Rabbi Emily JK Holtzman
Special to Valley News
Though his storyline is the single longest individual narrative in the Torah, I have never been a huge fan of Joseph. You know, that strapping young lad who even has his own Broadway musical? It was not until this year that I began feeling empathy for Joseph.
At the end of the story last week, Joseph has just accused Benjamin, the youngest brother, of stealing a goblet. This week, Parsha Vayigash in Genesis 44:18-47:27 opens with Judah pleading for Benjamin to be allowed to come home with them. Finally Joseph cannot control himself any longer and orders everyone but his brothers out of the room. Only then does he reveal his true identity and inquires about the well-being of his father.
The last time Joseph saw his brothers was when he was 17 and they had just thrown him into a pit. Joseph is going through the spectrum of emotions in this moment from elated to enraged and back again.
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt,’” in Gen. 45:4.
His brothers are in disbelief. Though it also seems strange that Joseph is so casually referencing their past sins.
Rabbi Menchem Mendel of Kotzk asked, “Are these words appropriate for the righteous Joseph? Is it fitting when he has just told them who he is, while all are still crying, that he should remind his brothers of the terrible sin they had committed? Rather, the interpretation of this verse is: ‘I am the same Joseph that I was when you sold me into Egypt. I did not change in this corrupt country, and you, do not have to be afraid that you caused me to become corrupted. I am Joseph your brother – I am fitting to be your brother, the son of Jacob, just as then, when you sold me into Egypt.’”
Oh look, he’s back – that child who was so annoying that his brothers literally threw him in a pit to die. Why does he choose this moment to remind his brothers of their past behavior? Though it has been many years, the trauma of what happened has stayed with Joseph. It was impossible for him to process what happened to him as he was sent to live in a foreign land – completely disconnected from his former life.
Until this moment we do not know about Joseph’s internal narrative. But the interpretation is that though he has been through many trials in Egypt at his core he is still the same.
He seems genuinely sad in this moment – it’s bittersweet. His family reunion has surfaced feelings which he might not have had acknowledged for decades. Yet, the feelings all come rushing back when he is face to face with his brothers again.
No matter how far we try to run or how many snacks we eat or how many TV shows we try to watch to numb it out, our pain and our trauma will eventually catch up to us. It follows us wherever we go. It is not our job to forget the pain, but we have to try and transcend it.
It is our job to take responsibility for the weight the trauma bears in our lives. We learn to live with it and move forward. We all carry around memories from our past lives, but we can control how they manifest in the present. We can choose if this is the moment to bring up that thing you said that cut me deep? Or is it time to be together in the present and enjoy each other’s company while we have it.
We have the power to decide when we are confronted with situations that trigger us how we are going to react. And that power allows us to live each and every moment of our lives with authenticity. If we hold on to everything, like Joseph did for so many years, then it catches us off guard.
Let’s try and acknowledge the pain as we move forward and allow ourselves to be free of its restrictions. Shabbat Shalom and have a peaceful Sabbath.