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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Va–yiggash
Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
December 30, 2006     9 Tevet 5767

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

Parashat Va–yiggash leads us to the dramatic conclusion of the Joseph narrative, as the protagonist reveals his identity to his estranged brothers. Out of a profound and real fear of losing another brother, Judah makes a stirring appeal to Joseph. As Joseph imbibes the emotional outpouring from Judah, he cannot restrain himself from a similar outpouring. The Rabbis teach that "words that come from the heart, go to the heart." And while words are seemingly enough to heal the wounds of many years, Judah's strategy is multidimensional. What strategies does Judah employ to achieve the reconciliation that ensues?

First, Judah's physical movement toward Joseph (va–yiggash alav, "he (Judah) came close to him (Joseph)") paves the way to Joseph's revelation. Judah literally and figuratively takes the first step. He enters the presence of his brother — albeit unknowingly. Second, Judah appeals not only to Joseph's physical closeness and emotional self but also his intellect. In his commentary on Genesis chapter 44 verse 18, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains Judah's opening words, "My lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord's ears and let your anger not be inflamed against your servant"; "in my lord's ear" is a nice expression if one wants to give someone something to consider very deeply. "I will not appeal only to your feelings, but will direct myself to your mind and intelligence." According to Hirsch, Judah sought to make a rational, intellectual plea on behalf of Benjamin.

Finally, Judah appeals to the emotional side of Joseph. His words conclude, "Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy (Benjamin) go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" (Genesis 44:33–34). In these few lines, Judah demonstrates how far he has come since the abandonment of Joseph. Far from being a self–centered, callous, and deceitful individual, Judah has proven himself to be a leader. He has come to feel the deep personal pain of losing a brother; he empathizes with the seemingly irreparable wound inflicted on his father, Jacob; and he demonstrates a sense of remorse for the brothers' crime against Joseph. (See Genesis chapter 44 verse 16, where Judah acknowledges "God has uncovered the crime of your servants.") As such, he refuses to lose another brother. And more than that, he is willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of saving Benjamin.

Reconciliation between and among family members is a daunting endeavor. And more often than not, taking the first step is the most difficult act of repairing the breach. Parashat Va–yiggash is brilliant in giving us the steps toward healing — taking the first physical step toward an estranged relative, speaking rationally, in a self–differentiated fashion, so as to appeal to the mind and intellect of one's antagonist, and finally, appealing to the seat of emotion, the interlocutor's heart.

May the end of this secular year bring closure and reconciliation to those of us who are in need of repairing a breach.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz


The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.