Parashat Vayigash – Erev Shabbat 3 January 2020
Week of 29 December 2019 – 4 January 2020
Torah portion: Genesis 44:18-47:27   Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
Theme: Speaking the Truth to Power

Communication is full of difficulty in the story of Joseph and his brothers. We are told that Jacob’s preference for Joseph made his brothers hate him to the point that “they could not speak a friendly word to him.“ (37:4) In Vayigash we see how “his brothers [become] able to talk with him.”(45:15)

The ending of last week’s Parashat Miketz interrupted a dialogue between Judah and Joseph. Joseph has accused the innocent Benjamin of stealing his silver cup. (He has learned the hard way from Potiphar’s wife that the lies of the powerful will be accepted as truth.) Having begun with “What can we say?” Judah “launches into one of the the longest speeches in the Torah.” (Zornberg, 316) Judah, of course, does not know that he is speaking to his brother. He thinks he is speaking to a powerful Egyptian official who rejoices in the name of Zaphnath-Paaneah. Judah and his brothers have therefore adopted the posture appropriate for addressing such a man, who can, by a snap of his fingers, consign them to an unpleasant fate – they have prostrated themselves. Judah does not get very far before Joseph proposes that Benjamin, as punishment for stealing the cup, should stay in Egypt as his slave, while the other brothers can return home. To Judah, this simply cannot happen. In his determination to save his father Jacob from the anguish of losing another beloved son, he “drew near” (vayigash). He has shuffled closer on his knees and continues to speak from this posture of abasement to the man he has called “the equal of Pharaoh.” (44:10)

Judah has no reason to think this haughty Egyptian will care whether or not Jacob is alive or dead, happy or sad. He does not know what we know, which is that Joseph’s feelings for his brothers have already moved him to tears not once but twice. (42:24, 43:30) He does not know because Joseph withdrew to cry in private, even washing his face clean of tears before reappearing in public. It is all part of maintaining what Zornberg (333) calls his “masquerade”. But Judah’s speech does not come from reason. It springs from his own sense of how wretched his father will be if his sons return and Benjamin is not among them. The phrase “speaking truth to power” is usually used in a political sense. But the truth that Judah speaks — and speaks from – is emotional truth. To quote Zornberg (331): “Judah speaks the simple language of personal feeling … it is impossible for [him] to see his father seeing ‘that the boy is not’.” (44:30) The effect on Joseph of this “simple language of personal feeling” is profound, for “[Judah] moves Joseph to remove his mask” (Zornberg, 332) and reveal his true self to his brothers. (45:3-4) Joseph’s deepest response to Judah’s words comes not in words but in tears. Firstly, with “sobs … so loud that the Egyptians could hear” (45:2) and secondly, with tears and hugs and kisses for Benjamin and all his brothers. (45:14-15) “Only then,” we are told, “were his brothers able to talk with him.”

For Reflection and Discussion: It took courage, inspired by love, for Judah to draw near and speak. Reflect on similar situations in your own life and/or examples of brave men and women in the past or present who have spoken the truth to power.

Bibliography: Zornberg, A. G. The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (New York: 1995)

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