Vayigash, a Torah portion filled with drama and suspense, offers a profound message about regret, repentance, and forgiveness.
When famine struck the Land of Canaan, Joseph's brothers arrived in Egypt to purchase provisions. Although they had no idea who the thoroughly Egyptianized Joseph who stood before them was, Joseph recognized them immediately. In an instant, Joseph recalled the mockery his brothers had made of the dreams of his youth, and even his father's annoyance at Joseph's imperious demeanor. Joseph understood the irony of his dreams of mastery over the members of his family. He painfully recalled how years before, his brothers held him down, bound his hands and feet with rope, and sold him to passing strangers in order to be rid of him — forever. He remembered how unmoved they were by his pleas and tears. Now, after waiting all these years for vengeance, Joseph could plot retribution.
Joseph considered how best to play his advantage and began to question his brothers in an accusatory tone about the reason for their journey, where they came from, and whether they were spies.
Casting jittery glances at one another, Joseph's brothers squirmed and tried to calm this lusty, arrogant, pretentious master’s accusation:
"No my lord,” they said to him. “Your servants have come to buy food." (Genesis 42:10)
Joseph coerced his brothers into returning home and then journeying back to Egypt with Benjamin, now their father's favorite, who had been left behind. The brothers were convinced that this misfortune was repayment for what they had done to Joseph so many years before. Reuben admonished them:
"Didn’t I say to you, 'Do not sin against the lad?' But you wouldn’t listen, and so his blood-payment, see — it has come due.” (Genesis 42:22)
As they departed from Jacob to return to Egypt, Judah swore that he would protect Benjamin with his life.
Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph welcomed his brothers with a feast. As Joseph looked at Benjamin, he took hasty leave when he could not hold back his tears.
As Joseph arranged for them to take more grain, he hid his personal gold goblet in Benjamin's sack. After the brothers left, Pharaoh's troops overtook them, searched their sacks, and found the gold treasure in Benjamin's possession. Joseph ordered the boy to become his personal slave as punishment for the theft.
The brothers recalled when they cavalierly sold Joseph into slavery without thought of what effect their cruelty would have upon their father or Joseph. The brothers knew that this would surely mean the death of their father. Only now, decades later, when faced with the matching loss of a second brother, also their father's favorite, did they act differently. Judah pleaded with Joseph to let him take Benjamin's place and allow Benjamin to return to his father:
“So now, please let your servant remain as my lord’s slave in place of the lad, and let the lad go home with his brothers: for how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer”? (Genesis 44:33-34)
Upon hearing Judah’s words, Joseph, no longer able to control himself, began to weep loudly. Before his dumbfounded brothers, he blurted out:
"I am Joseph — is my father [really] alive"? Genesis 45:3)
Why the elaborate ruse, if in the end Joseph revealed himself to his brothers? Rambam, the medieval commentator, provides sensitive insight into this puzzle in his Laws of Repentance:
What constitutes complete repentance? He who confronts an identical occurrence in which he previously transgressed, when (at another time) it is within his power to repeat the same wrongdoing, nevertheless restrains himself and does not succumb to temptation because of a wish to repent and not out of fear of authority ... this is true penitence. (Mishneh Torah, T‘shuvah 2.1)
Why, then, the drama of deception and intrigue directed by Joseph? Joseph maneuvered his brothers into once again having the opportunity to abandon their father's favorite child. When Judah offered himself as a slave in place of Benjamin, it was clear that the brothers regretted their past behavior and would never again be partners to a crime like the previous one in which they abandoned Joseph by selling him into slavery. Only when Joseph’s brothers regretted their shameful behavior and refused to behave in the same manner again did Joseph reveal his true identity.
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco, and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.