Parashat Vayigash: Repent, then forgive

One of the most amazing moments in the Bible is the dramatic meeting between Jacob and Joseph after 22 years of separation.

One of the most amazing moments in the Bible is the dramatic meeting between Jacob and Joseph after 22 years of separation. What led to that meeting was the speech of Judah, in which he pleads with the Grand Vizier not to detain Benjamin - charged with stealing a goblet - as his servant. Undoubtedly, it is the substance as well as the style of Judah's defense that causes the Grand Vizier to reveal himself, leading to the rapprochement between father and son. But even if the speech was delivered with heartfelt emotion, its substance doesn't appear powerful enough to move someone as powerful as the Grand Vizier. Judah informs him that Benjamin is the only surviving son of Rachel, beloved wife of his father (Genesis 44:20). He then recounts that when the brothers were about to return to Egypt for supplies, he told his father that they could not face the Grand Vizier without Benjamin. At this point, Judah puts the following words into his father's mouth: "You know that two sons were born to me by my wife. One has left me, and I must say that he has been torn, yes torn, and I have not seen him until this moment. And now would you take also this last one from me? If anything happens to him, my old age would be brought down into the nether world in distress" (44:28, 29). Judah then declares that in order to receive his father's permission to take Benjamin he agreed to act as cosigner for the young man's safety, and he therefore begs the Grand Vizier that he, Judah, be taken into bondage and that Benjamin be set free. As soon as Judah concludes, Joseph breaks into tears and reveals himself to his brothers. What is there about Judah's plea which caused Joseph to give up the disguise he had guarded so steadfastly during his period as Grand Vizier? Together with the fundamental question of why Grand Vizier Joseph didn't initiate contact with his father is a second question: Why didn't the brothers understand earlier that this man must be Joseph? After all, no other group who came to purchase food had been treated the way they had: first they were all thrown into a dungeon, then they were all sent back - except for Simeon who was held hostage - to Canaan to return with Benjamin. Together with Levi, Simeon had been the most vocal against Joseph, and had not they cast Joseph into a pit/dungeon when they tore his special coat from him? Who else but Joseph would have been so anxious for them to return with Benjamin? And then, when they returned with the youngest brother they were seated in order of age. Who else but Joseph would have known their respective ages? So why didn't they understand that the Grand Vizier must be Joseph? I believe there were two reasons. First, they were so consumed with guilt that they were certain it was God who was punishing them. Second, they couldn't imagine that Joseph was still alive, because if he were, surely he would have contacted the father who loved him so much. Once the Grand Vizier rejected Judah's offer that all of them remain as slaves (with the exception of Benjamin), it became clear that it wasn't God who was punishing them. After all, they were all guilty of selling Joseph; the most appropriate punishment would have been for all of them to lose their freedom forever. Judah, however, still had to figure out why the Grand Vizier, if indeed he was Joseph, had not contacted their father. Finally he realized why not. Joseph must have been angry even at his father for having managed the family so poorly. Jacob should never have demonstrated such blatant favoritism. It was this anger that prevented Joseph from contacting his father even after he rose to such great heights. Now we can appreciate the brilliance with which Judah crafted his speech. He dwells at length on the fact that Joseph and Benjamin were the sons of Jacob's beloved wife Rachel. In this way he tries to make Joseph understand that he was the most precious living reminder of the wife for whom his father had labored 14 years. What Judah wants is to get Joseph to repent his decision to disguise himself even from his loving father. Judah also understands that Joseph can't repent his callousness until he sees that his brothers have repented theirs. Our sages have always taught that before your words can move others, you yourself must be free of guilt. Therefore Judah emphasizes the fact that he - the one who suggested that Joseph be thrown into the pit in the first place - had served as a cosigner for Benjamin. Not only that, but the same Judah is willing to be enslaved himself rather than see his father suffer a second time. Struck by the impact of Judah's words, Joseph's anger against his father melts. He accepts Judah's repentance, and that gives him the inner strength to repent himself. The family is now ready to be reunited under the leadership of the brilliant Judah and the "new" Joseph, both of whom have demonstrated their willingness to overcome pride for the sake of family unity and the centrality of God. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.