"Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers" Renaissance painting by Peter von Cornelius
"Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers" by Peter von Cornelius

Three approaches to reconciliation: physical, spiritual, emotional

’Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. What do you want to change or work on in the year ahead? I have one for you: reconciliation.

This week’s Torah portion: Vayigash
Genesis 44:18-47:27
Ezekiel 37:15-28

Human beings hold grudges toward one another. We distance ourselves from family, friends and community because of differences of opinion. Maybe it’s because we disagree politically, or perhaps we had an unpleasant interaction with someone that came off as insensitive or angry. Sometimes we react quickly in a situation, forgetting to give the other person the benefit of the doubt that there is something else going on behind the scenes. Yet, it gets in the way of connecting with others, of deepening and being in relationship with one another. And so this year, let’s start by resolving to reconcile.

This week’s portion, Vayigash, offers three powerful examples of the challenges of reconciliation and the tremendous reward that can come through the work of trying. The first is physical. With youngest brother Benjamin in custody and Joseph’s identity still hidden from his brothers who stand before him, Judah approaches. He says, “Please, my lord [Joseph], let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant… For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?”

The Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, teaches that “Judah penetrated Joseph’s innermost depths… Judah tied together narrative, appeal, and argument until he physically drew the secret from Joseph. Then the news burst forth that not only was he still alive but he was their brother, with all the love and devotion that comes from the word vayigash [physically reconciled with his brother].” By physically approaching his brother and drawing near to him, Judah and Joseph become vulnerable and, in each other’s presence, are able to begin that first step toward reconciliation.

The second example of reconciliation in this week’s portion is spiritual. Once reunited and reconciled, the brothers return home to share the good news with their father Jacob. Israel (Jacob) said, “How great! My son Joseph still lives. I shall go and see him before I die.” Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz, (16th century Poland) says that Jacob’s use of the Hebrew word “rav,” “how great,” is the ultimate expression of tremendous joy in his heart. For Jacob, “It’s more than enough that he’s alive. It’s that there is korat ruach — a spiritual satisfaction in his being alive.” Sometimes, motivation for reconciliation is that ability to feel spiritually fulfilled that we’ve left our differences behind us. Spiritual reconciliation is about that sense of shleimut, a wholeness that happens when we can experience the joy that comes from living and being in relationship with those around us, growing and learning from our pain and distance.

The third example of reconciliation is emotional, the moment that Jacob and Joseph are finally reunited. The Torah tells us that Joseph wept excessively upon seeing his father. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch highlights that “Joseph wept but Jacob did not weep. [Jacob] had not ceased from weeping; his whole life of feelings had been spent in grief over Joseph. In the meantime, Joseph had lived a life full of changes. He had no time to give himself up to the pain of separation… [Now], he felt all the more what separation had really meant to him.”

One of the reasons why reconciliation is so hard is that it requires us to own the emotions that we feel in our hearts. It’s hard to share pain with someone else, and at the same time, doing so can have tremendous healing power.

Philosopher Martin Buber “speaks of confirming the other in his or her otherness as an elevated way of living a life devoted to nurturing ‘I-Thou’ relationships… Seeking and knowing that part of another is the foundation of a relationship in depth. When a person senses that a spark of merit or uniqueness in oneself is located and valued, the stage is set for being deeply affirmed, and supported,” writes Rabbi Sheldon Lewis.

The story of Joseph and his family reminds me that reconciliation is hard. It requires physically, spiritually and emotionally challenging work. Yet, making those efforts can get us to a place where we can see the other and ourselves through new light, an opportunity for new beginnings. This year, take the time to seek someone out. Approach them; draw close to them physically. Listen to their pain and begin the journey toward spiritual wholeness. And lastly, show compassion and empathy in the midst of emotional vulnerability. For doing so may lead to the most beautiful blessing of reconciliation.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].