Embrace the Full Range of Human Emotion to Tap Inner Strengths


By Rabbi Tamara R. Cohen

Parshat Vayigash

After weeks of following the epic tale of Joseph and his brothers, this week’s parsha, Vayigash, narrates the dramatic moment in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, reconciles with them and then invites them and his father to settle in Egypt.

Thus, this Torah portion forges a crucial link between the central themes of the book of Genesis — conflict and reconciliation within the growing family begun by Abraham and Sarah — and the central theme of the Book of Exodus, the movement from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land.

It is here that the family of Jacob becomes the family of Israel through the mutual recognition and reconciliation modeled by Joseph and his brother Judah. This reconciliation comes through a courageous expression of physical intimacy and authentic emotion.

The Torah portion begins with the word vayigash: “And he drew near.” It is Judah who “comes near” to Joseph in order to offer himself as the replacement for Benjamin, who has been sent to prison by Joseph, ostensibly for stealing a goblet, but actually because Joseph framed him.

When Judah makes the move of vayigash, he is doing something critically important. First, he is bridging the physical space between himself, his brothers and Joseph. Joseph has been keeping his distance, maintaining the disguise of being a stranger, and remaining solely in his new identity as an Egyptian and a powerful viceroy of Egypt.

This physical distance between Joseph and his brothers has a longer history, of course. It goes back to Joseph being thrown into a pit by them, and further back to his dreams of being apart from them and above them. And it goes further back still, to the divide between them forged by the differential love of their mothers by their father, and further still, by his own father’s experience of a deceitful vayigash when Jacob came close to his father Isaac to steal his brother’s birthright.

When Judah comes close to Joseph, he does so to plead with him to spare Benjamin. In doing so, Judah for the first time acknowledges the pain that having a beloved son taken from Jacob caused him. In this moment he displays empathy for Jacob, Benjamin and Joseph. He is no longer imprisoned by jealousy when he says that Jacob’s soul is bound up with Benjamin’s; instead he speaks and acts to witness, honor and protect the love he sees, without getting caught up in whether or not it is fair.

When Joseph experiences Judah’s recognition of his father’s love and pain, the walls that have allowed him to maintain his distance from his family for so many years come crashing down. He needs to be alone with his brothers, in what today we would call a safe and confidential space, and there, to allow himself to weep. His weeping is so loud that it cannot be contained and the Egyptians and all the house of Pharaoh hear it. These are new tears and old tears, tears for himself and his father and his brothers, perhaps also for the legacy of deceit and favoritism and distancing of loved ones that is part of his birthright.

The first response of Joseph’s brothers to his cries and his revelation is one of fear. Joseph greets that fear by telling his brothers to come close to him (g’shu), and when near, he absolves them of guilt by sharing his belief that God’s plan has unfolded as it was supposed to. Still, the brothers remain silent. Only after Joseph kisses first Benjamin, falling on his neck and crying with him, and then all of his brothers, kissing them and crying with them, are his brothers able to come to speech. This reconciliation is physical, emotional, fully expressive and ultimately redemptive.

As the mother of two sons, and as a rabbi at Moving Traditions, which works to help teens deepen their reservoirs of empathy and express the full range of their emotions including ones that gender codes often tell them are not OK for them to express — i.e., boys crying and hugging one another (and, less relevant here but no less important, girls being able to claim strong anger and strong love as much as kindness and gentleness), I want to shine light on the actions and emotional courage of Judah and Joseph in this Torah portion.

Their choice to “draw near” to one another and to their own truths and beliefs, and to express them, brings healing to themselves, their father and larger family, and ultimately the children of Israel. This healing gives the children of Israel a new home on the fertile ground of Goshen, which provides a foundation for them to grow and thrive and eventually to resist their enslavement.

As we read this parsha, may it encourage us to embrace more authentic expression of the full range of human emotion and the full range of human touch among all people, regardless of gender and other social divides. In so doing, may we find the strength to recognize, and fight, injustice whenever it arises.

Rabbi Tamara R. Cohen is the chief of innovation at Moving Traditions (movingtraditions.org). She is also a published liturgical writer and social justice activist who lives with her family in Mount Airy and is an active member of Germantown Jewish Centre. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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