Parashat Vayigash brings us the dramatic conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers, an extraordinary account of sibling rivalry, hatred, vengeance, human manipulation and what even doubters would have to call fate.
As we approach the climactic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, Judah reviews the whole story of Jacob's loss of Joseph, throwing himself at Joseph's mercy, pleading before the hard-hearted Egyptian viceroy not to keep Benjamin with him while sending the brothers on their way. All intrigue and manipulation behind him, Judah knows that the loss of Benjamin is a grief that would kill Jacob, and Judah pleads for mercy with all his heart.
Now, Joseph's heart breaks open. His sobs are so loud that the Egyptians can hear, and so the news reaches Pharaoh's palace. Joseph says to his brothers, `I am Joseph. Is my father still well?'" (Gen. 45:1-3).
While some commentators paint Joseph as a paragon of faith and forgiveness throughout the story, some quite rightly point out the way Joseph tortures his brothers as the story unfolds. Why is it just now that Joseph softens to the point where he can no longer hide his identity or his tears, where he is ready to forgive his brothers?
Several commentators say that Joseph was in fact waiting for the brothers' tshuvah to be complete. It is only at this point in the story that the brothers can complete the process of tshuvah, including not only regret and verbal acknowledgment of the sin (which they had already done back in Gen. 42:21), but also encountering the same circumstances a second time and choosing to behave differently.
Once again, the brothers must deal with a favored son of Jacob and Rachel, Benjamin. Will they give in to their jealous anger again, and leave Benjamin in Egypt?
This time, they choose a different path. When Judah comes to Joseph offering his own life in order to protect Benjamin and return him to Jacob, the tshuvah process is complete. Joseph removes the mask, accepts their apology and brings his family together again.
This theory is lovely — Joseph designing his actions in order to support his brothers' tshuvah process. It works, but for the apparently spiteful tone in his words as he reveals himself to his brothers.
"I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt…It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you" (Gen. 45:4-5). On the face of things, this little reminder of their past sin is ungracious, at best, on Joseph's part.
Yet for the Sefat Emet, the words "the one you sold into Egypt" are not the rebuke they appear to be. He recalls the midrashic comment on God's words to Moses following the sin of the Golden Calf: "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered" (Exodus 34:1).
Why must God remind Moses that he had shattered the tablets? Doesn't the reminder only suggest that Moses had done wrong, shattering the holy words of God in a moment of rage and betrayal?
No, says the midrash; God's reminder of the shattering of the tablets is an affirmation, an act of healing, for which God offers Moshe congratulations.
So too here, says the Sefat Emet. Joseph — in a faithful twist of normal reaction — congratulates the brothers on their action. You thought that selling me to Egypt was an act of vengeance, of violent rage, of rivalry run amok. But this is not so. Your actions were part of God's plan for our lives, a plan for life and blessing and reconciliation. This too is for blessing (quoted in Itturei Torah, vol. 2 p. 398).
Among its many rich teachings, this parashah wants to teach us how God — and we, as God's partners — can create blessing out of shattering, reconciliation out of rivalry and hatred. This story asks us to wait with more patience, till we see how the story — God's story, our story — turns out.