Family reunions can be tough, especially when there are members of the family who haven’t spoken in years. Will the meeting be confrontational? How will the family move forward after years of estrangement? Will forgiveness be offered on all sides?
This is the context in which we find ourselves with the parasha Vayigash, the finale to the family drama that is the Joseph story. The brothers have returned to Egypt, seeking food for the second time, but this time, they’ve brought their youngest brother (and Joseph’s only full brother) back with them, as instructed by Joseph/Prime Minister himself. The brothers don’t know they’ve been dealing with their long-lost brother Joseph; they had no idea he could have survived years of slavery in Egypt, and Joseph has kept his identity a secret. Until now.
Joseph has singled out Benjamin, “framing” him for stealing a cup, and threatening to keep Benjamin there as a slave for his “crime.” After an impassioned speech by Judah, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. He is overcome with emotion, weeping loudly, and the brothers join him in a heartfelt, teary reunion. It is a scene of such forgiveness that it could serve as a model on Yom Kippur. It had everything we are familiar with on that long day of atonement: awareness of our shortcomings and true desire for returning (tshuva) to wholeness.
Judah’s speech is what turned the tide. In it, he made it clear he knew the harm he’d caused his family by the violence and treachery, and then covering it all up. He took responsibility for his part in the estrangement, and could finally say, “How can I go home to my father without [Benjamin], and see the harm my father will suffer?” (Gen: 44:34) . When Joseph saw that Judah and the brothers had come to accept their part in the family’s suffering, he could forgive and tell them that he held no hard feelings toward them. They could move on from there, united.
It is not much of a stretch to see the literal beginnings of klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, in this family. Indeed, the brothers go on to lead the twelve tribes of Israel/Jacob out into the wilderness, where the tribes became a nation, and the families became a people, literally, the “children of Israel/Jacob.” It’s instructive to see how they interact, and especially, how they reconcile. Both sides, as it were, needed to do some significant self-reflection and growth to get to a place where they can make peace.
Our klal Yisrael, our community is undergoing the suffering of estrangement, too. Jews are treating other Jews very badly. Lies, deceit, treachery, dishonor and disregard, yet in the name of some sort of “greater good.” More arrests of women at the Wall, politicians stepping down in scandal, financial barons maintaining policies that widen the gap between haves and have-nots, cover-ups of domestic violence so as to keep the “good name” of the perpetrators, and more. Joseph’s brothers thought they were doing the right thing, because it served their purpose at the time. They had no long view of their actions. Neither do some, today. The community needs to do what Judah did: to look deep into their hearts, view their actions in the light of how they affect others in our nation-family. We need to see, as Judah saw, what happens when either the arrogance of perceived superiority, like Joseph, or vindictiveness like the brothers, is allowed to tear a community apart. Then, respecting the road each side has traveled, we can be reconciled as they were, weeping with joy at being a family again, finding comfort and hope in a united future.