In this week's parashah, Vayigash, we watch and listen as Joseph is about to reveal his true identity to his brothers. The theme of reconciliation of old conflicts with relatives is one to which we all can relate. We watch with amazement and baited breath as Joseph utters the words "I am Joseph. Is my father still well?" (Genesis 45:3) We then turn our attention to the stunned brothers and await their response. Who will answer Joseph? Who will speak the truth and admit the conspiracy perpetrated against their brother so many years ago? This is a critical moment in biblical history because had Joseph been of another mind-set, he might have taken revenge, in effect ending our history. Instead, Joseph transcends his own anger and resentment at having been abandoned by his siblings. How did Joseph manage to rise above the past to reconcile with his family? And what does Joseph's experience teach us about how we should address long-held antagonisms toward our own family members?
In Midrash Tanchuma (Vayigash, paragraph 4), the rabbis imagined a lengthy discussion that occurred between Joseph and Judah. Judah is arguing with Joseph as he tries to protect their youngest brother, Benjamin. Joseph sets them up, then accuses them of stealing a wine goblet. His display of power as vizier of Egypt resonates because it exemplifies our natural inclination to hurt those who have hurt us.
In the midrash, Judah accuses Joseph of framing the brothers. In reply, Joseph asks Judah, "Why do you act as the spokesman for your brothers, when I see that you have brothers older than you?" To which Judah says, "My brothers bear no responsibility for Benjamin, whereas my innards are twisted like a rope with anguish." When Joseph asks why, Judah answers, "Because I stood surety for him." To which Joseph responds, " Why did you not feel it necessary to stand surety for your other brother at the time you sold him to the Ishmaelites?and inflicted pain upon your aged father by telling him that 'without doubt Joseph has been torn in pieces by a beast of prey?' [Genesis 37:33] That brother did no harm to you, while this one sinned, for he stole the goblet. So tell your father, 'The rope has followed the bucket into the well.'" When Judah hears this, he breaks into sobs and cries, "How can I go back to my father unless the lad is with me?" (Genesis 44:34) Afraid of confronting his father regarding Benjamin, Judah is not yet facing the past or really hearing Joseph.
That is usually the problem with attempts to resolve longstanding conflicts. Instead of addressing the issues, we tend to engage in a power play before getting to the real hurt that remains to afflict the soul of the aggrieved party. The question remains whether Joseph is getting to heart of the conflict.
The midrash continues with more verbal jousting between Judah and Joseph. Judah threatens to destroy Egypt. Joseph, barely in control of his emotions, prods Judah with allusions to the brothers' previous crimes. Backed into a corner, Judah and his brothers are ready to strike out against Joseph. Joseph clears the room, stands unprotected by the royal guards, and faces his hostile brothers. Still not being truthful, he accuses them of selling their brother into slavery and announces that he has bought the lad. The brothers' eyes follow him as he calls, "Joseph, Joseph!" Then, the midrash continues, Joseph shocks his unsuspecting brothers, announcing, "Why are you looking this way and that? I am Joseph, your brother. I speak the sacred tongue." They recognize him and immediately want to slay him. But an angel comes and flings the brothers to the four corners of the chamber. When Judah lets out a mighty roar of shame and regret, Joseph understands that only now do he and his brothers feel great remorse. That is why Joseph says to them, "'Come near to me, I pray you.' And they came near" (Genesis 45.4), "each of them kissing Joseph and weeping over him."
This has been a difficult encounter for Joseph. The midrash depicts his inability to address the issues directly and Judah's difficulty in hearing the references to his past crime. Only when Joseph reveals himself openly to his brothers can the healing begin. The sages portray Joseph's "game"-circling the subject at hand. The lesson for us in resolving a longstanding conflict demands that we share our pain, tell how we have been hurt, and explore ways in which we can reconstruct the relationship. Although it is not easy, this is whatt'shuvah is all about.
Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Yam in HIlton Head, SC.
Imagine the emotional scene that occurred when Joseph reunited with his brothers after twenty-two years of separation. Here we have eleven brothers, ten of whom thought that they had rid themselves of their father's favorite son, and then years later they find themselves standing in his court, begging for food! The scene is set for an emotional crescendo! Yet in last week's parashah, Mikeitz, we watched as Joseph recognized that the ten brothers standing in front of him were his own siblings but showed no emotion. The text tells us that Joseph did no more than bat an eye when he saw his brothers begging at his feet: "He recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them." (Genesis 42:7) Not until Genesis 42:22, when Reuben points out that he had originally spoken up for Joseph, does Joseph show the first signs of emotion when he "turned away from them and wept." (Genesis 42:24)
These tears begin Joseph's chain of emotions that ends with the revelation of his true identity to his brothers. We read of Joseph's weeping in private once again when he sees Benjamin for the first time. This instance, in Genesis 43:30-31, provides us with more details about Joseph's reaction: "Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and-now in control of himself-gave the order?." While the reader learns that Joseph was affected emotionally by this reunion, his tears were still hidden from everyone else.
It is only when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in this week's parashah, Vayigash, that he expresses his emotions openly. The tension in the story has peaked, and Joseph can no longer hold back his identity. Joseph prepares himself by clearing the room of all his servants, and only then does he approach his brothers and reveal who he is. The description of Joseph's emotions is rather remarkable: "His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear?." Joseph not only cried while revealing himself to his brothers, he wailed so loudly that "the news reaches Pharaoh's palace." (Genesis 45:2)
How interesting that the reader is now given a window into Joseph's emotions! So often in the Torah we read what happens, but it is only on rare occasions that we have three descriptions about one person's emotions. The inclusion of Joseph's tears, both public and private, requires us to pay attention to this pivotal moment. As noted by Robert Alter, "The rising pattern, then, of three repetitions...is not only a formal symmetry through which the writer gives shape and order to his tale, but also the tracing of an emotional process in the hero.?" (The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 168)
Joseph's tears not only cry out for attention from the reader, they also enable the reader to better grasp what Joseph must have been feeling at this dramatic moment. His tears help us better understand the familial trauma he has endured and how it has affected him. We are moved when we hear that Joseph is affected as a human being. By describing his tears-not only that he wept but that he wept twice in private and once in public-the Torah evokes a feeling of commonality between Joseph and the reader. We are almost relieved to know that Joseph has emotions and that he shows them. Finally, after chapters of narrative, we gain a deeper understanding of how this chain of events has affected Joseph. No longer are we reading about a vizier or a favored brother: Now we can relate to the figure who stands before his brothers and lets his emotions show.
So why do we get this inside look into Joseph's emotions now? Surely Joseph must have been emotional after he was sold into slavery, but we are not told then about even one teardrop! And why do we not hear about anyone else's tears until we are told about Benjamin's? Weren't the other brothers as moved by this reunion as Joseph was? We can only speculate about the answers to these questions. But perhaps we can detect in Joseph's tears a call for us to pay attention. By discovering Joseph's feelings in the text, we are confronted with Joseph as a human being, and, as a result, we are challenged to reflect on how we express our own emotions to others.
Questions for Discussion
How do you express your emotions? Do you let your tears roll down your face in front of your friends and family, or do you feel the need to hide or suppress your emotions? Think about a time when you wanted to cry but didn't let yourself. By not crying, what did you hide from others? Looking back on that instance, would you share those emotions now?
Think about the stories we have read so far in Genesis. In what other instances did you expect to see characters expressing their emotions? Was the reader allowed to see those emotions or were they not included in the biblical narrative?
Debra Sagan is the associate director of URJ Camps Swig and Newman in Northern California.
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