We must insist on hearing the voices of survivors of contemporary global violence.
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Parashat Vayigash details one of the Torah's most dramatic episodes: After Judah delivers an anguished monologue, the vizier Joseph reveals his identity as the boy whom, 22 years earlier, his brothers had sold into slavery. Judah's words, which have prompted this revelation, are a response to the threat of Benjamin's imprisonment, the final turn in the screw of manipulations to which Joseph has submitted his brothers.
Judah's monologue recounts how the vizier's accusations and demands have tormented his complicated family. With unflinching pathos he sketches the grief that has shaped his father's inequitable love for Benjamin--the beloved remnant of a favored family, and by implication, he concedes his own inability to comfort and satisfy his father.
Judah begs the vizier to enslave him in place of "the boy," whose "soul is bound up" with that of his father's. Above all, he tells of his personal anguish, imploring Joseph to understand who he is and why, therefore, he cannot allow Benjamin to remain in Egypt, to bring such suffering to his father (Genesis 44:18-34).
Commentator Avivah Zornberg recounts what Judah's words have set in motion: "A long silence, the silence of survival, collapses, and Joseph gives his sole testimony to the past: 'I am Joseph your brother whom you sold to Egypt.'" Judah's monologue breaks the powerful Egyptian who can now--finally--speak as himself, as Joseph.
The power of Judah's words, explains the Hassidic rebbe the Sefat Emet, is contained in their deep penetration, reflected in the parashah's opening words--Vayigash elav Yehudah--"and Judah came close to him." The Sefat Emet relates: "To him"--to Joseph. But also, "to his own Self--to himself." And also, "to Him--to God." For indeed, Judah said nothing new in his speech, had no legal plea to make to Joseph. Nevertheless, since he accessed the reality of his narrative, salvation came to him.
God was drawn in by Judah's testimony. The divine presence, the Sefat Emet implies, resides in these acts of raw self-narration, with their power to bring about salvation. What is more, it was Judah's ability to authentically tell his own story that was the transformative catalyst in the confrontation between Joseph and his brothers. Judah's narrative was perfectly pitched to lend voice to the mute Joseph, transforming an impasse of enmity into reunion and healing.
The transformative power of personal testimony endures as an essential means of mending relationships, families, self--even nations. Indeed, our own community's efforts to respond to the Holocaust have underscored how personal testimony is at once psychologically necessary for the survival of the broken person and morally necessary for the rebuilding of the broken world. Both telling and listening--shattering the survivor's silence and piercing the deafness of a guilty world--have been essential to this testimonial process.
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