Ancient reconciliation tale continues to teach lessons


Genesis 44:18-47:27

Ezekiel 37:15-28

The rabbis taught that words that come from the heart enter the heart. No story exemplifies this wisdom better than the story we read this Shabbat.

The parashah opens with Judah pouring his heart out to Joseph, begging for the release of Benjamin, Jacob's beloved son. In Judah's impassioned speech, he does not convey new facts, but speaks with a depth of feeling we have not heard before. This, it seems, is what makes all the difference.

Several commentators wonder why the parashah begins with the apparently superficial words Vayigash eila" ("He approached him"). This is not, after all, the beginning of a conversation, but the continuation of an exchange between Judah and Joseph begun at the end of last week's portion. Why, then, does the Torah pause to offer the description, "He approached him?" And who, in fact, approached whom?

The Kotzker Rebbe (quoted in Itturei Torah, vol. 1, p. 389) suggests that, in this portion of the speech, Judah approached himself.

Until now, Judah was just doing what he was supposed to do, considering strategy, trying to wrench the best possible outcome from a terrible situation. But now, according to this reading, Judah speaks from a place of deep conviction, digging deep inside his own regret, his own sense of responsibility, his own desire to spare his father pain.

He reviews the whole story of the brothers' journeys to Egypt, but this time, with real empathy for Jacob's losses. Finally, he offers himself as a prisoner in Benjamin's place, knowing that the loss of Benjamin would be a grief that Jacob could not survive.

The Sefat Emet takes this line of interpretation one step further. He considers the reading that Judah approached himself, and then notices that Judah begins with the words Bi Adoni, rendered as "please, my lord." But these same two words may also mean "Within me is my God."

What happens to Judah at this point is that he reaches inside and finds the spark of the Divine within himself (cited in "The Language of Truth," translated by Arthur Green, pages 68 and 70).

The Sefat Emet imagines that at this desperate moment, after years of rivalry, envy and intrigue, the long-hidden spark of the Divine arose in Judah. At this moment, wanting not only to do what was expedient, but what God would want, Judah became the holiest person that he could be.

In this moment, Judah transcended his own needs, his own view, his own personal history, genuinely seeking to help his father and his youngest brother. And it is precisely at this moment that the Torah tells us that Joseph could no longer control himself, could no longer continue his own vengeful game-playing. Judah's genuineness spoke to Joseph's heart. Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, and the reconciliation had begun.

I wonder, what happened to Judah in that moment? What enabled him to arise out of the lifelong mire of his complicated family relationships? What allowed him to transcend his resentment of his father's preferential parenting, to step inside his father's pain? What caused Judah to go deep beneath his usual ways of being, to a place of genuineness, humility and empathy, so that healing could begin?

Perhaps it was simply the desperate turn of events that forced Judah, when all else had failed, to speak the deepest truth from the heart. Or perhaps this is simply a moment of grace in the story.

Joseph, of course, continues the conversation by assuring the brothers that the whole story was directed by God, that it was God's will that events had unfolded in precisely this way, so that Joseph could save his family and his people in Egypt. Perhaps it was grace, too, that allowed Judah to reach out to Joseph.

This story is a challenge to us, when we move through our lives, attached to old, painful stories. What would it take to have us reach deep inside to find the best part of ourselves, to find the Divine within us? What acts of reconciliation might be possible, what healing might unfold, if we could speak from the heart, as Judah did in his moment of pain?

May this eternal story of reconciliation inspire us to bring light to the darkened places in our own lives, in order to find the places to which God has sent us.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at