Archive for Vayigash

Vayigash: The Breakthrough of Conscience

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.(Bereshit/ Genesis 45:1)
Good morning! 
Two weeks ago I used the image of Yosef being thrown into the pit by his brothers to reflect on the recently released Senate report on American interrogation techniques used by the CIA. Some call these “enhanced interrogation techniques,” some call it “torture,” some defend the CIA as doing what it had to do to protect the country, and others, including the Senators who released the report, believe that harsh interrogation never worked. A quick Google search will reveal different arguments around the report, but for today’s purposes I want to reflect on the fact that the controversy seems to have gone away in a matter of weeks. I got some pushback from couple of friends and colleagues for writing that Torah commentary, but mostly, like the furor in the media for a few days after the report was released, the Internet has moved on to other things. 

Yet I can’t help but feel that this is no ordinary partisan political narishkeit. We learned that American interrogators broke people physically and mentally, froze them to death, shackled them on shattered limbs and drove them near mad from sleep deprivation and near-drowning- people who in many cases were not “terrorists,” but suspects, proven guilty of no wrong, and in at least 26 cases, guilty of nothing other than being misidentified. Yes, sometimes innocents suffer during war, but I was always taught to believe that America didn’t make it a policy to break the bones of prisoners and captives. 
Back to this week’s Torah portion. After being sold into slavery, Yosef rises up in Pharaoh’s court and becomes the Viceroy, with the power of life and death in his hands. His brothers come to seek food, but do not recognize him, and after an extended period of testing their priorities and loyalties, Yosef finally reveals himself after Yehudah’s heartfelt plea to spare the life of Binyamin, the youngest brother. Countless commentaries have been written on the emotional dynamics between Yosef and his brothers, but for today I’d like to imagine that Yosef breaks out in in tears because his conscience finally overwhelms his desire for vengeance. He could have had his brothers imprisoned or killed, and he seemed to enjoy testing them, playing a game of cat-and-mouse, trying to see if they would turn on the favored younger son Binyamin the way they turned on him. 
Yet at some point Yosef decides it’s enough, it’s not worth it, or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to become what his brothers were when they treated him so cruelly. He has them in his power, but can no longer tolerate what he is becoming by the abuse of his power. 
What is so shocking to me about Senate report is that we’ve all just moved on- there is little outcry anymore, as far as I can tell. Maybe our world is such a cruel place that 26 innocent prisoners just can’t shock the conscience, or maybe the pundits and partisans have succeeded in covering up all the real issues in smoke and confusion, but three weeks later, I’m still hoping that somebody with great moral standing will be like Yosef, pricked into conscience, able to stand up and say, “no more games, this is not who we are, we shall not sink to the level of our enemies.” I’m still hoping that someone will say: the very test of our society is to use the power of life and death wisely; there can hardly be a more important concern.
The story of Yosef is the story of a man who had every opportunity to take cruel revenge but caught himself, so that he didn’t become that which he hated. That is his greatness, and his example. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vayigash: Do Not Quarrel Along The Way

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash 

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.” (Bereshit/Genesis 45:24)

It’s been a tough week in the Northeast. (I assume throughout the country as well.) The local paper has had front-page coverage related to last week’s Newtown murders, as one of the victims had family here in Dutchess County, and of course the broadcast, print and internet media have covered every aspect of the tragedy.

It seems that every pundit, columnist, politician, member of the clergy, organizational spokesperson or other commentator has definite ideas about what should be done next, and of course I agree that we must discuss our nation’s policies, laws, and practices in order to reduce violence at all levels. Yet to me, much of the infinite commentary has a tone of too much certainty to it; the problem is exceedingly complex, and no one simple solution will address all aspects of violence in America. Not only that, but I suspect many of the pronouncements about What We Must Do avoid introspection about how each of us participates in a culture that often valorizes violence and offers inadequate help to many of our citizens.

The tendency to blame others is hardly new. In this week’s Torah portion, after Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he sends them back to their father Yaakov with the astounding news that Yosef is alive and second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. As the brothers set off for the land of Israel, Yosef warns them “not to be quarrelsome along the way.” (See the full verse up above.)

Our friend Rashi offers no less than three explanations of Yosef’s warning, but in the end seems to endorse a straightforward but psychologically acute interpretation: the brothers were ashamed of what they had done to Yosef many years earlier, and out of that shame would tend to blame each other for causing the hatred and division in the family. According to Rashi, each brother was likely to say: “because of you he was sold- you spoke evil of him and caused us to hate him.”

The truth, of course, is that all of the brothers were responsible for what happened to Yosef. Perhaps Yehudah deserves a bit more condemnation than the others for coming up with the plan to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites, and perhaps Reuven deserves a bit of praise for attempting to slow down the scheme so he can rescue Yosef later, but still- not one of them said, “this is wrong.” Not one of them said, “I will stop you from doing this.” Not one of them said, “think of the pain this will cause our father.” Those who acted, and those who failed to speak out, are both (perhaps not equally) responsible for the outcome.

Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the ancient prophets spoke to the moral state of the nation, with the belief that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” That, to me, encompasses the spirit in which we should reflect upon the Newtown murders- not seeking to find a scapegoat but looking within, as the prophets asked Israel to do, to find our own complicity, or at least passivity when social forces move towards the detriment of all.

Please note- I’m all in favor of more gun control, and I’m proud that the Jewish community, with the Conservative movement a key coalition partner, has endorse petitions like this, which I encourage you to sign. Yet perhaps the ancient prophets might also challenge us to look within and ask ourselves a different set of questions:

– do I support with my dollars entertainment which glorifies brutality and violence?

– have I supported politicians and leaders who have made reducing violence a priority?

– am I willing to share in the financial burden of offering greater support services to those with mental illness?

– do I turn away from the violence in my own city or towns because it’s limited to certain neighborhoods or communities?

– am I willing to live in a society where the media is encouraged not to focus on killers and murderers, thus denying them the fame and putative “glory” that some of them seek?

– have I listened to people who may come to different conclusions about the proper balance of freedom and security in our society? do I understand why others hold radically different views?

– do I stand against violence in other countries in which my own society plays a part?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and reasonable people may think that one or more of these questions has no bearing on the current debate. These questions are not my point. Rather, like Yosef encouraging his brothers not to blame each other out of their shame and pain, I think part of a spiritually mature response to a terrible act is for each of us to look within, seeking to take personal responsibility for our society before casting all the blame in one direction or another. That is harder, and less satisfying than identifying villains, but it is the surer way forward, and I believe indispensable to our healing. Let us keep in our hearts and prayers the victims not only Newtown, but across our land and across the world, and each of us seek to do our part in changing what we can.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Vayigash: Compassion and Exile

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. . . .  (Bereshit 47:21)

Good morning!

This week is undoubtedly one of the emotional high points of the Torah: after Yehudah’s impassioned plea on Binyamin’s behalf, Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, and they have a tearful reunion. Yosef sends them to get their father and settles the family inGoshen, a pastoral region ofEgypt, but the story then takes a darker turn. The years of famine that Pharaoh dreamed are not yet over, and the citizens of Egypt become more and more desperate, selling their possessions, animals, land and eventually even their own labor to Pharaoh in exchange for food.

Yosef is the one in charge of this nationalization of the economy, and after he takes the land in Pharaoh’s name, he allows the population to become sharecroppers, paying a portion of the crop to Pharaoh as rent. Yet in what seems like a cruel and dictatorial twist, Yosef moves the people around, from one town to another, not allowing them to remain on the land they sold to the king.

Commentators wonder at Yosef’s motives, but the simple answer is perhaps the least palatable: Yosef moved the population around so that people would know that they had lost the right of ownership of the land upon which they lived. In this, some commentators, compare him to the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who exiled Jews from towns in Judah when he conquered parts of the land of Israel. (Cf. 2 Kings 32 and see more on this here. )

Yet our friend Rashi, among others, offers an additional explanation: Yosef moved the people ofEgypt around so that none would call his brothers “exiles”[in derision]. If the entire population were exiles from their hometowns, then surely they could not disparage Yaakov and his sons as exiles fromCanaan.

Now, this is morally impossible logic on one hand- it makes no sense to cause great upheaval and pain in order to teach compassion- but it contains a kernel of wisdom on the other. First, this reading portrays Yosef as wanting to preserve his brother’s honor, even after their terrible betrayal of him as a youth, and thus serves as an image of overflowing forgiveness and spiritual maturity. More important, I think, is what it suggests about the redemption of suffering: suffering (in this case, the pain of losing one’s home and land) is an inevitable part of the human condition, but it can, with openness and grace, teach us compassion for others.

Note, please, that the rabbis who offer this interpretation neatly turn around the idea, stated so often in the Torah, that we must treat the stranger with kindness, because we were strangers inEgypt. In this reading of our verse, it is the Egyptians who might learn to treat the Israelites with greater kindness based on their experience of dislocation. Tragically, it doesn’t last, and as the contemporary Conservative commentary Etz Hayim points out, eventually the Egyptians turn on the Israelites, perhaps out of anger at what Yosef has done to them.

Nevertheless, in this moment in the Torah reading, it’s striking to consider the image of Yosef taking Egyptians off their land so that they would not insult his brothers; it is an image both cruel and fascinating, provoking me to ask about ways that I have served one person at the cost of another. In this reading, Yosef knows that the famine calls for desperate measures, and perhaps hopes that at least a little good can come from such a terrible situation. Suffering is redeemed when we learn what we can from it; it doesn’t make the pain less, but can make us more human in the pain.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayigash: Forgiveness Grows

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Brrrr. . . .it’s cold in the Hudson Valley, so reading about Yosef and his brothers in the land of Egypt is about the only sunshine and warmth we’re likely to get this week!

Vayigash literally means “he drew close,” and this is the theme of the portion on many levels: Yehudah may have drawn physically close to Yosef when he pleads on behalf of Binyamin, but Yosef, in turn, reveals himself to his brothers and draws them close to him emotionally. After the revelation of Yosef’s true identity (check out Rashi for a risque midrash about how Yosef proved he was a Hebrew), Yosef tells the brothers not to worry about that whole “throwing him in the pit” episode from years back, for it was God’s way of sending him to Egypt to be able to care for the whole family. Then, Yosef sends the brothers back to the land of Israel to get their father and bring the whole family down to Egypt to live under Yosef’s protection:

“As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, ‘Do not be quarrelsome on the way.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 45:24)

Well- that’s interesting. Why would Yosef assume the brothers would be quarrelsome along the way? They’d just been told that their greatest crime was forgiven and their whole family would be saved in the famine!

Our aforementioned friend Rashi offers no less than three answers to this question, two of which we are going to leave for another day (but which you can find here.) Rashi says the simple answer is that because the brothers were so ashamed of what they had done to Yosef years earlier, they would argue along the way about who was really responsible, pointing the finger at one another and saying “because of you he was sold, you spoke badly of him and caused us to hate him.”

What makes this a subtle and perceptive interpretation is the implication that the brothers will feel ashamed and blame each other not because they’re in trouble, but after Yosef has spoken kindly to them and, as above, drawn them close to him and told them not to worry anymore. (Cf. 45:5-6) That is, being forgiven does not end the process of moral introspection but may actually evoke more of it, precisely because not worrying about retribution means that the offending party need fear no judge but himself.

The brothers were not only shocked to find out that their long-sold brother was the Prime Minister of Egypt; they were also shocked that his first words were ones of reconciliation. I can only imagine that after years of denying the pangs of conscience, guilt would turn on itself in anger and blame among themselves once the brothers experienced Yosef’s magnanimity. Hence- Yosef’s acute awareness that the process of reconciliation and forgiveness is not over with one act, but will play out over years, even decades, coming up again after their father dies some 17 years later.

We learn from this that peace is not cheap, but requires attention and care, conversation and conscience, honesty and courage, from all parties. Forgiveness doesn’t happen once and it’s over; it is something that grows with effort and love.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayigash: Common Roots

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

We’re cruising into Shabbat shortly but before we do let’s share just
a few words about this week’s haftarah, taken from the book of
Ezekiel, chapter 37. The dominant image of the haftarah is that of two
pieces of wood, one inscribed with the name Yehudah, and one inscribed
with the name of Yosef, who was the father of Ephraim, who in turn
gave his name to one of the 12 tribes of Israel.

These sticks will be brought together by the prophet, in front of the
people, to represent a healing of the split in the ancient nation of
Israel between a northern kingdom (Yosef/ Ephraim) and a southern
kingdom (Yehudah.) The haftarah is thus linked to the Torah portion,
Vayiggash, by the image of Yehudah and Yosef coming together- in the
Torah portion, it was the two brothers who were reconciled years after
the older brothers threw Yosef into the pit and sold him into slavery,
and in the haftarah, the reconciliation is social and political.

The word for “stick” in the haftarah is “etz,” which can also mean
tree, branch, or chip of wood, according to the haftarah commentary of
Shimson Raphael Hirsch, who understands the image of the two “etzim”
as a bringing together of two branches from the same tree. In this
interpretation, it’s not only about separate kingdoms coming together
politically, but a renewed understanding of the common history and
destiny of the Jewish people- we are branches that share common roots.

Seen this way, the imagery of the haftarah could not be more timely.
The Jewish world is going through rocky times, with scandals,
financial pressures, and the violence in Gaza. We will not all agree
on the right policies to address our challenges, but we can strive to
remember that we are linked together as a worldwide kehillah
[community]. We need each other to achieve the brit shalom – the
covenant of peace- which the haftarah holds out as our hope and our
shared ideal.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayigash: Honoring Rightly

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

That’s right, we’ve reached the dramatic climax of the story of Yosef
and his brothers, when Yehudah pleads on behalf of the younger brother
Binyamin and Yosef finally reveals himself as their long-lost sibling.
After a reconciliation with his brothers, Yosef sends them home to get
their father, Yaakov, who hurries to go down to Egypt to see the son
he thought was dead.

The Torah tells that that before Yaakov leaves the Land of his fathers
to go and join his son in Egypt, he makes grateful offerings to God,
who then appears to him with comforting promises:

“And Yisrael and all that was his set out and came to Be’ersheva, and
he made sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzhak. And God [spoke]
to Yisrael in visions of the night. . . . . ” (Bereshit/Genesis 46:1-2)

The commentators notice that Yaakov gave thanks to the God of his
father Yitzhak, which would not be unusual, but for a previous event
near Be’ersheva. Back in Bereshit/Genesis 28, Yaakov has his famous
dream of a ladder to the heavens, during which God is self-revealed as
the “God of Avraham your father, and of Yitzhak.” The text actually
says Yaakov left Be’ersheva and was headed towards Haran, but still,
it’s significant that Yaakov has spiritual experiences at or near
Be’ersheva in both cases.

Not only that, but if you go back to Bereshit 21 and 26, you find that
Be’ersheva is the site of important events in the life of both Avraham
and Yitzhak, who, of course, are Yaakov’s grandfather and father,

So the commentators have an implicit problem: why, if Yaakov goes to
Be’ersheva to make offerings to the God of his father, is “father” in
the singular? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to make offerings to
the “God of his fathers, Avraham and Yitzhak?”

Rashi and others learn from this question that Yaakov makes his
prayers to the “God of his father Yitzhak” because the obligation to
honor one’s father takes precedence over the obligation to honor one’s
grandfather. As we discussed a few weeks ago for parshat Toldot, the
rabbis see the matriarchs and patriarchs of Genesis as fulfilling
various mitzvot, including honoring one’s parents, so perhaps they
imagine that Yaakov takes halachic (practical laws) into account when
making his offerings.

I see three points of applied wisdom from Rashi’s inference of the
honor of a parent taking precedent over the honor of a grandparent:

1) As we discussed a few weeks ago, honoring one’s parents is a
mitzvah which applies even after they die; this helps us understand
why the sages would see Yaakov’s act as one of honoring his father.
Rabbi Nachum Amsel, in his book “The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and
Ethical Issues,” points out that we can do this by mentioning them in
conversation and telling others what we learned from them – to which
I would add acts of ritual remembrance and charity.

2) Rashi’s comment, based on older sources, does not, of course, mean
that we don’t, as a mitzvah, honor elders other than grandparents; it
just means that one fulfills the first obligation first, as it were.
There is, in fact, a separate mitzvah to honor the living elderly,
given in Leviticus 19:32. That wouldn’t apply in Yaakov’s case; I
bring it up only to point out that honoring parents does not mean we
don’t honor others.

3) Given point #2, I see this halachic comment- about honoring parents
taking precedence over honoring grandparents- as pointing us towards
an awareness how one mitzvah affects another. Perhaps parents take
precedence over grandparents when doing acts of service because it may
be harder to honor (with actions) those who have both given to us and
disciplined us. In Yaakov’s case, it’s striking that he makes prayers
to “the God of his father Yitzhak” when Yitzhak was the parent who
favored his brother Esav. It might have been easier to pay honor to
the memory of the great ancestor Avraham, but the mitzvah is to honor
our parents, despite the complexity of the relationship.

Let’s be clear: in most cases, there is not a great conflict between
honoring parents and honoring grandparents. Furthermore, if Yaakov had
mentioned Avraham in his offerings, it probably would not have
diminished the reverence of his act. The commentators wish to make
this point because the language of the Torah demands explication, yet
given Yaakov’s complex relationship with Yitzhak, it’s striking that
he can, at this latter stage of his life, humbly recognize himself as
his father’s son. This is another dimension of not only the mitzvah to
honor one’s parents, but all mitzvot: in the doing there is great

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayigash: Closing the Eyes, Opening the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Vayigash: Closing the Eyes, Opening the Heart

A joyful January to all!

This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, which is the story of Yehudah’s
plea to Yosef, followed by Yosef being reunited with his brothers and
father in Egypt. Yaakov, their father, can hardly believe that his
son, missing for so many years, is not only alive, but the Prime
Minister of a world power! He immediately wants to go to see his son,
but before he leaves the Land of Israel for the last time (he won’t
return alive), he has a “vision of the night,” when God appears to him
with words of consolation:

“God called to Yisrael [i.e., Yaakov] in a vision by night: `Yaakov!
Yaakov!’ He answered, `Here.’ And He said, `I am God, the God of your
father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a
great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself
will also bring you back; and Yosef’s hand shall close your eyes.’ ”
(Bereshit/Genesis 46:2-4)

These words recall the famous verses of the 23d Psalm: “Though I walk
through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for
You are with me.” The promise to Yaakov is not that he won’t have to
“go down” into a frightening and new situation, but that God will be
with him when he does. That’s a powerful image for any of us who face
difficult times- we might have to leave the security of a settled
place, but the Holy one travels with us.

OK, so far, so good- but what about the last part of the promise, that
Yosef will “close your eyes?” This is a reference to the practice of
“kavod ha’met,” or honor due to the dead- we close the eyes of the
dead as a sign of respect, as it is considered unbecoming for eyes
which can no longer see to be open as if alive. So not only will God
be with Yaakov in Egypt, but Yosef, the beloved son of the beloved
wife, will also be there, and will care for Yaakov even in death.

The promise to Yaakov that Yosef will close his eyes — that is, care
for him in death- is a promise that he will not be abandoned, neither
in life, nor at its natural conclusion. It’s a promise of
reconciliation with a long-lost son, mourned as dead. (We might note
here that God’s promise restores a more natural order to the universe,
where sons care for their fathers in death, rather than fathers
mourning lost sons.)

Yet as powerful as these images of restoration and reconciliation are,
there is one more aspect to this promise, one that I didn’t fully
understand until I closed my own father’s eyes (factually, not
metaphorically), just about two months ago. Yosef may have been a
beloved son, but he was hardly perfect- his self-regard was a major
factor in tearing the family apart. Yaakov, for his part, was by no
means a perfect father: his favoritism among sons created jealousy and
resentment, which provided the fuel for the fire of his other son’s
anger towards Yosef.

Yet despite Yaakov and Yosef’s imperfections, which led to years of
separation and grief, the relationship could be renewed, even in its
final moments, in an act of hesed. Hesed is usually translated as
“lovingkindness,” but is better understood as “loving generosity and
giving-ness,” if there is such a word. Yosef, despite all the mistakes
he had made, and all the anger and grief and loneliness he had
experienced, could still treat his father with respect and honor at
the last moments of his earthly journey. Yaakov was promised: no
matter what happened in the past, no matter what you did that caused
resentments among your children, at the end, there will be love, there
will be respect, there will be a relationship of grace.

That, to me, is an even more powerful promise than the one God made to
go down to Egypt with Yaakov. That promise is this: our most precious
relationships, no matter how weighted down with the freight of the
past, can still resolve themselves towards hesed, towards generosity
of spirit and true giving. Our imperfections do not create an
immutable destiny- the Divine Promise is that kindness and concern for
another can burst through our inner walls, at any moment, and come to
permeate our lives.

Yosef and Yaakov were driven apart in a paroxysm of violent emotions,
and yet there could be the purest hesed at a poignant moment years
later. How much more true is that for the rest of us, who are
separated from each other only by our memories of past slights and
sharp words, and not by miles of desert and wilderness! The promise is
given: we can find hesed for each other, if we open ourselves to it,
and the greater miracle still is that we don’t even need to suffer the
years apart that our ancestors did- we can move ourselves towards
honoring and love right now, if only we are ready.


P.S.: You can find a summary of the parshah here, near the top of the

The text of the Torah portion and haftarah can be found here:

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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-

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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Vayigash 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27)


At the end of last week’s parsha, Yosef conspires to accuse Binyamin, the youngest, of theft, and the brothers think that Binyamin will have to stay in Egypt to be Yosef’s servant. In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week’s parsha begins with Yehudah offering himself in place of Binyamin, so that Yaakov should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Yosef settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen


“He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them, and afterwards his brothers talked with him.” (Genesis 45:15)


Yosef can no longer restrain himself, and ends the game he’s been playing with his brothers. Yosef reveals his true identity, and in a highly emotional scene, the brothers are reconciled to each other. One could argue that this is the dramatic climax of the entire book of Genesis, which portrays harsh conflict between brothers since the first brothers in the Garden of Eden.


In North American society our image of masculinity is often the “hard man,” the “strong, silent type,” the tough leader who never displays weakness, emotion, or doubt. From John Wayne to the Marlboro Man to Pierre Trudeau to unforgiving corporate boardrooms, the stereotype of the “man in charge” (even if she’s a woman) doesn’t often include crying and expressing deep feelings.

At least one modern rabbinic commentator sees things differently. R. Zalman Sorotzkin, called the “Lutzker Rav,” (1881-1960), made the remarkable claim that Yosef merited his high position precisely because he was able to cry:

    We should note that Yosef was a man of tears. [Literally, a ba’al bechi, a “master of crying.”] We find that Yosef cried in parashat Miketz. . . and in this parsha. . . and in parashat Vayehi. The one who cries in bad times will also be able to cry in times of calm or achievement. The brothers, who had never suffered in their lives, could not cry even when their situation called for tears. Because Yosef could cry even for the troubles of others he merited greatness. (Quoted in Itturei Torah, translation and adaptation mine.)

Adding things up, we find that Yosef is described as crying no less than eight times in three Torah portions. We might also note that all these examples come from Yosef’s later years- crying seems to be something he learns with maturity. Personally, I find the comment that Yosef merited his position because of his ability to cry to be a welcome change from the typical idea of what makes a leader. The Lutzker Rav teaches us to look for empathy in our leaders- can they cry? Do they really “feel the pain” of others, or is it a show for political purposes?

The Lutzker Rav challenges not only our concept of leadership, but even of “manhood.” Yosef wasn’t the “strong, silent type” at all- or rather, he could be when the situation called for it, but he could also express his deepest feelings to those around him. He doesn’t seem self-conscious or embarrassed at all, crying in happiness and sadness equally.

Yosef cried when reunited with his family, and he cried when his father dies, and at the very end of the book of Genesis, he cried when he finds out that his brothers still feared that he might take revenge after Yaakov is buried. (Cf. Genesis 50.) His tears communicated in a way that goes beyond words, revealing the truth and depth of his connection to those he loved. Perhaps we might say that Yosef’s greatness was not only his political position, but his spiritual position, as a man of deep empathy, unafraid to show his emotional commitments.

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Vayigash 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

At the end of last week’s parasha, Yosef, now the Prime Minister of Egypt, had arranged to have a valuable cup placed in Binyamin’s saddlebags as all his brothers head back to their father with food to stave off the famine. The cup is discovered, and it looks like Binyamin, the youngest, will have to stay in Egypt to be Yosef’s servant. In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week’s parasha begins with Yehudah offering himself in place of Binyamin, so that Yaakov should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Yosef settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen.

Then Yehudah approached him [Yosef] and said: ” Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let your anger not flare against your servant- for you are like Pharoah! ”
(Genesis 44:18)


When it appears that Binyamin will be taken away as a servant to Yosef as punishment for apparently stealing the (planted) goblet, Yehudah steps forward and heroically defends him, offering himself instead. He speaks humbly but eloquently, begging for mercy on Binyamin’s behalf, pleading their elderly father would be utterly heartbroken.

Yehudah’s defense of Binyamin is one of the most heroic moments in the Torah; Yehudah seems to be selflessly sacrificing himself for the sake of his brother and father. He has changed since the day that he and his brothers threw Yosef into the pit, many years earlier. At that time, it was Yehudah who suggested selling Yosef into slavery in the first place. (Genesis 37:26). He might have been saving himself the trouble of actually killing his brother (and earning a bit of money on the side), or he might have been trying to concoct a scheme to keep Yosef alive when the others wanted to spill his blood- it’s not clear what his motivations were, but he was deeply involved in the harmful scheme.

Yet Yehudah was not the eldest of the brothers, and it’s not immediately apparent why he was the one to step forward to defend Binyamin and offer himself in his brother’s place. (He was 4th in the order.) We can note that both Ruven and Yehudah personally guaranteed Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov (42:37; 43: 8-10). Furthermore, Shimon, the 2nd eldest, wasn’t there, because he was held as a hostage by Yosef when Yosef accused them of being spies; but that still leaves Ruven and Levi as being higher than Yehudah in the birth order, and therefore perhaps with a higher degree of leadership responsibility, at least as most ancient societies would have seen it.

So our question is still unanswered: why was it Yehudah, out of all the brothers, who stepped forward to defend Binyamin? Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of midrashic stories dating from Talmudic times, offers an imaginative possibility. Noticing that the story of Yehudah and his daughter in law Tamar (Genesis 38) immediately follows the story of the presentation of Yosef’s bloody garment to Yaakov (37: 31-35), the midrash posits a connection. In this midrash, it was Yehudah who convinced Yaakov that Yosef was dead; in response, God said to Yehudah:

    You have no children now, and you do not know the pain of children. You have troubled your father, and caused him to mistakenly believe that his son Yosef is torn, all torn up. By your life, you will marry a woman and then bury your son, and [then you will ] know the pain of children. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayyigash: 9*)

On the surface, this midrash explains the whole story of Yehudah and Tamar, in chapter 38. The midrash connects Yehudah’s role in the sale of Yosef to his own experience of losing children- it is an example of midah k’neged midah, or “measure for measure.” Yet the midrash just quoted isn’t a direct commentary on either chapter 37 or 38 – it is placed later, in the section dealing with this week’s parasha, in connection to a verse that says “[Yaakov] sent Yehudah ahead of him to Yosef, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen. . . ” when the family is about to leave the land of Israel all to be reunited in Egypt with Yosef. (46:28) In other words, our midrash seems to be about Yehudah’s punishment for deceiving his father, but it’s actually brought as a commentary much later in the story, after the whole family is reconciled and reunited.

So what’s going on here, and what does all this have to do with our original question: why was it Yehudah who stepped forward, at great personal risk, to defend Binyamin? I think the placement of our midrash is crucial, for if it were merely an explanation of why the story of Yehudah and Tamar appears where it does, it would be offering us an image of a cruel and vengeful God, who kills one child to avenge another. Because this midrash is placed later, in connection with a verse that reveals the ultimate reconcilation of Yehudah and his father, I think this midrash is hinting that Yehudah’s experience of grief and bereavement was also the sources of great spiritual growth and evolving selflessness.

Our midrash says that when Yehudah was willing to let his own father sit bereaved, it was because he did not know the “pain of children.” Then he married, had sons, and lost two of them- thus bringing the lesson of the “pain of children” home to him in the most real and soul-affecting way possible. It’s not that God took away Yehudah’s children because of what he might have done to Yaakov- that would be cruel and capricious on God’s part. Rather, the midrash tells us what made their reconciliation possible: Yehudah’s ability (or willingness) to empathize deeply with his father’s experience, his “knowing the pain of children.” Empathy ideally leads to compassion, and it seems Yehudah’s compassion was so great that he could not let his father again lose a favored younger son.

This begs a further question: why should Yaakov be more bereaved at losing Binyamin than at losing Yehudah, since the whole point of Yehudah’s speech is that he will stay in Egypt as a substitute? Whether it was because Binyamin was the youngest, or because he was a son of the beloved wife Rahel, Yehudah knew that Yaakov had a special relationship with him, as he had once had with Yosef. (Cf. 44:30) This fact is what makes Yehudah’s compassion so extraordinary- not only was he able to empathize with a bereaved father, but he was even able to overcome his previous resentments to do so, perhaps even forgiving his father for loving his sons unequally.

This is the measure of Yehudah’s greatness: that he didn’t remain mired in his pain but grew spiritually out of it, taking tragedy and using it as the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.

*Quoted in Aviva Zornberg, The Genesis of Desire, an extraordinary book of contemporary Biblical exegesis. I have taken the midrash in a somewhat different direction than she did, but her essay is very insightful.

The whole story of Yehudah and Tamar (Chapter 38) summarized:

Yehudah has 3 sons, two of whom die after getting married to Tamar. Yehudah refuses to allow his daughter in law, Tamar, to attempt to conceive with his youngest son. She deceives him by dressing as a prostitute, and when he sleeps with her, she becomes pregnant. Thinking that she has been promiscuous, Yehudah is about to have her put to death, but she unmasks him as the guilty party, and Yehudah has to admit that she was justified in her actions.

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