furthermore, Joseph’s words can be understood as his personal response, in the affirmative, to the question Cain posed generations before him — this is how he perceives one should be his brother’s keeper.
In our story this week, Joseph is overwhelmed by Judah’s compassion for his father, and for his brother, Benjamin. It is not only that Judah is willing to take the place of his brother, but that he does not want to contribute to his father’s pain. Judah has learned from the loss of his own two sons what loss can do to one’s soul. Aviva Zornberg expounds in Genesis: The Beginning of Desire: “Initiated into the fellowship of pain, Judah becomes capable of investing the whole force of his personhood into preventing its recurrence.” With his compassion and courage, Judah demonstrates before Joseph’s very eyes what it means to be a brother.
In the end, the significance of what Joseph learns surpasses even his wildest dreams. He loses control of his emotions because not only will his brothers be reunited, but also humanity has finally proven that it can shoulder the responsibility of brotherhood.
May our generation be blessed with compassion, mutual respect, and patience so that we can actualize the prophetic dream of mending our world into a global community replete with peace, love, prosperity, understanding, and most importantly, sisterhood and brotherhood.
Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.
Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.