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Torah Commentary
Vayigash (December 31, 2011)

Hannah Goldstein, Rabbinic Intern

IF YOUR BROTHERS sold you into slavery, would you forgive them? If they lied to your father, claiming wild beasts had killed you, would you invite them to draw near to you? Would you feed them during a famine and give them land in the place where you had grown powerful?

It is easy to imagine Parashat Vayigash going in a different direction. There is Joseph, standing before his brothers, in the position of power that he had dreamed about so long ago. And while he could have turned them away, denied them food or celebrated his success at their expense, Joseph kisses his brothers and weeps with them. How is this transformation possible?

In this week’s parashah, Judah reveals to Joseph that he has changed. Judah implores Joseph not to keep their younger brother Benjamin in Egypt after Joseph accuses Benjamin of stealing a goblet. Judah explains that if his brothers return to their father without Benjamin, their father surely will die. Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother, has become their father’s most beloved son. Judah ends his impassioned plea to Joseph by saying, “So now, please let your servant remain as my lord’s slave in place of the lad, and let the lad go home with his brothers; for how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer?” (Genesis 44:33-34) Judah volunteers to remain in Egypt in place of their brother, in order to save Jacob the heartbreak of losing his dear Benjamin.

Let us now turn to the last time that we saw Joseph and his brother Judah together in our text. Joseph had been thrown in a pit when Judah intervened. “How will it profit us if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Let us [rather] sell him to the Ishmaelites; then our hands will not be on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Genesis 37:26-27) Perhaps, a reader sympathetic to Judah would suggest that this is an attempt to save his brother Joseph’s life. But Judah argues for preserving Joseph’s life in terms of the potential gain for the brothers. They certainly stand to gain economically, and they are rid of their brother without having his blood on their hands. Judah’s intervention is first self-interested, the benefit to Joseph an afterthought.

In Vayigash, Judah argues for the benefit of his father. Judah begs to be taken in place of his brother. Again, he is negotiating the terms, but this time, he is willing to sacrifice for the good of his father. His self-interest is overcome by his concern for his family.

It is at this moment that Joseph no longer can hold his secret, and he reveals his identity to his brothers. It seems that now Joseph fully realizes the change that has taken place, that the brother who had sold Joseph into slavery was now volunteering his own servitude. In this week’s Torah portion, we are reminded that people have the capacity to change. Those who wronged us long ago may not be the same people that they once were. And sometimes, old hurts can be replaced with reconciliation.


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