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About Honest Speech and Collective Stories
Our experience tells us that talking things out leads to greater clarity and calm in difficult situations. This is the foundation of talk therapy; verbalizing what we are feeling or what happened to us to a listening ear brings us new insights. The impulse to tell our stories is everywhere -- in the memoirs on the bestseller lists and the blogs on the Internet. Is this just a trend of the times? This week's portion shows us that it is not. Telling our stories and growing from this was a core of being human in biblical times.
When Vayigash begins, Judah has just heard that Joseph plans to keep his brother Benjamin with him as a slave. But Judah had promised their father Jacob that he would bring Benjamin back to him. He approaches Joseph and recounts the events of the last parsha: the brothers coming to Egypt to get food, going back to Canaan to collect Benjamin as Joseph requested and returning with him to Egypt.
At the end, he emphasizes that Jacob will be devastated if Judah returns without Benjamin. On the surface, this is another place in the Bible where a series of events are repeated in the narrative. Look more deeply, and we see that this is Judah telling his story.
The Sefat Emet, a Chasidic commentary on the Torah from the early 1900s in Poland by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, comments that the words of Judah add no new information to the story. To quote Rabbi Arthur Green's translation: "Judah offered nothing new in his words, nor did he have a good claim with which to approach Joseph. But as he clarified the truth of the matter, salvation came to him." The Sefat Emet understands the verse that begins this parsha, and Judah's speech: "Then Judah went up to him" to mean three different kinds of approaches, or goings up. "The him refers to Joseph, to Judah's own self, and also to God."
In Judah's own formulation of the story, he adds no new information, but he tells the words to Joseph, to himself and to God. The very act of reciting the story, and the way that he formulates it -- with utmost empathy for Jacob's position -- changes the situation. It persuades Joseph to reveal himself to the brothers, and thus abandon his plan to keep Benjamin back.
Avivah Zornberg, a contemporary Torah commentator, observes in her book Genesis, the Beginning of Desire, that in telling the story as his story, Judah is able to access empathy for himself and for Jacob. She writes: "The climax of his speech is his last sentence, which provokes Joseph's collapse: 'For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not see the woe that would overtake my father.' "
She further notes that Judah's act of telling his own personal perspective through describing his story "moves Joseph to remove his mask." Judah's honest speech, to Joseph, to himself, and to God, lead to Joseph's honest speech.
When we tell our stories honestly, change is possible through the telling. All three audiences are crucial -- ourselves, God and the person we are relating the story to.
Judah and Joseph both speak bravely and honestly in this portion. Through their speech they forge a new relationship, and find themselves changed. May this season of gatherings also lead to connections with ourselves and others through our stories.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: email@example.com.