Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion of Parashat Vayigash continues the Joseph narrative. At this point in the story, Joseph’s brothers have come to Joseph looking for food but they don’t recognize him. Joseph decided to play tricks on the brothers to test out if they have learned any lessons or grown as people since selling him to slavery. Last week’s parasha ends with Joseph declaring he will keep the youngest Benjamin (the second son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel) as a slave in retribution for Benjamin stealing a goblet (which Joseph planted in his sack). He tells the other brothers they may return to their father in peace. This week’s parasha opens with the brothers refusing to leave Benjamin behind. Judah in particular pledges himself in return for Benjamin. Joseph learns from this that the brothers have indeed learned their lesson and reveals himself to them. They all embrace and Joseph cries and they feast. Pharaoh allows Joseph to send wagons to fetch Jacob and the rest of the camp and family of Israel.
I am often fascinated by the family dynamics in Joseph’s story. In these parashiyot Joseph and his brothers go through many changes in their relationship, both external and internal changes. However, this time around, I was struck by a different aspect of the story. In teaching this narrative to the second graders at Gesher Jewish Day School, we watched some of the recording of the play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Today, as the scene showed Joseph’s elevation from imprisoned slave to Pharaoh’s number two, a student who has the entire score memorized, turned to me with her eyes glistening and said, “He went from the lowest person in the country to one of the most important!” It was clear she took great inspiration from this, and I took inspiration from her on that.
In this week’s parasha we see the extent to which he is elevated. Not only does Pharaoh trust him to oversee the food storage, and all of Egypt defers to him for this reason, but even his own brothers do not recognize him in his finery. Judah consistently calls his brother “My Lord”, and even when he does reveal himself they are afraid of him. But Joseph does not allow this to go to his head, and he welcomes his brothers back into his life with open arms. His position in Pharaoh’s court allows for them to take over all of the land of Goshen and they live quite comfortably for the rest of their days due to Joseph’s kindness. I hope the student that gleans inspiration from Joseph’s social climbing also gleans compassion and forgiveness from Joseph’s embracing of his brothers.
It’s fairly easy to let any amount of power go to your head, and even easier to hold a grudge against someone who has truly wronged you. I would say it would be completely reasonable of Joseph to not forgive his brothers. “After all,” as he sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, “they have tried fratricide.” In reality, it’s probably safer not to take people back into your life that have threatened so directly and physically. But if Joseph could do so and it all worked out for him and his brothers, all the more so can we learn to forgive people the normal every day offenses they commit against us. All the more so should we remember to treat all people fairly regardless of our positions of power over them. May we all find hope in Joseph’s story and shun despair in dire situations. At any moment, we may break free of our shackles and find ourselves in a situation to put ourselves forward. If such a moment comes, may we find in our hearts the compassion and forgiveness Joseph shows toward his brothers. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.