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Vayigash: And He Approached

  • Vayigash: And He Approached

    Vayigash, Genesis 44:18−47:27
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Families Struggle
Davar Acher By: 
Cheri Ellowitz Silver

Vayigash presents us with one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah. Nature and cosmic events bring Joseph and his brothers face to face. Given the opportunity of anonymity, the powerful Joseph inspects and tests his siblings' behavior until he can no longer contain himself. Clearing the room of any observers, Joseph reveals himself to the brothers who once connived to kill him.

"I am Joseph. Is my father still well?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. (Genesis 45:3) Joseph is overcome with emotion. His brothers are completely dumbstruck. Joseph has to repeat himself:

"Come forward to me." And when they came forward, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you." (Genesis 45:4-5)

Throughout Joseph's revelation of himself, the brothers are silent. What could have been going through their minds at that moment?

  • Surely, he will take revenge on us now.
  • Can it be that his dreams really came true?
  • We have suffered all these years thinking him dead. Why didn't he let us know he was alive?

Ultimately they fall upon each other's necks, kissing and weeping. In this climactic moment, an incredible thing happens. Years of jealousy, betrayal, anger, lies, and secrets are forgiven. Together the "boys" agree upon a plan to bring their father to Egypt, and they will be a family again.

Families struggle. Siblings and parents can inflict severe injury on each other, intentionally or not. Yet this story teaches us that family bonds can overcome very deep hurts. How did Joseph come to forgive his brothers so completely? He tells us when he says, "Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you."

Joseph believed strongly that God was driving his destiny. At this point in the story, he also had the luxury of hindsight, recognizing that enduring each trial in his life honed him into the leader that he became. In the same way, Joseph's father, Jacob, had to run away from his home in order to "grow up." Only after his tribulations was he deserved of the name Israel. In much the same way in Vayigash, Joseph brings the Jewish people into Egypt, where they will withstand the sufferings of slavery, molding them into a nation fit to be called Israel.

Eventual positive outcome is not necessarily a good excuse for evil, however. Genesis Rabbah tells us that Joseph would not have revealed himself to his brothers if he had not seen growth and repentance in them. Then they could forgive each other and move ahead together.

This Shabbat, as we bless one another and the day, we might reflect upon how the members of our families forgive one another. Thoughts to discuss could be:

  1. What struggles has your family endured? How does your family handle struggle? (Remember that struggle can result from positive, intentional actions, such as a child growing up and going away to college.)
  2. Can you think of an unanticipated good outcome that came from a time of struggle?
  3. How do you forgive one another? Would a formal method be helpful or artificial?
  4. How is your family's struggle like that of Joseph and his brothers?

The Chafetz Chaim teaches that when Joseph declared himself to his brothers, the twenty-two previous years suddenly made sense. So, too, at the end of time, God will be revealed to us, and a veil will be lifted from our eyes, and we will comprehend all history. Until then, our families will continue to struggle as they grow.

For further reading: Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 1 (New York: UAHC Press, 1990).

Cheri Ellowitz Silver is the Religious School Principal at Temple Emanuel , Beverly Hills, California.

12/15/1996
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

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

When do we read Vayigash

2020, January 4
7 Tevet, 5780
2020, December 26
11 Tevet, 5781
2021, December 11
7 Tevet, 5782
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