We need to know that we are loved, that there is a place where we are accepted without condition, where we can come home. We need to know that we can trust our loved ones. But despite the sanctity of family, who has not at some time questioned the fidelity of our family's love? Is there repentance for those who have hurt us? Can we who have been deeply hurt truly forgive?
We experience in the Joseph story a classic family tale of parents spoiling a favorite child, of sibling jealousies, haughty insensitivity, and rage. It is an ancient tale in which familiar family frictions are played out to extreme conclusions when Joseph is singled out for death, only to have his fate commuted at the last moment to exile from family in a miserable life of slavery.
But this tale is also one of repentance and forgiveness. The climax of this narrative occurs in Vayigash, where Judah, the ringleader of the plot to enslave the helpless young Joseph, pleads unknowingly before his very victim, thereby proving his repentance, his teshuvah, for the evil deed of his youth. It is also a tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. Joseph, who was too self-centered as a child even to be aware of his brothers' feelings, can now forgive, proving that atonement can be accepted, that reconciliation can happen.
Such wonderful things do not occur without the maturing process of life's hard knocks. Both Judah and Joseph must grow up. They both must learn the importance of family and the difficult responsibilities that belonging requires. Judah demonstrates his change when he innocently tells his victim-brother that he would volunteer himself to a life of slavery to save his younger half-brother, Benjamin, Joseph's only full sibling: "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)
Joseph, too, has grown, but the victim of family violence must be assured he is now safe. The Torah demonstrates Joseph's reassurance in its own unique way by the repetition of one word, hit'apek, "to restrain oneself." Joseph's overwhelming emotion almost caused him to burst into tears in an earlier meeting with his brothers. Yet he cannot allow himself: vayit'apak, "he restrained himself." (43:31) He cannot yet trust his brothers for what they did to him. But after Judah approaches him (vayigash), Joseph can no longer restrain himself: Velo yachol Yosef lehit'apek. (45:1) He is overwhelmed. He can trust his family again. He can now come home.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone is Associate Professor of Medieval Jewish Studies, HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, California.