- "Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, 'If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.' Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" (Genesis 44:32-34)
- Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!". . . His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh's palace. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still well?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. (Genesis 45:1-3)
- Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come forward to me." And when they came forward, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. . . . God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance." (Genesis 45:4-5, 7)
- With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him. (Genesis 45:14-15)
Why would one-quarter of the Book of Genesis be devoted to the story of Joseph? Perhaps it's because the unfolding drama of the story of Jacob's sons provides important insights for us into universal human-and particularly Jewish-concerns about reconciliation, repentance, and real growth. But the most powerful lesson the text can teach us is about the value-and the cost-of peace.
In Vayeishev, Joseph entered the pit a narcissistic, self-absorbed youth and emerged a tzaddik, a righteous one. In the physical and emotional blackness of that pit, Joseph found redemption by embracing the God of his fathers and mothers. Judah, who had nonchalantly shared a meal while ignoring the cries of his brother Joseph, achieves redemption when he is able to step forward to sacrifice his own life in order to save his brother Benjamin. In that moment of encounter two decades after the incident of the pit, both Joseph and Judah stand face-to-face, transformed by the pain that makes real change-and peace-possible.
"Each of us," Dr. Carol Ochs teaches, "must personally choose how we respond to suffering. . . Our greatest flaw, or woundedness, can become the source of our greatest virtue" (Carol Ochs, Our Lives as Torah [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001], p. 98). In the Joseph story, healing and redemption are possible only after great personal pain and suffering have stripped away the pretensions of power and self-importance that characterized both Joseph and Judah. But more than self-awareness or even true regret about the past was needed to bridge the chasm between the brothers; what was necessary was action. Joseph set the stage for reconciliation through the charade of the stolen goblet, but it was for Judah to step up, as it were ( Vayigash eilav Y'hudah, "Then Judah went up to him"), and actualize the process as the moral leader he had become. And in that step, the transformed Judah became visible to Joseph, who could, in turn, allow himself to become visible to his brothers.
The reconciliation between the brothers opened the way for Jacob's family to resettle in Egypt, an event that would have dramatic consequences for the Israelites many years later. But we are left to wonder about the relationships within this family after the reconciliation. Was all really forgiven? Is it truly possible to forget the past? Are there lasting consequences to the difficult encounters of our lives, especially with our family members, or are the hurts washed away forever in the tears of reunion? "He [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him" (Genesis 45:15).
Perhaps the answer can be found in an earlier moment in this family's story: "And a man wrestled with him [Jacob] until break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket" (Genesis 32:25-26). Jacob's limp was a lasting sign of his own struggle with another being, just as our struggles on our own journeys leave their mark forever. We strive for the transformation that brought redemption to Joseph and Judah. When we commit ourselves to that process, we choose life, as they did. But the price we must be willing to pay for that redemption is the pain of seeing ourselves as we truly are and taking responsibility for the hurts we may have caused others.
BY THE WAY
- Joseph found God not only in his own gifts but in the major events of his life. That is a difficult path to pursue. How are we to look at the occurrences that thwart us and that cause us pain and loss, and discern in them the working of God for good?
Joseph was indeed gifted-not only in interpreting dreams but in dreaming them as well. And his most significant dream is not one he dreamed-the sun, moon, and starts bowing down to him or the sheaves of wheat paying him homage-but one he harbored, that out of his brothers' evil intention he would be able to discern God's working for good. (Carol Ochs, "The Changing Concept of Self in Genesis," Conservative Judaism, Vol. 42(3), Spring 1990,. p.35)
- But Judah was pained beyond measure at the loss of Joseph. Exhausted by 20 years of guilt, fed up with his own failure of leadership two decades before, Judah had truly repented. Therefore he stepped forward and offered himself: "Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers" (Genesis 44:33). Thus he showed that he loved his brother, and that he would stop at nothing to end the cycle of hatred and recrimination.
The power of that unequivocal gesture shattered Joseph's defenses. Judah's renunciation evoked Joseph's response of letting go of decades of pent-up injury, humiliation, frustration, anger. In tears, the brothers were reconciled with each other.
The story teaches how to bring peace after fratricide. The opening comes through repentance. But the key to convincing the other side that reconciliation is possible is to give an unequivocal signal of turning one's back on the past. (Irving Greenberg, "Peace After Fratricide," The Jerusalem Report, December 30, 1993, p. 29)
- How did Joseph's sense of God's plan help him in his human relationships?
- To what extent is it possible to turn one's back on the past? What needs to happen to make peace possible between former adversaries? What are the implications of this for the current Israeli-Arab conflict?
Joanne Doades was the assistant director for curriculum development, Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning at the Union for Reform Judaism..