Friday, December 22, 2017

Parashat Vayigash: The Struggle with Embarrassment

                Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, we see Joseph finally revealing himself to his brothers and the ensuing bittersweet reunion. After hearing a heartfelt speech by Judah, Joseph sends away the guards in the room, bursts into tears and tells his brothers who he really is and what has been going on with all the interrogations and false accusations.
            One of our ancient rabbis of the Midrash, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman comments on Joseph’s choice to be alone with his brothers for this grand reveal, “Joseph put himself in grave danger, because if his brothers had killed him [as they had planned to do once before], no one would have known whom to blame. So why did he say, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me?’ This is what Joseph thought: ‘Better that I be killed than I humiliate my brothers in front of the Egyptians’.” A variety of Jewish texts draw from this that sparing others humiliation is as important as saving lives.
            I felt a struggle with this reading as I first read Rabbi Samuel’s comment, though. It seems clear in the text that the Egyptians know that Joseph is a “Hebrew”. In the previous parasha, there is a strange explanation of Joseph eating alone when he feeds his brothers, because it was the custom of the time that Hebrews and Egyptians could not share a meal. Joseph would not sit down with his brothers to eat because then they would know he was not Egyptian, but he was not allowed to eat with his guards because they did know he was not Egyptian. Given that the Israelite clan at this point is relatively small, wouldn’t the Egyptian guards be able to put two and two together and recognize that Joseph was related to these Hebrew sojourners seeking food? By subjecting them to his tests and trickery, hasn’t he already humiliated his brothers in front of the guards?
            Generally speaking, I feel great sympathy for Joseph’s actions. His brothers have been truly terrible to him, even Judah who is sometimes crediting as “saving” Joseph for suggesting they sell him into slavery instead of leaving him to starve to death in that pit. I think it’s pretty reasonable that he is tormented by conflicting emotions when he encounters them again, and that lashing out and subjecting them to some embarrassing experiences is not the worst reaction he could have had.
After thinking through my gut reaction to the story in light of Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman’s commentary, I came to this conclusion: we all go into our fight-or-flight-animal-instinct mode sometimes and say or do things we might quickly regret. In that moment of facing our own complex and highly charged emotions, do we double down and lash out harder, or do we try to minimize the hurt we are causing and attempt some reconciliation? Sometimes it may be too difficult to do the latter, especially if there is a true concern for safety involved. But if the conflict is with someone we love, someone we feel truly tied to, perhaps it is better to try to be like our brother Joseph and take a step back. Try to minimize the humiliation we cause, even if we are reacting from a place of our own hurt. May we all find reconciliation and comfort this Shabbat and onward. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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