Letting go of the past
Vayigash - Genesis 44:18-47:27
Vayigash is devoted to the drama of confrontation and reconciliation that takes place among Joseph and his brothers, and between Joseph and his father, Jacob.
Having fabricated an apparent theft of royal treasure by the youngest son, Benjamin, Joseph (who has not revealed his true identity) confronts his brothers. They expect Benjamin will be imprisoned, fulfilling the fear their father expressed when he implored them not to bring their youngest brother to Egypt.
Unlike the jealousy and enmity that drove them to dispatch Joseph so many years earlier, the brothers display contrition and concern.
Apparently moved, Joseph can no longer contain himself and reveals his identity: “I am Joseph; is my father still well?” (Genesis 45:3)
The Torah then describes a monologue delivered by Joseph to his brothers. But only after Joseph embraces his brothers are they “able to talk to him.” (45:15) But the Torah does not tell us what they said!
Years earlier, a similar scene was enacted. Returning to the Land of Israel after many years, Jacob prepares to do battle with his brother Esau, from whom he had stolen the birthright and from whose rage he had fled. But instead, we read that “Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him, and…kissed him; and they wept.” (33:4)
The Torah then narrates a dialogue between Jacob and Esau, in which they discuss everything but Jacob’s act of duplicity!
Nowhere does Jacob apologize, nowhere does Esau articulate forgiveness; we can only surmise that reconciliation was accomplished — but the brothers immediately go their separate ways.
With this example as an anticipation of the encounter of Joseph and his brothers, we are left puzzled and troubled by the absence of any description of the conversation between them.
We are, however, given a hint of what may have transpired when, upon dispatching the brothers to bring his father Jacob to Egypt, Joseph instructs them: “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.” (45:24)
We may imagine, then, that after encountering Joseph, the brothers engaged in recriminations, each blaming the other for selling him into slavery.
Unlike Jacob and Esau, Joseph’s brothers seemed intent on revisiting the central traumatic event in their family history.
Joseph, however, will not be drawn in; he has told his brothers: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me [into slavery]” (45:5). When the brothers return to Egypt, Joseph settles them in Goshen, while he remains a safe distance away, directing the programs that would ensure the future.
Despite, or because of, whatever he may have endured and accomplished, Joseph lives in the present and works for the future. The brothers remain mired in the past, fighting old battles whose relevance no longer matters.
How easy it is to become trapped by the past and continue to pursue the resolution of issues that no longer have any practical consequences.
Our Jewish community faces the choice of which paradigm to pursue: Joseph’s or his brothers’. Too often, valuable time, energy, and resources get diverted as we argue over who did or did not say or do something to someone, someplace, sometime.
How much more could be accomplished if we would begin from where we are, forging a vision of where we can go as a community.
Letting go of the past is never easy, but the story of Joseph and his brothers teaches us there is no other way to move into the future.