As Parashat Vayigash begins, Joseph still has not revealed his identity to his brothers. With Joseph having framed his younger brother Benjamin for stealing his divining goblet, and consequently declaring that as punishment, Benjamin will be enslaved in Egypt, his brother, Judah, now beseeches Joseph to enslave him instead (Genesis 44:33). His plea comes after Judah reminds Joseph that he has an elderly father and describes in detail, why Benjamin did not initially go down to Egypt with the brothers and why, should he not return to Canaan, their father literally would die (Genesis 44:31). Joseph is so moved by Judah’s love for Jacob and Benjamin that he is unable to hold back any longer and after ordering that all but his brothers leave, tells them, in Hebrew, that he is their brother Joseph. He then asks: “Is my father really alive?” (Genesis 45:3). Richard Elliott Friedman notes that Joseph already knows Jacob is alive, for he has asked the brothers this question earlier (Genesis 43:27-28). Acknowledging that contemporary scholars solve this textual inconsistency by viewing Genesis 43:27 and 45:3 as coming from different sources, he nonetheless asks: “Even if this is so, how shall we understand Joseph’s question in the context of the narrative as it stands?” The key, Friedman believes:
... is that when Joseph first asks them, it is in the role that he is playing as an Egyptian official, with his real identity hidden from them. But now he puts together his revelation of who he really is with his question about Jacob. (Richard Elliott Friedman [Commentary on the Torah, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001], p. 148)
It may well be, Friedman observes, that his brothers lied when they spoke to him as the Egyptian official. Thus, he asks again, this time as Joseph, whether Jacob is really alive.
Joseph’s self-revelation, precipitated by Judah’s poignant narrative about their bereaved father leads to the healing of his relationship with his older brothers. Significantly, over 3000 years later, his words would signal the beginning of another healing: that between Catholics and Jews. In mid-October 1960, two years after Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli ascended to the papacy and chose the name John XXIII, the pope received at the Vatican a visiting delegation of 130 American Jews on a UJA study mission. Rabbi Herbert Friedman, one of the leaders of the delegation, greeted the pope and expressed the gratitude of Jewish communities throughout the world for all that the pope had done for persecuted Jews and Jewish refugees during and after World War II. As Friedman knew, then-Archbishop Roncalli as papal nuncio (permanent diplomatic representative of the Holy See) in Turkey, had saved thousands of Jews in Turkey, France, Greece, and the Balkans (cited in “Interview with Baruch Tenembaum,” founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, May 23, 2013).
The pope greeted the delegation warmly and spoke to them about a meeting he had had many years earlier in Istanbul with the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem (presumably referring to Rabbi Yaakov Herzog’s visit to Roncalli in 1943), who, in gratitude for all that Roncalli had done, presented him with a copy of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, a gift that the pope had long since treasured. He recalled his own visit to Jerusalem not long after, and then, drawing on the words of the biblical Joseph when he reveals his identity to his brothers, Pope John XXIII said to members of the Jewish delegation: “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4; see John XXIII: “I am Joseph, your brother,” L’Osservatore Romano, October 19, 1960). The pope’s baptismal name was in fact Joseph (Giuseppi), but here, he evoked the biblical Joseph’s words to affirm his sense of connection to the Jews.
Indeed, a month earlier, the pope had given instructions to Cardinal Augustine Bea to prepare a draft on the relationship of the Catholic Church to the Jewish people for consideration at the upcoming Second Vatican Council, which the pope convened two years later. Bea’s draft eventually became Nostra Aetate, “In Our Time,” a declaration of the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, promulgated in October of 1965 by Pope Paul VI, two years after John XXIII’s death. Nostra Aetate absolved the Jewish people as a whole for responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, maintained that Jews were neither rejected nor accursed by God, and decried “hatred, persecutions, [and] displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Second Vatican Council, October 28, 1965).
Thirty-five years later, Pope John Paul II prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Inspired by his visit, a film was made in 2001 by the Jerusalem-based video production company, Tal-El, for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel in association with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. The film assessed and reflected upon changes that have occurred over the past few centuries in Jewish-Christian, and especially Jewish-Catholic relations, including the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel. Drawing on the words of the biblical Joseph and of Pope John XXIII, the film is entitled “I am Joseph, Your Brother.”
The words and actions of Joseph, Pope John XXIII, and Pope John Paul II remind us of the importance of healing. Long periods of animosity, separation, and silence can be overcome. It may have taken Joseph over twenty years to forgive his family and the Roman Catholic Church almost two millennia to decry anti-Judaism and absolve the Jewish people from the charge of deicide. Yet healing comes when we acknowledge and act upon our sense of interconnectedness with and responsibility towards one another.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.
Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers is not an obvious outcome. This is, after all, the same Joseph who “brought bad reports of [his brothers] to their father” (Genesis 37:2) and the same Joseph who had no compunction about telling them of his dreams in which he was the star of the show. And that was all before he found himself alone in an Egyptian dungeon as a result of their actions. Between his ego and their actions, it’s pretty extraordinary that 20 years later he can make peace with them.
During those two decades of estrangement Joseph had plenty of time to fantasize about what he would say when his brothers were suddenly at his mercy. Who among us hasn’t crafted a similar work of imagined oratory ready to share with the remorseful ex-lover or the desperate former boss? The thing about Joseph is, he actually had the opportunity to use his.
It might have made him feel good in the moment, and it might have even been an accurate description of the injustice done to him, but it would not have brought peace. And Joseph knew that. So instead indulging in well-deserved self-righteousness, Joseph instead says “Come forward to me” (Genesis 45:4). Rashi explains he must have said those words because he saw his brothers backing away. Surely after realizing this was their left-for-dead brother they were expecting to be shamed, or worse.
In a just world, those brothers would not have been the ones backing away, but would be reaching out, begging for forgiveness in the wake of their unforgivable crime. But the world is not always just. Fortunately Joseph was wise enough to realize peace would only be possible if he was the one to initiate it. It’s easy to find comfort in the phrase “they started it.” If our goal is to feel vindicated, that phrase might be enough. But, if our goal is to make peace, sometimes we need to be the ones to reach out, even if it means forgiving someone that hasn’t yet apologized.
Rabbi Jeremy Simons is the Director of rabbinic services at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life based in Jackson, MS.
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
Haftarah, Ezekiel 37:15–28
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 357−358; Revised Edition, pp. 302−303