Perhaps nothing grieved or perplexed the Master quite so much as when God’s people displayed a continuous hardness-of-heart in the face of human need and suffering.
Mankind’s penchant for unwarranted hubris is perhaps only matched by his ability to close his eyes to an unhealed wound.
But not the Master.
“A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Is.42:3).
Which brings me to a unique perspective on this week’s Torah portion.
In Genesis 44, Judah draws near to Joseph to share a dilemma with the Egyptian prince. He tells Joseph the story going on behind the scenes in the family, and the agony of their father related to the demands Joseph has placed upon them. Specifically, the issue at hand is bringing the youngest brother, Benjamin, the second son of beloved Rachel, to Egypt.
But what is curiously absent in Judah’s petition is any mention of Joseph himself, or of the sins of the brothers against him. Rather, what is of chief concern to Judah is the fear of disappointing or hurting the father, Jacob.
“Your servant my father said to us, “You know that my wife bore me two sons; and the one went out from me, and I said, ‘Surely he is torn in pieces,’ and I have not seen him since. If you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.” Now therefore, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us, since his life is bound up in the lad’s life, when he sees that the lad is not with us, he will die” (Gen.44:27-31).
While it is certainly noble of Judah that he is concerned with the welfare of his father and the impact losing Benjamin would have on him, the irony of this circumstance in reflection of the incident with Joseph 20 years earlier remain unaddressed and unresolved.
This would have been the time to reference the sins of the past, and to acknowledge the lessons learned. After all, this is the fruit of true repentance: the ability to look unflinchingly at the sins of the past, and speak honestly about them, without the need to sidestep personal fallibility.
The Master rebuked the nation’s leadership for ignoring the plight of the heart and the love of their neighbor and fellow Israelite while diligently striving to be meticulous over the minutia of observance. The unity of the brethren is more important than nearly anything, even one’s personal discipline in observance of mitzvot.
Rabbi Avital Hochstein of Mechon Hadar summarizes the problem in an interesting way:
“…In these words Yehudah does not express loyalty toward Binyamin as his brother but rather a fear of not keeping the promise he made toward his father. Thus Yosef once more finds himself disappointed with his brothers. This appears to be the impetus for revealing his identity…Yosef understands that there is no change, no remorse, and thus no forgiveness, without his sharing of his true, full identity.”
All the mitzvot in the Torah…if a person transgresses one of them…when they repent and return from their sin, they must confess…What is complete repentance? This is one who has the ability to do something that they have transgressed in (before) and it is possible for them to do it (again), but they separate themselves and do not do it. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:1, 2:1)
(She continues…) “Full teshuvah, full penitence, is possible only when circumstances are duplicated. This is possibly not only true from the point of view of the sinner, but also from that of the one being sinned against…(therefore) Yosef’s absence from Yehudah’s words is alarming.” (Avital Hochstein, “Yosef could not hold himself back”, 5777, http://www.hadar.org)
The “tests” Joseph gives his brothers are designed, therefore, to fully duplicate the potential for a repeat of the horrendous sin against his own person 20 years previously. But the brothers have buried the story into the shadows. It is a reality that all are aware of, but bringing it to the light is unthinkable, even though it haunts their days.
Joseph must risk the pain and convulsive recoil that is possible in a full revealing.
Only the shock of facing the shame in person will bring the issue to a point of true teshuvah. But this requires exposure and vulnerability.
As Hochstein points out, it is perhaps most disconcerting to Joseph that, rather than immediately recognizing the repeat of the opportunity, Judah effectively sidesteps the moment of reckoning and defers to the needs and concerns of the father. Noble, yes, but not the point at all.
“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matt.5:23-24).
It would be much easier to just forget the incident and simply move on. After all, I’m not that person anymore, so why do I have to revisit it?
Joseph realizes that his attempts to force his brothers to face themselves is not really working, because they are not focused on the preservation of unity, but in avoiding the chastisement and consternation of the father. Their relationship with both the father and their own brothers is full of deception, duplicity and fear. Certainly not love. This realization is just too much for him, and he breaks down emotionally. He can’t sustain it. He cries, his emotion spilling to the surface.
“For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim.1:7).
This scene with Joseph and his brothers is reminiscent of another scene in the gospels.
“He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, “See how he loved him!” (Jn.11:33-36)
The crowd did not understand. Yeshua was not troubled for himself only, but for those around him who could not see, even though their eyes worked fine. How desperately he wanted his brothers to believe. How it grieved him to have to force the issue in order to make the lesson clear.
Yeshua, like Joseph, saw the purpose behind the death of Lazarus, and the reason he must endure the personal pain of the ordeal:
“Jesus said to them, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” (Jn.11:14-15)
“Father, I thank You that You have heard me. I knew that You always hear me, but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent me.” (Jn.11:41-42)
It is quite similar to the Joseph narrative. At the point of breaking, choked with emotion, Joseph clears the Egyptians out of the room, so that it is only himself and the brothers present.
“Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me.” And they came closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before to you preserve life.” (Gen.45:4-5)
Joseph endured horrendous treatment at the hands of his brothers in his youth, which became compounded when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown in jail. But now, as second in command of Egypt, having overcome the adversity, he cannot rest or be at ease in his place of authority until he has done all he can to reconcile the family, now that his brothers have come before him.
When it comes to the seminal moment, however, in which full disclosure and repentance for wrong deeds is required, his name is absent from the narrative, as though he never really existed at all. His place in the family has been erased and has been replaced by an unspoken shadow of shame; a blight of conscience that lurks beneath the surface for all of them, but is rarely if ever spoken of.
Yeshua waits anxiously to fully reveal himself to his brethren. It overwhelms him that his name has been struck from the records of the collective memory of the nation, yet he does not shy away from the pain. He faces it. He forces the issue, for the sake of unity, and for the healing of the dissonance created by sin and the layers of self-delusion that are piled on top of this sin because they don’t have the ability to deal with it themselves in a satisfactory or holistic manner.
Yeshua, like Joseph, has gone on ahead of them in order to preserve life, not to condemn it.
Finally, there are two things we learn in this parsha about the manner in which the Master will reveal himself to his own:
Following the pattern of Joseph laid before us, when this reconciliation happens, the Church will not be in the room. He will likely be alone with his brethren, with no distracting evangelistic noise surrounding the occasion. Second, according to Rambam’s Laws of Repentance, it will involve the opportunity to face a duplication of the circumstance in which the first transgression transpired, and he will be willing to risk everything to bring about the facilitation of complete teshuvah; and ultimately, restoration.
Just like Joseph in our parsha, the Messiah Son of Joseph will perform the ministry of reconciliation. He is willing to endure the pain and awkwardness of this process, for the sake of the unity of the brethren.
“He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Is.53:3)