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Parashat Vayigash: Pain and Reconciliation

Let's talk about pain. 

As a people, pain is something we respect, keep current, and try not to forget. We don't cease to celebrate joys; we never will, but we also won't forget moments of pain. That duality that life constantly presents to us, and as a people, we emphasize, allows us to have a special place for pain even when many prefer to cover it up and forget.

Because pain cannot be regulated. Even in the maximum pain of losing loved ones, we don't have a clear halakhah about "how we should suffer." The vast majority are just customs that are respected and followed as if they were laws because of how deeply rooted they are over the years. And it's logical: how can someone teach another about their suffering and dictate it?

Is there a greater pain than that caused by betrayal? Feeling betrayed? Let's ask Joseph in Parashat Vayigash. Beyond the pride he displayed as a young man regarding his brothers, their betrayal, and even more, their attempt to get rid of him surely generated a strong, probably devastating, feeling.

Joseph was fortunate. Or it was the Kadosh Baruch Hu who guided him. The Torah tells us that he not only prospered but also saved his family (and many more) from the famine that existed in Egypt and its surroundings at that time.

Reconciliation is always possible. After years of estrangement, and following Judah's plea for Benjamin not to remain a prisoner in Egypt, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, sobbing, and forgives them. He suffered mistreatment, was tortured by them as a result of the resentment they felt toward him.

However, Joseph says, "God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on the earth" (Genesis 45:7). Joseph's chosen words seem to be a useful selection. He has found a way to move forward in repairing the fraternal bond constructively, despite the harm his brothers caused him.

In this interaction, Joseph suggests that everything that happened has a positive meaning for this family about to become a people. He chooses to find the good in his situation to minimize the pain caused by his brothers years before and their own pain. He is aware that they blame themselves and wish the past were different and that they have been able to recognize the implications of their abuse at the time they caused it.

In this situation, Joseph is showing genuine maturity. He seeks to find the ray of hope, the positive side of his experience, to make reconciliation possible. He is letting his brothers know that all is not lost.

It was likely Judah's almost heroic gesture that finally softened Joseph's hardened heart. In the moment of truth, Judah defends his brother Benjamin and offers to take his place as a hostage. He steps forward, says goodbye to all the other brothers, and approaches the man he supposes holds his fate in his hands. He approaches: VAYIGASH, to the ruler of Egypt, to Joseph, as expressed in the first verse of our Parashah:

"Then Judah approached him and said: 'Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord's ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.'"

It is this approach that changes the whole story. It is his words that make Joseph decide to approach, share that pain, and overcome it. Joseph confesses his true identity after realizing how much the brothers love Benjamin and how much he loves them.

From his position as the "most important person in Egypt," he could have taken all sorts of reprisals against those who betrayed him. He could have sought revenge or, in his pain, simply not taken responsibility for his family's suffering. Instead, he says, "I will provide for you and your children" (Genesis 50:21). And this happens without even an apology from his brothers.

Then the embrace.

Reconciliation is a process: it is not achieved at once with a grand gesture but with small movements. Small Vayigash, small approaches. Certainly, it takes a lot of courage to "approach" as much as to identify with the one who was hurt, but it is the first step.

Joseph was never a saint. I personally believe he was an "innocent" provocateur of his brothers. But in this Parashah, he shows his more human, more sensitive side. He puts aside his pride in order to achieve SHLOM BAYIT, the necessary peace at home, in the family.

If the Torah is that book we read from time to time when we have the opportunity to step into a Beit Kneset, then this is another story of the imperfect heroes proposed by our tradition and the history of our people.

If the Torah is that living book that we wish to maintain with its traditions in our daily lives, and its text is a accumulation of experiences to be discussed and incorporated into our existence according to our evaluation of the life examples of our predecessors, then perhaps Joseph's forgiveness is a model for those who harbor vain resentments and distance themselves from the bonds that should hold communities together, not divide them.

May we overcome our pains, our differences, and approach those with whom it is much better to be close than separated. That also helps us shape a better world. That is also Tikun Olam.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Gustavo Geier

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