In this week’s parasha, we come to the powerful denouement of the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, one of bitterness and betrayal in its opening that slowly moves to an extraordinary moment of reconciliation. As we come toward the end of the book of Genesis, we finally arrive at the moment that is the answer to the rhetorical question asked in the beginning of the Torah by Cain after he has murdered Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Enmity between siblings is a consistent theme throughout the book of Genesis.
Joseph’s brothers are bitter in their jealousy of Joseph as their father’s favourite. In this final story about siblings in this first book of the Torah, Judah convinces his brothers not to murder him, but sell him as a slave. This does not improve their standing with their father Jacob. Rather than make their father share his affection more equally, this act not only causes many more years of unending grief for them all and just leads Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother from their beloved mother Rachel, to become Jacob’s new favourite.
20 years after Joseph’s sale, Benjamin now languishes in an Egyptian jail. An incredible dialogue between Judah and Joseph opens the parasha, in which Judah insists to the second most powerful man in Egypt (not recognising him as Joseph after so many years) that he must take Benjamin’s place in jail – he truly is his brother’s keeper. Judah accepts his past guilt and takes on his true role as family moderator and protector. At the same time, Joseph, who could have understandably sought revenge against his brothers, realises that he too prefers to reconcile with them and support them.
In one of the great scenes in ancient literature, the brothers reconcile – the opposite of Shakespearean tragedy, where the characters’ refusal to go beyond their positions often results in loss and death. The acts of mutual contrition between Judah and Joseph result in reconciliation and the provision of real help to the family and to the tribes of Israel. In fact, rather than dwelling on the crime, Joseph says that his brothers “sent” him – thereby starting the chain of events that placed him in a position where he could benefit thousands of people, including his own family.
Through these brave admissions, both men show themselves to be the masters of their own fate and demonstrate their understanding that hatred damages the hater in addition to the one they hate. It is in the hands of each person to determine whether or not to become a force for good or evil.
Parshat Va-Yigash reminds us that we all do things that are selfish, wrong and that we would rather forget. The crucial test is whether you have the ability to admit the wrongdoing. If you cannot, you perpetuate and compound the problem. If you can acknowledge your wrongs and make amends, you can turn adversity into an opportunity to benefit those you have harmed as well as many others along the way. The story of Judah and Joseph teaches us that we are not just our brother’s keeper in terms of “within the family” but in reality, for the larger family we call humanity. Thus the Torah moves forward with the crucial mitzvah, “to love your neighbour as yourself.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins