Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
By Rabbi Suzanne Offit
“Hinei mah tov u’ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad.” “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers sit all together.” — Psalm 133:1
I first learned these words and several musical renditions of this textual snippet as a child, long before I could even translate the psalmist’s words into English. Years later, having learned the literal meaning of this verse, I began to contemplate its meaning more deeply, knowing how difficult it can be to experience such unity within one’s family, community, or beyond.
The words of psalmist rang in my ears as I read this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash.
Last week, we ended our reading of Miketz with a cliffhanger – a true Torah drama. After years of separation, Joseph and his brothers were reunited after a terrible rupture years earlier. However, this reunion is neither “good” nor “pleasant.” Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt meets his brothers as they come to his court pleading for food in a time of widespread famine. What will Joseph do? Will he reveal himself to his brothers? Will he seek revenge on his brothers, who abused and cast him off decades ago?
How will this story end? How do we want it to end? And, if we know how we want it to end, how will Joseph and his brothers get there?
Somewhere between the portions of Miketz and Vayigash a shift is required. If we could ask Joseph and his brothers how they want this story to end, what might they say? Would they argue over who was right and wrong? Who was responsible for what? What would they do with all of the anger, resentment, jealousy, and fear? The truth is that nothing can be resolved without first coming together. Who is willing to give up what to come together?
The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), writing in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, speaks to this issue:
From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.
Amichai paints a vivid and textured picture of conflict. Simply put, growth is impossible when being right outranks all other concerns. We cannot plant the seeds of reconciliation if demonstrating that we are correct is more important than seeing and hearing the pain and sorrow of the “other” with whom we are locked in conflict. As Amichai states, doubt and love can turn over the soil of division and isolation, creating the kind of ground on which healing is possible.
For Joseph and his brothers to truly come together, someone needs to soften. Judah takes the first step when he reveals his older, wiser, weathered, and compassionate self. Vayigash begins with Judah retelling the family history with the weight of love and loss, grief and vulnerability. And, Joseph listens. Joseph hears. Joseph feels. And then Joseph bursts out in tears, calling his brothers to “Come forward to me.”
Joseph and his brothers have come together; they have, in Amichai’s words, “heard a whisper” where their “ruined house” previously stood.
I have seen this scene acted out many times in my work as a palliative care hospital chaplain. Families come together in traumatic circumstances that enable some people to put aside their anger, jealousy, and decades-long disputes. An acute illness or accident can pull people together after years of bitter separation (even if only briefly).
In meeting with families, the chaplain’s greatest tool is a good question. With thoughtful questions we can help create the necessary space for people to think and talk in different ways. Emotions run high. Opinions are strong. Yet, if we can hold the space with a gentle, calm intention, shifts can and do often occur. Constructive decisions are made. Families move forward. Brothers and sisters sit together, and it can be “good and pleasant.” People need not agree about everything that led them into conflict; not all grievances need to be resolved (certainly not in the short term). What is required is a shared desire for a differentending—one that allows for healing and reconnection. How do we want our story to end? How can we reach our shared goal?
Rabbi Suzanne Offit is lead chaplain for the Palliative Care Team and post-acute services at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston, MA. A Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) specializing in geriatric care as well as palliative care for patients and families, Rabbi Offit, is a 2009 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.