Reconciliation is the Goalpost (Parashat Vayigash)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the parallels I saw between Joseph’s story and contemporary activist narratives around identity-centered persecution. In this week’s Torah portion, we witness another divergence between Joseph’s story and that of contemporary activists.

We see reconciliation win out over resentment.

Joseph has all of the power in our story. He is second-in-command over all of Egypt and literally holds the power of life and death over not only the common man of Egypt but over those in Canaan seeking relief from the famine as well. By his deception over his brothers in the last part of our story, he could enslave them all, have his brother executed, or let them all starve in punishment for his childhood.

But Joseph relents.

We may argue that he is tempted with power. His deception of his brothers in the previous parsha demonstrates this. But by Vayigash, Joseph turns back from this path. Instead of continuing to exercise dominance and vengeance over his brothers, the Torah tells us he weeps and draws his brothers close to him.

The only mention of their past wrongs by Joseph is when he tells them “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that [HaShem] sent me ahead of you,” (Genesis 45:5 NIV).

To be completely clear here, recall that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in a foreign country where he was later imprisoned on false charges and forgotten. I imagine that for most Torah readers, the terror of that story is something completely unfamiliar to us. More to the point, I imagine that most of us either right now or at some point in our lives have held grudges over much less for much longer.

We can, as many contemporary scholars are doing, go back and pick apart and theorize over Joseph’s gender identity to find some social dynamic echoed from there to the modern world. But as I mentioned a few weeks ago, that’s not the point of this story. The Torah isn’t giving us a gender vs gender narrative about power.

Instead, we are being taught about reconciliation. We are being shown again the power and necessity of family over even the worst of disputes. Just as Israel loves his possibly gender variant son, Joseph shines love back on his brothers. The solidarity of the family is the value.

Everything else is, as Joseph reminds us, part of G-d’s plan.

Today we conceptualize ourselves differently. We see ourselves in terms of atomized and re-organized identities–race vs race, gender vs gender, religion vs religion, left vs right, etc. These lines split apart our families and re-create society as brother vs brother, son vs father, and so on.

Joseph shows us a different way. I’m hesitant to use the word forgiveness here because of how it can be manipulated. But Joseph is showing us reconciliation. He and his brothers are together showing us a family whose unity cannot even be destroyed by such horrific wrongs as those endured by Joseph in his childhood.

In the face of nation-decaying famines and empires pulling apart at the seams, who will we cling to? Do we remain atomized and loyal only to our bitterness, or do we draw our families near? These are the questions Joseph challenges us with even still today.

The Scripture quoted in this passage is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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