This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, Genesis 44:18–47:27.
This week’s Torah portion focuses on reunions, the climax of a saga which has taken 10 chapters to tell.
To summarize: Jacob’s sons had sold their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Joseph rose to great heights in Egypt, eventually becoming second in power to pharaoh. After many years, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to obtain grain during a famine. They requested food from Joseph, not knowing who he was. Joseph manipulated the situation until the brothers felt completely at his mercy.
Our Torah portion opens with a poignant plea for compassion by Judah. Joseph finally reveals himself to the brothers. He exclaims, “I am Joseph your brother! Is my father still alive?”
Dumbstruck, his brothers cannot believe what they had heard until Joseph assures them that he does not harbor a grudge. He tells them that it was all part of God’s plan to ensure that the entire family would remain alive.
News of the dramatic reunion spreads so fast that even pharaoh hears about it. When Joseph eventually brings his father to Egypt, pharaoh grants him an audience to express his appreciation for all that Joseph had done for Egypt.
It may be hard for a modern reader to grasp the power of this story. What constitutes a reunion has changed so drastically in our lifetimes.
In 19th century Europe, having been separated by famine, war or persecution, family members may not have known if their relatives were alive or where they were. It may have taken years, even decades, to find them, and much more time to arrange to be reunited.
Imagine what such a reunion must have looked been: tears, laughter and rejoicing that lost relatives were still alive. Or relatives they had never met before.
Today, we have the telephone, email, texting and social media. It’s much easier for people to stay in contact with relatives and friends, especially for important events.
Some synagogues have installed video streaming systems in their sanctuaries. If relatives are unable to attend a bar/bat mitzvah or wedding, they are able to watch on the internet.
We might be entering an age when family reunions might not take place often or at all. Only time will tell if this is a positive development. But there is a secondary question which we need to ask: Will we be able to maintain the closeness and warmth of family ties if we only visit each other virtually?
AT&T once had an ad campaign which said, “Reach out and touch someone.” The irony was that the phone company promoting long-distance telephone calls, where direct touch is impossible. I would recommend that we remember the slogan, but use it as a prompt to visit relatives who live long distances away. And every so often, plan family reunions.
I like to think that when Joseph’s brothers were able to embrace him after so many years, they realized how much they actually missed him. Let’s keep that in mind, and go the extra distance to be reunited with our families.
Questions for discussion
1. Try to envision what happened when families were reunited after being separated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. What emotions can you recreate?
2. Do you take the initiative to visit relatives, or do you wait for them to come to see you?
Rabbi James Michaels is the director of clinical pastoral education at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.