Parashat Vayigash

Joseph's Moment of Truth

Revealing his true identity, the viceroy cannot control his emotions.

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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, "ah," 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.

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Rabbi Charles Savenor

Rabbi Charles E. Savenor is the Director of Kehella (Congregational) Enrichment for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.