This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, Genesis 44:18 – 47:27.
“And Joseph could not hold himself back in front of all who were standing around him. … And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph; Is my father still alive?’” (Genesis 45:1-3)
Why does Joseph suddenly wake up to his familial ties and reveal himself as the long-lost son and brother? Apparently, he was inspired by Judah’s stirring speech which opens our Torah reading of Vayigash. How did Judah strike such a responsive chord in a Joseph whose heart had previously been so impervious to filial and sibling sensitivity? I believe that the crucial phrase is, “because your servant guaranteed my father that I would serve as a surety for the youth” (Genesis 44:32); Judah informs Joseph that he is an arev, a co-signer, a stand-in for Benjamin.
This concept is quite radical for these warring siblings and resonates in subsequent Jewish legal and ethical literature in the axiom that “all Israel are co-signers (or sureties) for each other.”
Joseph was born into a family of jealousy and hatred.
The six sons of Leah, the “hated” wife who had been forced upon Jacob under false pretenses, refused to recognize the beloved wife Rachel’s son as a legitimate brother; hence the 17-year-old Joseph had no recourse but to find his companionship with the younger brothers, and compensated by “shepherding” his siblings, the sons of Leah, acting the big shot, and reporting all their foibles to his adoring father (Genesis 37:2).
Joseph always refers to his siblings as his brothers, but they never refer to him as “brother”: “And he [Joseph] said, I am seeking my brothers … and Joseph went after his brothers. … And they saw him from afar. The men said, each one to his brother, ‘Behold, that master of dreams is coming, let us kill him and throw him in one of the pits and say that an evil animal devoured him’ ” (Genesis 37:16-20).
The young Joseph was desperately seeking a brotherly relationship with his siblings – but he was constantly rebuffed. When he tried to overcome their rejection of him by recounting his (perhaps compensatory) dreams of grandeur, it only caused them to hate him even more.
Even Reuben, who attempts to rescue Joseph, never calls him “brother,” only referring to “him” as a pronoun (Genesis 37:21, 22). It is only Judah who refers to him as a brother, but since he is desirous of making a profit by selling him as a slave, the use of the term may be ironic: “What profit have we in killing our brother? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, for he is our brother, our flesh” (Genesis 37:26-28).
As the story progresses, the lack of brotherliness towards the sons of Rachel is emphasized even more: “And the ten brothers of Joseph [they felt towards each other as brothers] went down to Egypt to purchase grain, but Jacob did not send Benjamin, brother of Joseph” (but not the brother of the other 10).
And when the sons of Jacob stand before the Grand Vizier, the Bible stresses the inequality in their relationship with a ringing declaration, pregnant with a double meaning, “Joseph recognized his brothers [their identity as well as a sibling relationship to them], but they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8).
The Hebrew word ach (brother) means to be tied together, the verb achot meaning to sew or to stitch, even, if you will, to patch up. It derives from a sense of unity, oneness (echad, achdut) which comes from the understanding of having emanated from one father.
Since the source of their unity is their common father, they should not want to cause pain to each other and certainly not to their father. Apparently, the hatred of the 10 brothers for Joseph even overwhelmed their filial concern for their father’s welfare – and so they seemingly had no difficulty in telling Jacob that his beloved Joseph had been torn apart by a wild animal!
When Judah declares to their father Jacob that he will stand as surety for Benjamin, he is expressing his newfound recognition that this youngest son of Rachel is truly an ach, a brother, an inextricable part of him, Judah, even though he was born of a different mother. When he tells the Grand Vizier that he is willing to be a slave instead of Benjamin – so that this son of Rachel may be restored to his loving father in order to save Jacob further pain – he is demonstrating the bond of ultimate unity between siblings, and between them and their father. This is achva (brotherliness) and achdut (unity) which creates an indissoluble bond (chibur, chaverut, profound attachment). It is at this point of Judah’s self-sacrifice for Rachel’s youngest son that Joseph recognizes his brothers’ repentance and is ready to forgive and reunite with them.
The prophet Ezekiel provides the ultimate vision of a united Israel when he is told by God to take one stick and write upon it “For Judah and the children of Israel his friends” (chaver, chibur, bond), and to take another stick and write upon it, “for Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and the entire house of Israel his friend,” and to join both sticks so that they are united in his hand (Ezekiel 37: 15-20). This is the Jewish goal, learned from Judah, when every Israelite sees themselves as a co-signer (surety) for every other Israelite for the greater glory of our common Father in heaven.
Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.