“I am Joseph your brother”
In this week’s parashah we reach the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Last week, at the end of Miketz, the brothers had been stopped and searched as they began their journey home to Canaan. Joseph’s personal goblet was found in Benjamin’s sack and the brothers were arrested: once again they stood before Joseph, who told them that as only Benjamin was guilty, he alone would remain as a slave in Egypt and they were free to resume their journey back to their father in Canaan.
At the beginning of this week’s sidra, Judah intervenes to plead for Benjamin’s release and offers to take his place in bondage. Judah starts by recounting the story so far, and what is particularly striking is his empathy for his father’s plight. Judah is clearly appealing for clemency and seeks to evoke compassion for his younger brother, but also has a sense that he is reliving the past and seeking to make a very particular form of reparation for that terrible day when the family had come close to murdering their brother and had then treated their father with such unfeeling disregard.
Judah recalled that Joseph had asked them about their father and about the brother who had remained at home: “And we said to my Lord: ‘We have a father, an old man and a (brother who is a) child of his old age, a little one: and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loves him …. Now, therefore when I come to your servant my father, and the boy will not be with us, and their souls are bound together as one, your servants will bring down the grey hair of our father in sorrow to his grave … How shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me and how will I look upon the evil which will come upon my father (44:30-34)?’”
This is a very different Judah from the young man who had advised his brothers to sell Joseph to a group of passing merchants rather than murdering him because he was their brother and there would be no profit in taking his life. The transformation was already evident in 42:21 when the brothers, now in Egypt, recalled sadly that they had “seen the distress of Joseph’s soul when he besought us, and we would not hear”, and it is visible again even in the gesture that opens our parashah.
The parashah begins with the phrase “Vayigash eylav Yehudah”, and Judah “drew near” to him (Joseph). The reader may recall the fateful encounter with Joseph twenty years earlier when the brothers had “seen him from afar” and plotted to kill him, and the Hasidic gloss that it was because they only “saw him from afar” that they were prepared to take his life.
Equally striking is Judah’s description of Jacob’s reply when the brothers had told their father that Benjamin too would have to go with them to Egypt. Judah reports his father’s words thus: “And your servant my father said unto us: ‘You know that wife bore me two sons: the one left me and …. If some harm befall this one also … I will go to my grave in despair. (44:28-30).’”
However, Jacob never said, “You know that my wife bore me two sons …” Even in 43:28, when Jacob had responded to Reuben that he would not let Benjamin go to Egypt because his brother had died, and he alone remained, he did not use the phrase “my wife bore me two sons”, and in 42:36 he had mentioned his concern for the captive Simeon, as well as for Joseph and Benjamin. Referring to Rachel alone as his wife would certainly have recalled the underlying familial tensions and resentments that had led to the brothers’ apparently callous disregard for their father’s feelings when they had informed him about Joseph’s death by showing him his son’s blood-stained coat and allowing him to draw his own conclusions.
However, Judah’s misreporting of his father’s words revealed that he had been able to move beyond earlier resentments and empathise with his father’s accepting that Jacob had truly loved Rachel and had been manipulated into a situation that was not of his choosing.
When Joseph heard Judah’s plea, he was unable to restrain himself. He asked all the courtiers to leave them and “none were with him when he made himself known to his brothers, and he raised his voice and he wept. 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 (45:1-4).’”
The Hebrew for “come near” is from the same root as Judah’s gesture of nearness at the beginning of the sidra and signifies the restoring of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.
The Joseph stories illustrate both the fragilities and the strengths of our relationships, and the need to be aware of the power of emotion in determining how we see others, especially, sometimes, those who are closest to us. At the beginning of the stories we encounter a family that is riven by insecurity and hurt. Joseph’s teenage behaviour, interpreted in that framework, is perceived as so threatening that the brothers come close to taking his life, and also treat their father with great cruelty. They see each other at a distance and identify Joseph in particular with dark and threatening images that completely obscure his humanity and complexity. They see their brother is in distress, but the images that have distorted their perceptions mean that they neither hear nor respond, and they become capable of doing terrible things.
However, what is truly remarkable about the story is the focus on reparation and the restoring of peace. The brothers realised the wrong that they had done to Joseph – and to their father – relatively early, and were haunted by it for decades. Joseph places them in similar situations again, allowing them to respond differently both to their father and to Benjamin, and come to terms with what they had done positively and creatively. They were freed from their burden of irreparable guilt for the past and recovered their capacity for goodness and self-sacrifice.
This approach to wrong-doing is very different from the ‘prison works’ solution beloved of some of our politicians, and it clearly has much to commend it.