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Torah Commentary
Vayigash (December 22, 2012)

David Mintz, Cantorial Intern

WITH THE Union for Reform Judaism’s publication of the Women’s Torah Commentary and more recently, the Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, much has been made of biblical gender roles. Indeed, the expectations on both male and female characters in the Torah often are difficult for us to understand from a modern perspective. And as we’ve seen in the saga of Joseph and his brothers, climaxing this week in Parashat Vayigash, some of these characters seem to be demonstrating a type of immature masculinity. You might call it acting like a tough guy.

We’ve certainly seen this behavior in the brothers, as they came together as a mob, capturing Joseph and selling him into slavery. But at this point in the story, Joseph adopts a similar attitude. The very same Joseph who once was a slave, who had been thrown into prison, now has climbed the ranks and has been promoted to a high position in the Egyptian court. With his brothers standing before him, unable to recognize their brother Joseph behind his royal clothing, Joseph tests his brothers’ loyalty to one another. He frames his youngest brother, Benjamin, for theft, threatening to throw him into prison. With the tables being turned, Joseph now is acting like a tough guy in his own right — exerting his power over his brothers, just as they once exerted their power in numbers over him.

The problem with acting tough, however, is that it rarely demonstrates actual strength. The strong exterior eventually breaks, and inevitably, eternal truths come forward. Judah stands before Joseph and offers a deeply moving, 17-verse plea on Benjamin’s behalf, begging that he (Judah) be imprisoned in place of his brother. The amount of text devoted to Judah’s plea demonstrates the significance of this moment in its own right, but let us not forget the importance of Judah, as a leader among his brothers, shedding the immature masculinity that has defined them for so long. And after hearing Judah’s plea in which he invokes their father’s name 11 times, Joseph finally breaks, as well. “I am Joseph,” he tells them. “Is my father really still alive?”

These characters may demonstrate an immature type of masculinity. They may put across a tough-guy attitude, but at their core they remain true to what really matters — their relationship to one another. And the power of this connection seems to transcend the volatility of even the most extreme narrative of estrangement. In the end, both Joseph and Judah drop their tough exteriors and relent in moments of weakness. But what they show us is that this weakness is a real strength.

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