As we approach the end of the book of Genesis or Bereishit, we become entrenched in the story of Joseph. We learn of his seventeen-year-old arrogance, his interpretation of dreams (and his socially tone deaf manner of conveying them), his father Jacob’s favoritism, his brothers’ betrayal, and his eventual enslavement and rise to power in Egypt. In this week’s parshah, Vayigash, we begin with Judah approaching his younger brother and offering to be taken prisoner in place of the youngest brother, Benjamin, who has been accused (actually, framed) of stealing Joseph’s goblet. It is especially noteworthy that Judah is making such a gesture due to the fact that in Genesis 37:26-27, it is Judah who proposes the selling of Joseph as a slave. Many scholars and commentators have focused on Judah’s turnaround as a main lesson of the parshah, and it is certainly a shift in character that should not be ignored. In fact, Judah is the first example in the Torah of someone who has achieved “teshuvah gemurah,” or perfect repentance, as he is presented with the opportunity to make a nearly identical choice (to allow another to be enslaved or not), and he goes in the opposite, and more righteous direction (R. Jonathan Sacks zt”l). As many of us know, Judah provides us with our name as “Jews,” quite literally speaking.
While Judah’s notable teshuvah is one of the many lessons that one might glean from Vayigash, what struck me was Joseph’s reaction to Judah’s gesture of righteousness. “Now Joseph could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before him, so he called out, ‘Remove everyone from before me!’ Thus no one remained with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. He cried in a loud voice. Egypt heard, and Pharaoh’s household heard” (Gen. 45:1-2). Joseph proceeds to quickly reveal his true identity to his brothers, and then immediately asks of his father’s welfare: “Ani Yosef haod avi chai–I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3). Remember, at this time, Joseph is a young man who has not only earned a meteoric rise to power in Egypt, but is so respected by the Pharaoh that he actually defers much of the economic decision-making to Joseph alone.
Joseph tries his hardest to maintain a solid poker face when he sees his brothers for the first time in many years. He decides to test their character, to gauge their loyalty, and to see whether or not they have changed. Joseph has all of the bells and whistles of power and dominance relative to his brothers; but the text tells me that what we see in Joseph is a son and a brother filled to the brim with anxiety, fear, and trauma. Why does Joseph decide to test his brothers using Benjamin? Is it because Benjamin is the youngest, as Joseph was when his brothers sold him? Perhaps. Or is it because Benjamin is also the son of Rachel? I believe this is plausible. Joseph and Benjamin are the only two sons of Rachel, Jacob’s first and most true love. Now, does Joseph see his brothers’ choice as a chance for a repetition of history with an alternative outcome? Judah, who proposed selling Rachel’s only son, now is prepared to sacrifice his own freedom for Rachel’s “only” son. Joseph is so moved by his brother’s words, that he cannot help but break down. What breaks down with Joseph? Any airs that have been put on, of course. The royal clothing and decorum, the responsibility of power in a foreign land, the ability to decide who lives or dies, or who is free or not free. Joseph tells everyone to leave the room except for his brothers when his emotions overcome him. Why?
At our core, we want to be accepted and loved. At the end of the day we want to be where we feel like home is. Joseph can acquire endless wealth and material prowess, but where does his heart live? Not in Egypt, but in the land Canaan with his family. Joseph wails so loudly that it can be heard throughout Egypt.
The mighty economist of Egypt is still at his center, the young boy being sold by his own brothers, and forced to make his own way without his one living parent. We can only stuff pain and suffering down inside of ourselves for so long without the lid eventually bursting off of the boiling pot. Joseph’s trauma has been festering within him for many years, and Judah is the catalyst that finally releases his pent up emotional life. Joseph is a vivid and frequent dreamer, which makes me wonder if he also had nightmares related to the traumas he endured at a young age. A midrash which explains the nightmares that create Joseph’s wail is surely called for! One does not simply come out of the other end of such experiences unscathed. Joseph’s cry is one that still reverberates for many today. My mind immediately jumps to Holocaust survivors and their children, the victims of childhood abuse and sexual trauma, the victims of human trafficking etc. The list could surely go on.
Yes, teshuvah is a beautiful thing, and the correction of wrongdoing is righteous. Good on Judah. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with financial success and the building of a prominent career. Good on Joseph. It is important to remember however, that true meaning is at the soul level. Our souls cannot be free to achieve their fullest potentialities while they are steeped in unresolved trauma and emotional pain. No amount of money, power, or material possessions can veil the fact that we must tend the wounds inside of ourselves in order to climb the rungs toward Divinity. We must release the cry of Joseph in order to empty the poison and make room for joy.
May we all be blessed to heal from our wounds, remove the garments of pharaohs, and cry for the sake of our souls.