Vayigash: You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. .

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Greeting from Yerushalayim! I’ve been here since Tuesday morning, but
unfortunately, my suitcase is still locked up in the security room at
Heathrow Airport- I’m not making this up! Apparently, security
officials decided there was something suspicious about it. However,
it was not so suspicious that its owner- me- was prevented from
boarding. Go figure!

Before we go onto Torah study, I will only say that every Jew should
come to Israel at Hanukkah at some point in their lives, if only to
hear the techno-disco version of “Maoz Tzur” that seems to be a
special seasonal cell-phone ring tone! That, and the pride and
pleasure of seeing Hanukkiot burning in coffee shops, bars and
falafel stands.

More on Israel later- let’s do some Torah learning. We’re in parshat
Vayigash, in which Yosef and his brothers are reconciled after many
years apart, years in which Yosef has become the Prime Minister of
Egypt and has nationalized the economy in order to prepare for the
years of famine which actually bring his brothers into the land.

Yosef responds to seeing his brothers- who do not recognize him, but
only see the Prime Minister in all his official power- by playing a
game of cat-and-mouse, making them go get Binyamin, the youngest, and
then setting up Binyamin to be accused of theft. Just before Binyamin
is taken away to be punished, Yehudah steps forward and offers an
impassioned plea to Yosef, begging for mercy and offering himself in
Binyamin’s place. At this, Yosef can no longer contain himself, and
he bursts forth with emotion:

“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he
called out, ‘Take everyone away from me!’ So no one stood with him
when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud,
so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. Genesis (45:1-
2)

Verse one is difficult to translate, but you might also render
it: “Yosef could not hold back with everybody standing there,” or
something like that. The main point is that Yosef, who has become
such a deliberate, thoughtful man that he can plan out the economic
activities of an entire country, and who can carefully test his
brothers over and over without revealing his identity, can hold back
no longer- his emotions overcome him. (As an aside, Rashi explains
that Yosef wanted his Egyptian attendants out of the room when he
revealed himself so that his brothers would not be embarrassed when
the fact of their having sold him was discussed.)

To me, the power of this moment, when Yosef simply must reveal
himself, is the image of a person bursting forth with love and
forgiveness, even for people who threw him in a pit and sold him as a
slave. Perhaps Yosef understood, on a deep level, that when his
brothers threw him in the pit, they too were acting out of powerful
emotions- but in their case, it was probably resentment at the
special treatment he received from their father, and their desire to
earn an equal measure of Ya’akov’s love and attention. That was the
kind of “bursting forth” that happens in every human life- when fear,
pain, passion, loneliness, and other powerful feelings cause a person
to do things which are later regretted. As I heard a gang worker once
say, nobody should be defined by the dumbest thing they ever did!

Yosef clearly wants to test his brothers, and we might even say he
seems to be taking some kind of revenge when he sets them up for
false accusations. But to his credit, the grudge couldn’t hold- from
within him bursts forth a powerful need to have brothers again, and
this overcomes his rectitude and self-restraint. This, too, is a
common human experience- when we want to hold a grudge, but just
can’t stop ourselves from forgiving and reaching out to those who may
have wronged us.

Taken to an extreme, the inner need to forgive can, of course, be
unhealthy, but in this case, and many others, it’s only to Yosef’s
credit that he knows when to hold back, and when to allow himself to
reach out. We might even say that it’s proof of Yosef’s own
transformation over the years that he can no longer “hold back” when
his words bring people together, as opposed to his younger days, when
his arrogant attitude caused such bitterness in his family. Neither
self-restraint nor complete emotional spontaneity are ideal for
nurturing relationships; as in the case of Yosef and his brothers,
it’s knowing when to hold back and when to reach out that makes love
possible. The fact that human beings sometimes act out of fear or
pain is a problem in every life; the fact that we are capable of
letting grace and love overcome us for the good is evidence of the
holy potential within every soul.

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