The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Parashat Vayigash.
We wonder though, Why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin's presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin's bag?
Many commentators suggest that Joseph's motive was revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back.
Even W. Gunther Plaut in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph's motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love. (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284)
However, if revenge had been Joseph's goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin's journey to Egypt caused. Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.
Years before, Joseph had been their father's favorite. As a result, Joseph's brothers hated him and sold him away into slavery. With Joseph gone, Benjamin became Jacob's favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin's sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son.
Judah knows what is at stake. In one of literature's most stirring speeches (Genesis 44:18-34), he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph-who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence-needs to hear in order to end the charade.
Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba'al or balat teshuvah (literally, a "master of repentance"). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba'al teshuvah shelemah (a "master of complete repentance"). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph's presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].
In Parashat Vayigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story discusses his emergence as the progenitor of Israel's most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words "Jew" and "Judaism" are derived from his name. More important, Judah's example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past.
I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.
Stephen Fuchs is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT.
Try to summarize your life. Now try to imagine explaining your summary to the most influential individual of our era. In this week's parashah, Vayigash, Jacob has an audience with Pharaoh, the most influential individual of his era. When Pharaoh asks Jacob how many years he has lived, our forefather replies, "The years of my sojourn [on earth] are 130; me'at vera'im [literally, "few and bad"] have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers." (Genesis 47:9) Jacob's words inspire us to think about how we regard our own lives.
First, consider Jacob's description of his years as "few." True, Genesis tells us that Abraham and Isaac reached 175 and 180 years, respectively, while Jacob is merely 130 years old when he meets Pharaoh. But Jacob speaks disconsolately, as if he were lying already on his deathbed without another day of life before him. In fact, Jacob will live nearly two more decades in peace and security, dwelling among the children he will bless and watching his grandchildren grow to adulthood.
In addition to negating his future, Jacob's response devalues the quantity of his past 130 years and, moreover, demeans the quality of his entire life by summarizing his years as ra'im -- "bad." Certainly, Jacob's life has been marked by strife and pain-from struggling in his mother's womb to wrestling with the stranger near the Jabbok; from the deception of Laban to the loss of Rachel and Joseph. But our patriarch's days have also been exalted and glorified by two sets of paternal blessings and extraordinary love (which made "seven years [of toil pass as] but a few days because of his love" for Rachel [Genesis 29:20]). Moreover, Jacob has been distinguished by three visions of angels and five direct encounters with God, beginning with the Holy One's personal assurance that "I am with you: I will protect you....I will not leave you" (Genesis 28:15) and ending with Jacob becoming Israel, the namesake of all his descendants to this day. (Genesis 35:10) How ironic that the youthful Jacob risked so much to gain blessings successfully while the aged Jacob discounted so many blessings to bitterly describe his years as ra'im, "bad."
All of us, like Jacob, occasionally reflect on our lives. Although none of us can match Jacob's extended years or spiritual heights, each one of us measures the fullness of our years and weighs our own blessings and burdens. Do we, like Jacob in Pharaoh's presence, focus on the past and ignore the promises of the future? Do we emphasize our hardships, minimizing the gifts we receive and their Source?
In his last decades, Jacob must have reconsidered the abundance of blessings in his own life, enabling him to bless his children before his death. May God help each of us to overcome those experiences that have been "few and bad" and enable all of us to genuinely recount our own years as "full and blessed."
Sheryl Nosan is the rabbi-educator at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA.
Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 281–297; Revised Edition, pp. 286–301;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 259–280