The Bible makes a point of noticing when men cry. So do we, I suppose; just consider the ink spilled about Bill Clinton. We can easily assume there were many, many tears shed by women throughout Torah and all of our undocumented lives, but as it is today, when a man sheds tears, it’s noteworthy.
Joseph is a particularly emotional guy, and it’s no wonder. He’s a high-official in the Pharoah’s government, yet he’s an Israelite, a very visible minority. He serves at the pleasure of the Pharoah, so he has learned to walk the political line, keeping his feelings to himself. And, he’s been cut off from his family years after being brutally abandoned by his own brothers. Certainly, his sadness at being estranged from his family is complicated by his feelings towards those same brothers. Yet, in this dramatic dénouement, we read in Vayigash that Joseph has an even more tenuous hold on his emotions. Last week, we read that Joseph ran out of the room after finally seeing Benjamin, his youngest, and only full brother. This week, after Judah pleads so movingly to take Benjamin’s place rather than return to their father without him, Joseph “could no longer control himself before all his attendants”, so he clears the room of Egyptians so he can be alone with his brothers, as he tells them who he is. (Gen. 45:1-2) His sobs, “were so loud that the Egyptians could hear”. Joseph weeps as he embraces Benjamin (45:14), and again when he finally sees his father Jacob (45:29); the Torah uses the same language as when Jacob and Esau meet and reconcile.
None of this is too surprising, given the heightened emotions of the story. Each time I read it, I’m so drawn to the drama, the depth of human emotions at play here. I try to focus on the many more academic, rabbinic or socio-political insights of this portion, but I keep coming back to the reconciliation between brothers, and Judah’s remarkable and effective petition to Joseph.
Reconciliation isn’t just about getting past uncomfortable moments. How many times do we see the men in our lives awkwardly hug or punch each other, and say, “Uh, sorry” and “Uh, yeah, no problem”? Reconciliation is being able to see on the outside the effects of having grown and changed on the inside. In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Miriayam Glazer writes that the reuniting of the brothers turns on Judah’s impassioned plea at the beginning of this section. It’s because Judah has undergone a deep transformation that his words affect Joseph:
“As for the process of true inner change, true self-transformation, we learn to forgive ourselves for the mistakes of the past by not making them again. If we are lucky, life ‘tenderizes’ the heart, gives us hearts not of stone but of flesh. Vayigash powerfully addresses this more authentic model of true emotional change via the character of Judah”, (p.277) who has lost two sons of his own and had to publically admit he had wronged (and nearly hung!) the woman (Tamar) who was carrying his child. Judah had gone through some changes, to be sure, and he was uniquely positioned to plea for his own brother and father.
There is no end to family drama, to which we can all attest. It’s interesting to note that this part of the Joseph story usually comes during the time between Thanksgiving and Chanukah – two celebrations when families get together…and “interact”. It’s good to know the Torah has our back, by showing us how to finally get past the hurt and anger, and truly reconcile. The first look is inward, to see what we’ve been carrying around, taking up space in our souls. When the soul is lighter, the arms can hold someone else, and finally, we can weep together.
Another look at Vayigash by David Hazony: “Three Heroes, Three Paths” http://www.jidaily.com/pPB/e