Toward Shabbat – Vayigash: Coming Close, Shaming, Faith, Memory, Unity

In our portion Vayigash, we read that Joseph is unable to control his emotions following Judah’s moving appeal to him. The verse says: “Joseph could not restrain himself in the presence of his brothers who now stood before him, so he called out: ‘Remove everyone else (the Egyptians) out of the room.’ Thus no one remained with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers” (45:1). As for ordering the Egyptians out before revealing himself, Rashi explains that he did not want to SHAME his brothers and reveal what they had done to him in front of the Egyptians. The Midrash explains that he took great risk in doing this, that his brothers would fear that he intended to avenge the sale of him. His behavior up to this point seemed to point to this conclusion, accusing them of being spies, imprisoning Simon, planting the cup in Benjamin’s sack forcing them to return to Egypt. They were baffled; why does this Viceroy (Joseph) bear them ill will? Once he revealed himself they would now think it was because he wanted revenge, and they might have killed him in self-defense. Joseph realized this and that this might jeopardize his yearning for reunion with Jacob.

However, this was not as important as avoiding SHAMING them, the same brothers who had caused this terrible suffering of the past 22 years. He thought, better that I should die than my brothers be shamed before the Egyptians. This was proof of his exceptional character, and his powerful inner faith. Only one with extraordinary faith could have acted this way.

His words of reconciliation with his brothers are filled with this FAITH. For eg. he says “Don’t be distressed, Hashem sent me here as a source of sustenance to provide for you, to insure your survival in the land and to sustain you for a momentous deliverance.(45: 5-7). He continues “It was not you who sent me here, but G-d, and I am fully aware that my dream interpretations were divinely inspired. I harbor no hatred toward you, you were only acting as G-d’s instruments. Tell my father That Hashem made me master of all of Egypt, come down please, do not delay so that I will be able to provide for you when you will join me here.” (45:8-9).

Because of Joseph’s faith in G-d’s influence on his journey and his unique destiny, he is able to focus not on the wrongs that were inflicted upon him and see life through a glass darkly. But he rather sees life through the lens of faith. It is not unusual for each of us to see the dark side of life. It may be easy to notice people who are insensitive, greedy and self-centered; often viewing ourselves as victims and forgetting that we are also offenders. But Joseph can teach us that we can also see the nobility and generosity of the human spirit, the sacrifice and kindness that people manifest on a daily basis. The skeptic, the cynic notices only human faults and thus remains unhappy and cynical. The person of faith remembers the virtuous humans and experiences in his/her life. We become what we remember! Though Joseph’s wounds were deep, the strength of his faith was an antidote to depression and anger. Let us each notice what we tend to focus on, what we tend to remember. (Do we see life as a blessing, or as a dark journey?)This is what noble Joseph (Yosef Hatzadik) teaches us.

Joseph was waiting and anticipating a sign of his brothers’ regret about their past behavior. He did not blame them or take the opportunity for revenge. When Judah stood up to protect Benjamin, telling Joseph that if Benjamin did not return with them their father would die of grief(44:29), Joseph realized at that moment that the brothers were regretful of their past actions, UNITED and were ready to fight for their younger brother. They had come full circle as he had hoped and expected, and thus he was able to reveal himself to them.

One of the main messages of our Parsha is that we can only survive and thrive as Jews if we have the ability to reconcile and are united; if we approach and come close to each other
(‘Vayigash’-And Judah came close(45:1). Every Jew, every human being, must say to his brother and sister,( ‘Geshu Eilai’-Come near to me’(45:4). We are all interconnected. Because of Judah’s genuine concern for Benjamin, Joseph decided to reveal himself, and he said, “I am your brother”(45:3). I want to be part of our family, I want to live with loyalty, love and devotion. This strength to reconcile is our salvation, and our blessing. Without this capacity we will live in a world of acrimony, hatred and danger. With faith, appreciation of the divine in our life who Loves our love, we will create a better world. So let us check (identify and become conscious) of our memories and our wounds and learn to focus on our capacities and resilience to LIve (Chai) as Jacob and Joseph have done in their lives with all its challenges.

The word ‘CHAI,’ (to live), takes on a special meaning in our Parsha. When Joseph asks his brothers (45:3), “Is my father still alive (CHAI)?” Reb Shnair Zalman of Liadi says that Joseph was asking more than, ‘Was Jacob not dead’, but he was asking ‘was he still ALIVE!’ Was he living with vitality despite his loss and suffering? To be alive on the level of ‘Chai’ is the type of energy that is infused with the inner Light that shines due to connection with one’s soul and G-d’s Grace. It is the quality that allows us to live with joy and gratitude, even accepting suffering as G-d’ benign Providence that contains meaning and eventual blessing. It is the connection to the latent Light in the universe that fills us with faith and trust. In this way we are truly ALIVE to G-d.

May we all be blessed ‘to LIVE’ with faith, resilience, with a consciousness, with focus, on the LIGHT that surrounds us. Shabbat is a wonderful, special day to rest, to remove the repetitious, unconscious chatter of worry and toil, and get reconnected to Chai, to Life and Light!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mel