After weeks of immersion in the story of Joseph and his brothers, we arrive at the penultimate portion in this cycle. We have followed Joseph's rising fortune as his father's favorite, and his descent after being thrown into a pit by his jealous brothers. Rescued, he is elevated to a position of trust by Potiphar, only to be cast down into prison when he refuses the advances of his employer's wife. He ascends again when Pharoah summons him to interpret the ruler's troubling dreams.
Joseph rises to become the second most powerful leader in Egypt. When his brothers come to Egypt in search of food, he is moved by their pleas, but demands they return with Benjamin, Jacob and Rachel's only other son. When Joseph meets Benjamin, he's overcome with emotion, rushing out of the court to compose himself.
In Vayigash, Joseph's tears flow publicly, as he reveals himself to his brothers, and subsequently when he welcomes his father to Egypt. The first word of this portion, Vayigash, "he approached," is the portion's name but also offers insight into how the narrative fits into our ancestral story. We are coming to the end of Genesis, and those who composed the Torah now invite us to consider a more nuanced portrait of our ancestors.
In spite of the powerful events we've read about, from Adam and Eve, to the unfolding of our ancestors' family stories, we rarely glimpse the emotions of the players. The text does not explore or even mention Adam and Eve's grief and horror at their son's fratricide. What were the experiences of Noah and his family as they witnessed the drowning of all other humans on earth?
The rabbis created a rich midrashic tradition of conjecture about Abraham's thoughts as he banished his son Ishmael, and they write with deep insight about what might have been in Abraham's mind and heart as he lifted the knife above Isaac's body. When Sarah dies, Abraham cries; when Jacob meets Rachel, he cries. Yet these exceptions prove the rule: Students of Torah do not often witness the emotions of the ancestors.
Vayigash is the Torah's invitation into their hearts. The portion begins with Judah's approach to Joseph. Judah had urged his brothers to sell Joseph to the passing caravan, and was later exposed by his daughter-in-law, Tamar, as one who considered himself above contemporary law and custom. Judah is a man who has begun to take responsibility for his decisions. As he pleads for Joseph's mercy, Judah's transformation moves Joseph to tears. Instead of removing himself from the court, Joseph asks his courtiers to leave so that he can be alone with his 11 brothers.
In a scene unparalleled in literature, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: "Come, draw near to me! … I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Egypt … don't be troubled … for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you." Joseph's tears mingle with the tears of his brothers.
Joseph approaches his brothers and discloses his identity to them with compassion and forgiveness. He reveals himself as a man who knows that God is his partner. He opens his heart to his brothers, showing that reaching beyond one's own pain can bring healing to even the most wounded soul.
As we approach the conclusion of this powerful narrative, we also approach the conclusion of the secular year. May we, too, open our hearts to both God and to those who have, perhaps, hurt or disappointed us. Then we, like Joseph and his brothers, will find a way to speak and weep together.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell.@urj.org.