In this week’s Parashah, we come to the powerful denouement of the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, one of bitterness and betrayal in its opening, that slowly moves to an extraordinary moment of reconciliation. As we come toward the end of the book of Genesis we finally arrive at the moment that is the answer to the rhetorical question asked in the beginning of the Torah by Cain after he has murdered Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The highly emotional reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers is one of the great scenes in literature. Years earlier the brothers, jealous of Joseph’s position as their father’s favorite, had been led by Judah’s words “Let us sell him… not do away with him ourselves” [Gen.37:27]. However, rather than make their father share his affection more equally, this act not only caused years of unending grief for them all, but was made more futile when their father then took another son, Benjamin, as his new favorite.
By confronting Joseph, the second most powerful man in Egypt, and refusing to leave Benjamin as a hostage, Judah confronts himself, accepts his past guilt and takes on his true role as family moderator and protector. At the same time, Joseph, who could have understandably sought revenge against his brothers, realizes that he too prefers to reconcile with them and help them.
In one of the great scenes in all literature, the brothers reconcile. As the total opposite of Shakespearean tragedy, where the characters’ refusal to go beyond their allotted stereotype results in death and loss, these acts of mutual contrition result in reconciliation and the provision of real help to the family and to the tribe of Israel. In fact, rather than dwelling on the crime, Joseph says that his brothers “sent” him – thereby starting the chain of events that placed him in a position where he could benefit thousands of people, including his own family.
Through these brave admissions, both men show themselves to be the masters of their own fate and demonstrate their understanding that hatred damages the hater and the one they hate. It also highlights the fact that, although no person, and not even God, can truly control events, it is in the hands of each person to determine whether or not the circumstances become a force for good or evil.
Parshat Va-Yigash reminds us that we all do things that are selfish, wrong and that we would rather forget. The crucial test is whether you have the ability to admit the wrongdoing. If you cannot, you perpetuate and compound the problem. However, if you, like Judah and Joseph, can admit your faults you can adversity into an opportunity to benefit those you have harmed as well as many others along the way. Thus we learn we are not just our brother’s keeper in terms of “within the family” but in reality, for the larger family we call humanity. The rest of the Torah will teach us lessons about how to take care of the other, “to love your neighbor as yourself.”