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Parshat Vayigash: The Power to Repair


Last week’s Parshat Miketz leaves us with a cliffhanger, waiting to discover what will happen in the struggle between Yosef and Yehuda. Every year when I listen to Kriat HaTorah and we reach the end of the parshah, despite the fact that I know the end of the story I am struck anew by the drama of the moment.


With Parshat Vayigash, we take up the narrative and open with Yehuda’s powerful speech, which manages to convince Yosef that he can reveal himself to his brothers. Many mefarshim focus on the question of what new element in Yehuda’s speech convinces Yosef to reveal himself and reunite with his brothers. While many answers are offered, I would like to focus on the approach suggested by the Abarbanel (42: questions 4,6):


“With all of the testing which Yosef carried out on his brothers by accusing them of espionage, he was still uncertain as to whether they truly loved Binyamin or whether they still hated the children of Rachel, his mother. Therefore he focused on Binyamin particularly, through the test of the cup, to see whether they would try and save him… and then they would be in Yosef’s eyes complete Ba’alei Teshuva (penitents), and he would reveal himself to them and would treat them well, as he indeed did.”


Abarbanel suggests that Yosef has set up a parallel situation to the one in which he was sold, in order to see whether the brothers will choose to protect a child of Rachel or abandon him to save themselves.   According to Abarbanel, Yehuda proves his teshuvah when he commits to staying in Egypt as a slave in Binyamin’s place. Other commentators question the Abarbanel by asking whether this can be considered Teshuvah Gemurah – complete teshuva (as described by the Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1) – since the circumstances are not parallel.  Nevertheless, I would like to use this interpretation and expand it beyond this particular story.


This discussion highlights a central message of humanity and hope that ties together the parshiot at the end of Bereshit. Rav Yaakov Medan, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, suggests that the process of teshuvah accompanies the brothers wherever they go. We see this in the immediate response Yosef’s accusation of spying elicits from the brothers: “Indeed, we are guilty over our brother, because we saw his suffering when he begged us, and we did not listen; that is why this terrible tragedy is upon us” (Bereshit 42: 21).


Despite the fact that it was so many years later, the brothers’ immediate response to their being tormented in Egypt is a sense that this event is somehow related to their selling of their brother. Reuven responds: “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin with the child,’ and you did not listen; now his blood is being avenged!” (Bereshit 42:22). Reuven sees the punishment for the crime and accepts it, but does not suggest a method for fixing it.


Yehuda, on the other hand, has been taught an important lesson in teshuvah by Tamar. While the story of Yehuda and Tamar opens with his unfair treatment of her, by the end of the story he is able to make the courageous statement, “She is more righteous than I” (Bereshit 38:26), admitting responsibility for his own actions and repenting fully for his sin. Almost as if in preparation for the Yosef story, Yehuda brings this same sense of responsibility to bear on the events that transpire in our story.


“Yehuda said, ‘What shall we say, my lord? What shall we speak? Or how shall we clear ourselves? God has divulged the sin of your servants; we have become my lord’s slaves.” (Bereshit 44:13-17). Not only does he admit culpability, but he also suggests a tikkun – a positive path of repentance for the wrongdoing – by offering himself: “Let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and let the boy go up with his brothers.” (Bereshit 44:33).


An important insight into this process can be drawn from a midrash which appears at the opening to the story of Yehuda and Tamar:


“It came to pass at that time that Yehuda went down from his brothers” (Bereshit 38:1).

“It came to pass at that time” – the brothers were occupied with the selling of Yosef, Yosef was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Yehudah was occupied with taking a wife for himself, and God was busy creating the light of the King Messiah. Before the first enslavement occurs, the final redeemer is born.” (Bereshit Rabbah 85:1)


The Midrash draws an important contrast between the actions of the brothers and Yehuda.  While everyone is engaged in mourning, sackcloth and fasting, Yehuda is looking forward and engaged in constructive activity.  What does it mean that through the narrative of Yehuda’s story and the sale of Yosef that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is creating “the light of the Messiah”? Perhaps it refers to the ability to do teshuvah, the power of man to recognize that he has done something wrong, take responsibility for that wrong and commit to change as a result of that realization.  This is what will eventually bring mashiach. Reuven admits his wrong, but it is Yehuda who teaches us about true teshuvah. Yehuda demonstrates the capacity to admit wrongdoing and take action that will try and repair the sin. 


That is the concept of Mashiach. HaKadosh Baruch Hu did not create man perfect, and does not expect us to behave perfectly at all times. What is expected is that we constantly strive to improve ourselves and to draw closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This is how man controls his destiny. No matter what mistakes he makes, he has the capacity to right them as long as he is willing to step up and do so. May we all strive to draw closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu through acts of self-improvement and repair.   




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