By Rabbi Linda Holtzman
We are living in challenging times. Uncertainty and anxiety are often at the heart of all that we do.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, opens us to a powerful moment in the lives of Joseph and his brothers — a moment based in uncertainty and anxiety. Joseph’s brothers have returned to Egypt to get much-needed food, and Joseph has put every possible challenge in their way. They do not know who Joseph is but still see him as a powerful leader in Egypt, and it would be extremely risky to stand up to him in any way.
It is a moment of real question: Should the brothers approach Joseph and speak to him, telling him some of their family’s story? Would it be a foolhardy risk, or is it necessary and wise?
The first word in the Torah portion models an important truth for us: Vayigash, he approached. Judah summons the courage he needs and reaches out with genuine openness to Joseph, and his willingness to do so is the pivotal moment in the entire story. It leads to Joseph’s revelation of who he is; it leads to the entire story of the Hebrew people, their slavery and freedom, the giving of the Torah, and, ultimately, to all of us. One moment of Judah’s willingness to approach his brother changes the story of an entire people.
In today’s world, approaching another is often frightening. COVID-19 means that physically approaching another often demands vaccinations and masking and testing and sometimes not being in person at all. It felt so very strange on Thanksgiving to ask our family to have COVID tests before getting together. When have we ever needed medical testing before we spend time with our loved ones? But it was worth every vaccination and test to open the possibility of a hug from our 3-year-old granddaughter!
Yet, approaching another in our world is often not just physically risky but emotionally risky as well. Our country is so fractured. We are red or blue, not just human. For lots of us, once we navigated the COVID territory, the major risk of Thanksgiving was approaching those with whom we politically disagree. Will we be treated disrespectfully? Will we be seen as less than fully human? If we dare to speak our own truth, will it be disparaged or dismissed? Is it just too risky to be open about who we are to be willing to do it?
I remember my own coming out as a lesbian in the 1980s and my assumption that I would be treated as “less than” once people knew about me. And I have known so many people who are queer or are living Jewish lives that are different from their families’ lives or are in interfaith relationships or who are in some way moving away from the way that their families live. Coming together with family and fully approaching them with honesty can be terrifying — which takes us back to Judah.
Judah approaches Joseph thoughtfully and slowly showing real care and respect. He takes a huge risk in revealing his truth, but he does so knowing that his family’s very survival is at stake if he does not. Judah’s revelation moves Joseph to tears and to forgiveness for all his brothers have done to him.
What Judah has not realized is that it is not just the physical survival of his family that is at stake but the emotional survival as well. How can there be a true family if there can be no basic honesty, no readiness to be ourselves and to know that we will be accepted for who we are?
It is not easy to take the step that Judah takes, but it is so important. And it is important that Judah decides what to share and what needs to wait to be told until there is greater clarity in the relationship he has with the man standing in front of him.
Once he knows it is Joseph, there’s time for more talking, more sharing, more crying and more revealing. I love to imagine the conversations that Joseph and his brothers have that are not recorded in the Torah text. I’m sure those talks are not easy, but I’m also sure they are deep and significant.
In our lives, we are always weighing risks. How much can we reveal about ourselves to our families? How much can we approach them with the truth about who we are and how we understand our lives?
My hope is that Vayigash is an inspiration for those of us who have much to share to begin to find ways to open. And may it also inspire all of us who are learning more deeply about our family members to be open and to listen with whole hearts and with respect and loving kindness. Then, the risks that we take with each other will be worthwhile and will create richer family experiences and gentler, more supportive relationships.
Linda Holtzman is a Reconstructionist rabbi. She is the leader of the Tikkun Olam Chavurah and is on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.