Rarely in life are we given a chance to correct the mistakes of our youth. One of the marks of becoming an adult is learning to live with our past errors and striving to grow from them. Sometimes, though, we are able to try again and see whether or not our efforts have made a difference, whether we are indeed better human beings now than we were then.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), our heroes Judah and Joseph are both given this rare opportunity. Once, Judah was willing to sell his brother Joseph into slavery for his own interests. Being free of the precocious, annoying, inspired Joseph allowed Judah and his brothers to have a chance at being favored by their father, Jacob. In a beautiful parallel between narrative and message, Joseph’s separation from his family even gives Judah a chance to be the center of attention for a brief period, allowing us to see his character develop for a change. Like Jacob, he is forced to confront his own failings and comes out the other end a different sort of man than the one who allowed his sibling to be sold off to strangers.
Standing before a man of great power, demanding Benjamin as a slave, Judah responds, “Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (44:32-34).How much changed is this son of Jacob, who once sold his father’s favorite off to Egypt, but now is willing to let himself be taken lest Benjamin’s captivity cause his father harm? And yet, Judah’s teshuva (repentance) is only part of the story. Joseph — once the child who was blind to the harm his own words could do to his family — has also changed. We could understand Joseph being bitter or angry with his brothers. The game he plays with them, framing Benjamin with a crime worthy of captivity, is not one that could come from a place of joy or generosity. It is entirely possible, based on what we know of Joseph up to this moment, that he might choose harsh justice over brotherly reconciliation. But upon witnessing Judah’s choice to save a sibling rather than his own skin, Joseph is able to make his own better choice. He immediately dispenses with the games, offering his name like a password to heal the rift between himself and his family. From the pain and suffering of siblings at odds comes reconciliation that will let the children of Israel become a great nation.This then is one lesson we can learn from our portion. In this time of great contention in our communities along political, social, national and ideological lines, we are all sometimes guilty of cruel transgressions against our siblings. Yet even the most tried and tested of us has the potential to make better choices, to open the doors to reconciliation for all Israel’s children. May we, like Judah and Joseph, learn from the hardships we endure and let the challenges we face be a chance to open our hearts to each other now and in the year to come.