Parashat Vayigash

Joseph's Moment of Truth

Revealing his true identity, the viceroy cannot control his emotions.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The moment of truth has arrived. With Benjamin framed for stealing and sentenced to enslavement, Joseph waits to see how Jacob's other sons will respond. Joseph believes that his well-orchestrated ruse will finally expose his brothers' true colors.

Judah's Appeal

This week's parsahah opens with Judah appealing to his brother Joseph, the Egyptian viceroy, to free Benjamin and to enslave Judah in his place. Judah's eloquent petition recounts his brothers' interaction with this Egyptian official as well as the familial circumstances of Jacob's household. Benjamin, the youngest son in the family, occupies a valued place in their father's eyes, Judah says, because he is the last living remnant of Jacob's deceased wife, Rachel. In conclusion, Judah asserts that if he were to return home to Canaan without Benjamin, he could not bear to see his father's immediate and long-term pain and suffering.

Judah's words arouse Joseph's soul, as the Torah tells us that "V'lo yachol Yosef lehitapek. . ."--"and Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, 'Have everyone withdraw from me!' So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers" (Etz Hayim, Genesis 45:1).

Witnessing Joseph's intense reaction to Judah's appeal, we wonder what exactly pushes Joseph to his emotional limit? What does Judah say or do that compels Joseph to reveal himself at this moment?

Our most trusted biblical commentator, Rashi, surmises that since Joseph's emotional outburst is juxtaposed with evacuating his Egyptian servants, Judah's self-incrimination embarrasses Joseph. The viceroy of Egypt fears that when these alleged spies are introduced as his brothers, the family's reputation, and his by association, will already be tarnished in Egypt and in Pharaoh's court.

joseph and pharaohRashi's analysis helps us to understand the momentary reality, yet other interpretations exist, which incorporate the larger context of Joseph's dreams and the patriarchal covenant. As soon as Joseph "unmasks" himself, he urges his brothers not to be upset about their having sold him into slavery many years before: "Kee lemeheeyah shelahani Elohim lefnayhem"--"(for) it was to save life that God sent me here ahead of you" (Etz Hayim, Genesis 45:5). Joseph believes fervently that God's preordained plan for him involves maintaining life for his entire family and the civilized world. Thus, Joseph stores food for Egypt for times of feast and famine, and secures safe passage to a new land for his family.

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Rabbi Charles Savenor

Rabbi Charles E. Savenor is the Director of Kehella (Congregational) Enrichment for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.