This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, Genesis 44:18 – 47:27.
Our Torah portion, Vayigash, brings us the end of the three parsha cycle of the Joseph story. It picks up at a moment of suspense: To test loyalty brothers’ loyalty to one another, Joseph has framed Benjamin for the crime of stealing Joseph’s silver goblet. At the end of the previous parsha, Judah, the very one who decided to sell Joseph into slavery and actually profit from their crime against him, is the one who speaks up first, offering up all 11 brothers for the supposed crime of the one.
This week’s parsha opens with the phrase “Vayigash eilav yehudah,” meaning “Judah approached him [Joseph]”. This is an interesting way to start, as Judah had already been speaking with Joseph directly (or at least through a translator in order for Joseph to keep his identity hidden). The ancient rabbis also noticed this and asked what it meant that Judah approached him; Judah was already speaking to Joseph.
While the text of the Torah shows a heartfelt speech given by Judah, the midrash, from a variety of sources, paints a different picture. The midrash shows Judah as convinced of Benjamin’s innocence and angrily confronting Joseph, threatening (with the backing of the other brothers) to kill one-fourth of Egypt’s population. “I will dye all of the districts of Egypt with blood,” Judah exclaims. Joseph’s reply is “for you dyed the coat of your brother with blood” (a detail that would have shocked the brothers).
It is out of this confrontation that Joseph decides to reveal himself, fearing that the brothers had the resolve and ability to do as they said. Therefore, according to this midrash, Joseph was looking for more than Judah’s speech seeking mercy, Joseph wanted the brothers to rise, angry, with zeal to protect their youngest one. Once Joseph saw that they were willing to get angry to save Benjamin, as opposed to the nearly emotionless way they sold him into slavery, he knew the brothers had indeed repented.
What Joseph sought from his brothers was more than pity on their father, but a show of force to prove they truly cared about one another. When they showed this and Joseph saw that it was genuine, then he revealed himself. Ultimately, for our great sages, it was a demonstration of anger that showed how much they cared and how strongly they wanted to fight the injustice of his pending imprisonment. If they didn’t care about Benjamin (and their father), they wouldn’t have fought so hard for him.
Anger is often described as a negative emotion, but when used properly it has great power. Just as the brother’s anger showed they cared, there are productive ways to use anger in our day and age as well. When we see injustice in our communities, our nation and in the world, we can speak out, we can say that it makes us angry and we can be prepared to do something about it. In our day and age it is, of course, not proper to threaten physical harm. We do have the power of our voices, our votes, our wallets and more to make it clear that we will not accept injustice.
Questions for discussion
1. What is an injustice you have seen that has made you feel angry? What could you have done to help in that moment?
2. How can you use your anger about an injustice in a healthy way to make an unjust situation more just?
3. How can you support those who are fighting injustice locally and around the world? n
Rabbi Daniel Plotkin is the rabbi-educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.