Parshat Vayigash 2018
As we read the story of Yosef, we get so swept up in the flow of events that we usually don’t realize two things. One is that time – 22years in fact – has passed, and the second is that the characters have undergone tremendous changes that have affected their personalities.
This is obvious with Yosef, the self-centered tattler we met back in parshat Vayeshev who now is not only the Viceroy of Egypt, but also a brilliant economist, efficient manager and licensed family reconciliator. What we may forget is that his alleged adversary at the beginning of today’s parsha, Yehuda, the brother who orates what is considered one of the ten best speeches recorded in world literature, has experienced an about-face as dramatic as Yosef’s.
We remember that it was Yehuda who suggested selling Yosef to the Ishmaelites who would take him to Egypt, where he would probably die– but not at the hands of his brothers. And they would make a bit of money from the bargain as well. No blood on their hands, money in their pockets – a no-brainer.
This is the same Yehuda who treated his daughter-in-law Tamar with such debonair lack of consideration – sending her back to her father’s house to spend her life as an aguna–a chained woman who would wait to be married to a brother-in-law who would never come because Yehuda wouldn’t let him go.
This is the Yehuda who faces the challenge of ensuring the safe return of Benjamin to his father. This is Yehuda, who has promised Yaacov that Benjamin would return, and cannot, will not allow circumstances to prevent him from fulfilling his commitment. Some attribute this new Yehuda to Tamar, his daughter-in-law, who did not reveal that he was the person who impregnated her but rather left it up to Yehuda to decide whether or not to own up to his actions. And he did.
But what about the rest of the brothers? Have they changed? From the conversations they hold among themselves we learn that they feel guilty for having sold Yosef down the river. Is that the same as remorse? Perhaps they feel it shouldn’t have happened, or maybe their feeling is that the pompous egomaniac deserved what he got then. We don’t know.
Do they ever wonder what happened to Yosef? From Yehuda’s speech (“and his – Benjamin’s – brother died”) we learn that they assume he was dead, for at least two reasons. One is they never heard from him again. The main reason is that he was such a namby-pamby spoiled daddy’s boy he could never have survived the trip down to Egypt, and if he did, then hard manual labor would certainly have finished him off.
This is why Yosef’s revelation that he is that self-same dead brother was so dramatic and overpowering. As Dr. Gili Zivan describes it, the unexpected shock left them speechless. And when they finally absorbed the meaning of what Yosef was saying, the dread of their dismal future probably made them wish they were dead. Because, by their own standards of crime and punishment, that’s what they would soon be. Dead. Or worse – alive and whipped by their suddenly reincarnated and vengeful brother.
The reaction of the brothers shows another side of the coin. Yes,everyone has changed, but some things don’t. The child psychologist Piaget wrote about the moral development of children, from the early stage where a bad act must be punished even if the act was accidental, to the most advanced stage where motive is taken into account and no punishment is an option. The brothers are at an earlier stage.
But their continual fears of retribution, despite all signs and statements to the contrary, raise another option. Deep within us we keep accounts. What we owe others (for good and bad) and what others owe us (for good and bad). And eventually, these accounts have to be paid, in both cases.
We see this in global affairs. When the former Yugoslavia broke up into five-six-seven different nation-states, all the old repressed historical enmities came to the fore and war broke out, not over the present but over the past. Peace has been restored but historical slights simmer. The violence in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants has been quelled but it still smolders under the surface, waiting to break forth.
What we see is an alternating pendulum-type cycle of what we can call liberalism and tribalism, between bridging gaps and creating or widening them. The nineteen sixties-seventies-eighties-nineties were a period of liberalism, of expanding horizons and burying hatchets,of opening borders and giving rights to more people.
We seem to have turned a corner late in the last decade, in part because of world events beyond our control, and in part as a pendulum reaction to liberalism. We are in a period of growing tribalism, from the bastion of democracy in America to the ends of Asia, including our own little piece of paradise on earth here.
Let’s hope that this period of tribalism doesn’t descend to the levels of monstrosity that marked the early and mid- twentieth century, and that the message of Yosef – of reconciliation and forgiveness between people and nations – prevails.