Parshat Vayigash

Torah Reading for Week of December 17-23, 2017

“Joseph’s Primal Scream”
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Spiritual Development

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

In Vayigash Judah confronts Egypt’s second in command, not knowing that he is his brother, Joseph, and later Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. This is one of the most emotionally wrenching moments in Torah. While Jacob’s earlier cries of “taref, taref” and “shecahti, shecahti,” when he is told that Joseph is probably dead, may be the most raw expressions of grief in the Torah, in Vayigash the human expressions necessary to transform grief are exceptionally demonstrated.

Here Judah challenges the capricious actions of Joseph, the seeming demi-god of Egypt, just as Job challenged God regarding the unjust punishments he endured, and as any of us might rage against the whims of the universe (a.k.a. God) when we are the recipients of its incomprehensible blows. In Vayigash, Joseph falls to the final rung of his descent, which took him down into the pit, slavery, prison, and finally here, as he wails in a voice heard throughout Egypt that shatters the walls of his emotional prison.


Judah’s confrontation and Joseph’s cry are perfect examples of the work that must be done when life presents us with great trauma. “Vayigash” can mean, “confront,”  “approach,” or “meet.” In Midrash Rabba Rabbi Yohannan, places “Vayigash” on a list of ten words that can be translated as “prayer,” depicting the urgency, dignity, and honesty with which Judah pleads his case and describes his family dynamics. Would that my prayers were as clear, assertive, and heart-felt as Judah’s words, when I direct them to HaMakom/The Place.


Joseph hears Judah’s pleas and his concern for their father’s well being. He perceives a change in his brother and can no longer maintain his distance from his brothers or from his past:

45:1- 2 and he cried out… His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, so the news reached pharaoh’s palace.”

In this crying out, Joseph hits bottom. This precipitates his transformation and dissolves the boundaries that froze him in the prison of memory, delivering him to that emotional wilderness, that liminal place of mystery where change can happen. In that place (HaMakom-the name for God in the Mourner’s Blessing), all of the spiritual and emotional adhesions that bound Joseph in the prison of his past dissolved. He could see something new. Joseph is no longer in the pit.  His primal scream exposes Leonard Cohen’s proverbial: “crack in everything [where] the light gets in.” He reveals himself to his brothers.

It will be the similar crying out of the people of Israel that will summon God’s compassion and lead them to the Exodus. It is our crying out from the depths that enables us to turn memory into blessing. In Joseph’s crying, he encounters his journey and reframes it:

45:5-8 it was not you who sent me here ahead of you, but God … [that I] be a provider.” Joseph is no longer in the pit.

One of the most familiar Hebrew word for God, “Adonai,” shares its root with a word that means “sill” or “threshold.” This suggests for me a theology of the wilderness, the uncharted territory of the great unknown, the mysterious corridor, which we enter when we surrender to the primal emotions and, like Joseph, allow ourselves to be transported through the mystifying passageway into something new.


Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW Professor of Ritual and Spiritual Development, Author of Mourning and Mitzvah. In the recently published third edition, she maps this wilderness of grief.