In Parshat Vayigash, we encounter two brothers who each embody distinct personalities. Though we’ve met all of Jacob’s 13 children in previous Torah portions, and will continue to learn more about them in the weeks to come, in Parashat Vayigash it is Joseph and his older brother Judah who engage in one of the Torah’s most emotionally charged and passionate conversations.
The previous portion ended at a moment of high-drama. Joseph, the second most powerful man in Egypt, has purposefully engaged in an act of deception, falsely accusing his younger brother, Benjamin, of stealing his golden goblet. Joseph’s identity is still unknown to his brothers, who attempt to make amends for the “theft,” but to no avail. Joseph sends them back home to their father, Jacob, and retains Benjamin in his palace in Egypt.
In Parashat Vayigash, Judah boldly, yet intimately, approaches Joseph, recalling their family history and the sad state of their father since the passing of his wife and Joseph’s disappearance many years earlier. Judah passionationately explains the oath he took to his father to guard Benjamin’s welfare and requests that he remain a prisoner so Benjamin can be allowed to return home to their grieving father.
Our sages teach that Joseph was born a righteous person, and his merit lay in not succumbing to society’s many temptations. He resisted several attempts at seduction by the wife of the Egyptian official Potiphar. He didn’t lose his connection to God while sitting in Egyptian prison on false charges of rape. And he didn’t abandon his Jewish identity upon becoming Pharaoh’s second-in-command, despite having every reason and opportunity to do so.
For Joseph, the Torah had transformed his existence beyond the realm of choice; he became a vessel for containing God’s infinite light and no longer felt torn between choosing holiness or its opposite.
However, not everyone is born so righteous. There are those – many, to be sure – who find themselves lured by the physical and mundane world into which they were thrust. This is the case with Judah, who doesn’t excel spiritually in the ways his brother Joseph does, yet still maintains his connection with God despite his continuous mistakes.
Judah participated in the sale of his brother into slavery and he had an affair with his daughter-in-law Tamar. But he knows that while he has made mistakes, it’s not because he genuinely desired to, but because he is consumed by the material world around him. To be human is to lose control sometimes and become distracted from how great we can be.
For a righteous person like Joseph, there is no middle ground between the holy and the mundane. Joseph would sooner give up on life itself than feel distant from holiness. But Judah knows he can stay connected with his source even when he reaches the bottom and all hope for connection seems lost. For him, life is a journey meant to treaded forward. It may not always be a direct route, and it will likely consist of ups and downs, but God can be found along the way amidst the chaos and the darkness. Judah knows that there’s no such thing as true failure in life because anyone can always learn and rise higher.
Parshat Vayigash opens with the words vayigash eilav Yehuda — “And Judah approached him.” On a literal level, Judah is approaching his brother Joseph. But Hasidic philosophy teaches that Judah’s frequent use of words such as “my lord” and “your servant” suggests that not only is he speaking to Joseph, but more so he’s figuratively speaking directly to God, pouring out his heart and his entire life’s narrative. He is confessing all the mistakes he made earlier, both when he and his brothers initially tried to murder Joseph and eventually sold him as a slave, and later when he promised his father he would return Benjamin safely if he allowed him to accompany his brothers down to Egypt — a promise it now seems Judah will be unable to keep. Judah tries to do the right thing, but repeatedly seems to fall short.
This act of confession is core to the process of teshuvah, the Jewish act of returning to the core of who we are. Teshuvah isn’t so much about changing who we are, but more about returning to the point before we went astray. The holiness of Judah isn’t that he changes who he is, but that he finds godliness within the life he currently lives. Our sages explain that Judah spoke directly into Joseph’s ear, conversing with God in a whisper, as if to teach us that relationships aren’t about how loud or visible we are, but about hearing that still small voice within the raging storm: real, raw, intimate — and lasting.
Spirituality isn‘t about waiting for the right moment to tap into holiness, but about creating them even when they aren’t called for. It’s showing up at God’s door unannounced, not waiting for a formal invitation. It’s doing acts of kindness without being asked and loving another when our intellect tells us to do otherwise. In the Jewish context, holiness is a protest against the life one has grown accustomed to living in in the name of how great life can be.
Judah had that courage then. Let’s cultivate that courage together now.
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About the Author: Jonah Simcha Chaim is an educator, social worker, and freelance author from Toronto, Canada. When not officially in the field or behind his computer working on a new piece of writing, Jonah Simcha Chaim can be found in the great outdoors, enjoying an array of high adrenaline sports. He enjoys being creative, looking at the world upside down to make meaning out of it, and is a rebel against words like normal, impossible, or failure. Jonah Simcha Chaim is the author of the forthcoming book, Expanding Potential: Journeying Beyond Who We Think We Are.