Elevated responses to conflict: a parable on healing
by Jhos Singer
This week’s parasha, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27), brings the Joseph story to an emotional climax. To recap: Joseph, the beloved older son of the ill-fated Rachel, was despised by his jealous half-brothers— so much, in fact, that they beat him up, threw him in a pit, and then sold him into slavery. He ended up making good anyway, and when we find him this week, it is 20 years after his unceremonious ousting. Joseph is the viceroy in Egypt—a very, very powerful man.
There is a famine in the land. Due to Joseph’s prophetic insight, only Egypt has food in its granary. People in the region are clamoring for food, including Joseph’s now older and wiser brothers. They make their way to Egypt to plead their case, ending up in front of Joseph himself, whom they don’t recognize. But Joseph recognizes them. He puts them through a few paces to determine if they have become more trustworthy. In a Spielbergian twist, his brother Judah (who was the kingpin in selling Joseph into slavery), pleads with Joseph to spare their father who is anxious about the safety of his youngest son, Benjamin. Judah offers himself as collateral so that Benjamin can return to their father. He says:
“…and now, please let me, your servant, be held in bondage for you, in place of the lad, my lord, and let the lad go back with his other brothers. Because how will I be able to go back to my father if the lad is not with me, without looking at the evil that would consume my father?”
This breaks Joseph. He clears the room of all except his brothers, and then weeps saying:
“I am Joseph; is my father still alive? And his brothers could not answer, they were dumbfounded and afraid. And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, I pray you.’ And they came near. And he said, ‘I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves, that you sold me… for it was God that sent me ahead of you to give you a haven, and to preserve your life for a great deliverance.’” Genesis 45:3
Being a pattern seeker, I notice that we are nearly at the end of Genesis and this is the fourth time we have encountered a fractured fraternal relationship. First we had Cain and Abel and jealousy driven fratricide. Then, Ishmael and Isaac—Ishmael is banished from the family when he is perceived as a threat to Isaac. Exile is an improvement over murder, but still problematic. Next we have the twins, Jacob and Esau. Another split, this time more by choice, though. After being repeatedly dissed by Jacob, Esau forges off solo and successfully establishes his own estate. After 20 years of estrangement (and with a little help from an angel or two) Jacob initiates a tikkun/reconciliation, which goes pretty well, but not great. And finally, we get Joseph and Judah, who manifest a total transformation, fully restoring their relationship and healing their whole family.
These stories evolve from base and brutal impulses to refined and elevated responses to conflict. Joseph and Judah represent these poles, and bring them together with humility, compassion, and grace. Their story is a parable on healing. Though they both experience deep pain, they learn to transcend it for the greater good. When we meet them, they are unformed, selfish young men. We journey with them as they mature; stunningly they arrive at the conclusion that they are just cogs in the wheels of the universe. And it is magnificent.
Often, western culture encourages us to associate justice with revenge, but this Torah refutes that. This teaching illuminates the power of forgiveness, the brilliance we mine from our pain, and the heights we hit when we transcend victimization.
May our ancestors bless us with the courage to forgive, the wisdom to heal, and the courage to grow.