VaYigash – 5783
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Rabbi Gary Pokras
This week the Joseph story reaches its dramatic climax. Joseph has severely tested his brothers to see if they have changed their ways. Judah, the ringleader who threw Joseph into the pit and then lied to their father about what happened, finally makes a real teshuvah (true repentance/changing of his ways), demonstrating that he has learned from his mistakes. Not realizing that it is Joseph before whom he pleads, Judah approaches (vayishlach) the viceroy’s throne to beg for the release of Benjamin, the new favored son, and offers himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place.
There is tremendous risk in Judah’s action, even beyond offering himself as a slave. First, just approaching the throne was dangerous. The Egyptian equivalent of the secret service could have quickly intervened, with lethal force. Second, approaching the throne is an act which creates intimacy – and that may have been considered impolitic or disrespectful according to the Egyptian court etiquette of addressing such a powerful leader. Who knew what the penalties for such breach might have been?
Yet how else could Judah make a true teshuvah? How else could he plead for his brother’s life?
Making teshuvah, for any of us, requires us to approach each other, to come closer. Rabbi Jim Ponet reminds us that there is always risk in such circumstances, noting that the Hebrew word for close (karov) is related to the Hebrew word for battle (k’rav). Similarly, bread (lechem) and war (milchamah) share a root. Bridging gaps always brings the risk of conflict or harm, yet without making ourselves vulnerable, we can never heal the wounds we have inflicted or the rifts we have created.
Judah chose to risk not only rejection, but his very life. In return, Joseph was so moved that he too drew closer to his brothers, and openly wept as he revealed himself and welcomed them to safety in Egypt. VaYigash teaches us that teshuvah is anything but easy. It also teaches us that the healing teshuvah can bring is worth the risk.