Sometimes the Torah packs meaning into one word.
Vayigash alav Yehuda—and Judah drew near to Joseph…” (Genesis 44)
Judah still does not know that the Egyptian ruler who has been supplying him with rations during the famine and who now threatens the youngest of his father Jacob’s children, Benjamin, with enslavement is his brother Joseph whom he sold into slavery. Fearful for Benjamin’s life and his father’s welfare, Judah now draws close to Joseph to plead for Benjamin.
He offers himself in Benjamin’s place. He concludes his plea with the words, “Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” Judah is a changed man. He will no longer sell another brother into slavery. Joseph cannot control his emotions and says, “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He then embraces Benjamin, and kisses Judah and the rest of his brothers.
This remarkable tale of reconciliation begins when Judah draws near to Joseph and demonstrates his repentance. It culminates with Joseph’s statement of forgiveness. Joseph says in effect, “You intended to do wrong, but now we can see that throwing me in a pit while you sat down to a meal, selling me to the Ishmaelites who then traded me to the Egyptians, and then telling our father that wild beasts killed me, turned to good. Our family would have starved if you had not done that wrong, if you were then not so motivated by jealousy.
I would have understood if Joseph kept his brothers in jail for a long time and said, “Look at me. You tried to get rid of me and instead I have become second only to Pharaoh.” I would have even understood if Joseph said, “I don’t want anything to do with you. You may be my brothers but you are bunch of good for nothings.” But that is not Joseph.
He is heroic in his forgiveness. And Judah is heroic in his repentance.
Elsewhere in the Bible the word “vayigash” is used to describe making war.
Vayigash Yoav v’ha’am—and Joab and the troops with him drew near to make war against the Arameans… (II Samuel 10)
I have come to believe that this instance more aptly describes our everyday interactions. We follow not the examples of Joseph and Judah, but instead Joab.
Every discussion quickly turns angry. Every argument appears like war.
Our political leaders scream at each other rather than reaching for compromise. Our Facebook feeds are filled with outrage. “How dare they! Look at those idiots!” we read over and over again. Exclamation points abound. Emails and text messages quickly become heated. Anger and vitriol color our computer screens. We retreat to our iPhones.
We withdraw to the certainties of our shared indignation. Our feeds confirm our outrage. They vindicate our anger.
It all could change if we but turned to this week’s opening word. Vayigash. So much can be lost in drawing near to make war. So much continues to unravel as we draw near in battle and self-righteous indignation.
So much more can be cured by drawing near in reconciliation.
We again require such heroics.