Va-Yiggash – on pain, on performance, and on power

In last week’s parshah I spoke about the dangers of the pressure to forgive. This week we are reminded that when people show true remorse for their actions, and in particular when they have learned from past behaviour, forgiveness is better for all involved. Judah was one of the brothers instrumental in throwing Joseph into the pit. It is notable that at that time he felt one of his brothers to be expendable. Knowing the pain he caused his father (Rashi has a midrash about how Judah suffered pain when he told Jacob about Joseph’s “death” to reinforce this idea), he could not allow Benjamin – the other of Rachel’s sons – to be sacrificed for the good of the group. Thus Judah has learned about loyalty, compassion, and is willing to sacrifice himself for those he loves. He earns Joseph’s forgiveness. Two touching moments follow. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and Jacob is brought to Joseph. What do these scenes tell us? Joseph had been hiding his true self for a long time. Of course his brothers did not know who he was, but even prior to their arrival in Egypt, Joseph was essentially a stranger. He was not able to be fully himself in the palace, particularly when cut off from his own community. This is a reminder of the relief one can feel when we shed whatever mask it is we may wear.

Many of us perform different social roles – we can be one person at work, one at home with our own families, one with our birth families, one with friends, etc. Even though we are different things to different people, we can still strive to be genuinely who we are. Part of Humanistic Judaism’s value is acknowledging that there are many ways of being Jewish, and that one should not artificially pretend to be something one is not. Joseph models the freedom that comes with integrity. He is happiest when he can fully be who he is. The reunification between Joseph and Jacob is very sweet. Both have suffered in the absence of one another, and this scene gives a sense of closure to the hurt amongst members of Joseph’s family.

Unfortunately, there are less happy lessons in this week’s portion as well. The famine Joseph had dreamed of arrives and Egypt is suffering. Joseph is able to control the economic and social situation in Egypt given his prophetic abilities. His brothers are given land and title and food because of Joseph’s work. They even enslave Egyptians as part of their economic management strategy. We know that in the story of the Exodus it is the Israelites who are enslaved. We should be reminded that power can be a wonderful thing but can also sow the seeds of a misuse of that power. Joseph attained great success and did a lot of good. He mitigated the effects of famine and thus earned his powerful position. But no one likes to feel that someone has power over them, and this is the problem. The Israelites will find themselves on the other side of that power dynamic soon enough. We must remember that it is important to be empowered, to feel in control of oneself and one’s behaviour, and to enjoy a sense of self-worth that comes out of who we are and what we do. It is also important to remember that we can use our power to similarly empower others and we can use it to disempower others. When our power infringes on that of others, resentment and anger are soon to follow. Though it may seem trite, we all do better when we all do better. This is another lesson from this parshah.

One thought on “Va-Yiggash – on pain, on performance, and on power

  1. A very beautiful commentary on this parshah. For me the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” also has resonance here, both in the story of Joseph and his brothers, and in the ongoing story of the Israelites and their brothers the Egyptians. As an older brother, and as a recent discoverer of Humanistic Judaism, I’ve found this question to have taken on special resonance for me lately, as it seems to imply that we can’t always expect God to intervene; we have to be responsible for each other. The authors of the Hebrew Bible were at their best, in my opinion, when they touched on these kinds of timeless and universal themes.


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