Parashat Vayigash Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18-47:27
The biblical book of Breishit/Genesis is full of dysfunctional families. Mothers and children are banished to the wilderness, sons are bound on altars and then never speak to their fathers again, brothers begin their rivalry in utero, mothers and sons conspire to deceive fathers. It's official: Breishit is a soap opera that's running longer than "The Days of Our Lives!"
As is often the case in the real world, in fiction and in divine revelation, this family does not contain one villain and one innocent. Rather, the dysfunctionality of the family comes from the fateful chemistry between several flawed individuals. Part of the saga of the Breishit families are moments of transcendence in which they mature, achieve resolution and show us how we might heal the great and small ruptures in our own lives.
This week's Torah reading / parashah contains just such a moment, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brother, after manipulating them with a terrifyiing game of cat and mouse. This is a moment that has been building up from the time of the brothers' childhoods when the older brothers resented their younger brother for the special treatment he received at the hands of their Jacob (the coat of many colors), and for Joseph's seemingly narcissistic dreams.
Joseph suffers an indescribable trauma when his brothers, the family which is supposed to make us feel safe, throw him into a pit and leave him for dead. Now they stand before him, supplicants asking for food. He is the second most powerful man in Egypt and his brothers have no idea that the man who holds the key to their survival is that same obnoxious little brother they abandoned decades ago.
One of the fascinating, and deeply true, aspects of this story is that after all those years, after garnering all that power, Joseph still felt so vulnerable at the sight of his brothers that he had to hide his identity from them, threaten them with his power, surround himself with the accouterments of his office. It couldn't matter less what our external attainments are. The dynamics of our family histories affect us in the core of our being, in a place that outward attainments cannot touch. It is only be repairing the rifts between us, by reaching out to each other, that we can heal.
Let's remember that this story is not a modern self-help book, it's a profound gift of the divine revelation of our Torah. the fact of the presence of these passages in the Torah is an indication that God understands how families heal. The fact of the presence of these passages in the Torah is an indication of God's love for us and an indication of how God can inspire us in our daily lives.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.