Vayigash: Compassion

(artist unknown)

Judah opens this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (“And he stepped close”), by stepping forward and making a speech to the viceroy of Egypt.  Even at close range, he does not recognize the viceroy as his own brother Joseph, whom he sold into slavery twenty years before.

The two men face one another.  Ten men stand behind Judah: his nine brothers and co-conspirators in the sale of Joseph, and the baby of the family, Benjamin, who is now a tall young father.  The viceroy’s assistant has found a silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack, but Judah knows Benjamin is not a thief.

Behind Joseph are his Egyptian attendants, including an interpreter. Joseph has been speaking only Egyptian, hiding the fact that the language of Judah and his brothers is also his own native tongue.

Judah sees an Egyptian nobleman wearing fine linen and gold, a man with absolute power in Egypt, a man who has unaccountably, capriciously, decided to play a sadistic game with the brothers from Canaan, feasting them one day and accusing them of crimes the next day.  The previous year, when the ten oldest brothers went down to Egypt to buy grain, the viceroy imprisoned one of them as a hostage until they returned with their youngest brother.  Fortunately, the viceroy picked Shimon (Simeon), whose penchant for violence made him unpopular back in Canaan.  Nobody in the family had been in a hurry to redeem Shimon.

But the famine continued, and only Egypt had grain for sale.  Jacob kept refusing to give up his youngest son.  He had never stopped grieving for Joseph’s presumed death, and Benjamin was the only other one of his twelve sons that he cared about.  But when Judah personally pledged to return Benjamin to his father no matter what, Jacob gave in.

And now this sadistic viceroy of Egypt has picked Benjamin, out of all the brothers, to persecute next.  He will let everyone else go home with grain, even Shimon.  But Benjamin has to stay behind as the viceroy’s slave.

How can Judah negotiate with this madman?  Somehow, he has to crack the viceroy’s hard Egyptian heart.

Meanwhile, Joseph faces his brother Judah, the ringleader who talked the rest of his older brothers into selling him to a caravan headed for Egypt.  Sure, slavery was better than death, and if Shimon had had his way, the brothers would have murdered the 17-year-old Joseph on the spot.  And sure, Joseph’s adventures in Egypt have transformed him from a slave in prison to Pharaoh’s second-in-command.  But he still does not trust his brothers.  Especially the smart one, Judah.

Let them all go back to Canaan with grain, all except for “little” Benjamin.  He will keep Benjamin safe in Egypt.  As for Jacob—well, Joseph was used to not thinking about his problematic father.

The two men face one another.  Judah begins his speech to the viceroy by reviewing what happened during the brothers’ first visit to Egypt, without Benjamin.  He explains that his aged father is still grieving for the loss of one of his beloved late wife Rachel’s two sons (Joseph), and he could not bear to lose the other one (Benjamin).  Then Judah describes his own position.

“And now, what if I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us?  And [Jacob’s] life is bound up with [Benjamin’s] life.  When he sees that the boy is no more, he will die; and your servant [Judah] will have brought down the gray head of your servant, our father, in anguish to the grave.”  (Genesis 44:30-31)

Perhaps Judah pauses, looking for a sign of human compassion in the viceroy’s face.  But he sees nothing, so he makes his offer.

“So now, please, let your servant stay, instead of the boy, as a slave to my lord, and the boy will go up with his brothers.  For how can I go up to my father when the boy is not with me?  —lest I see the evil fortune that will find my father!”  And Joseph was not able lehitapeik …  (Genesis 44:34-45:1)

lehitapeik (לְהִתְאַפֵּק) = to control himself, to restrain himself, to hold himself together.

Joseph has savored his role as Pharaoh’s viceroy.  In last week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, he exulted: “God has caused me to forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.”  (Genesis 41:41)

During his long and convoluted game with his brothers, Joseph played the part of an Egyptian nobleman with ease.  His inner identity was locked away deep inside.

But when Judah expresses his own compassion for Jacob, the father who never loved him,  then Joseph’s heart cracks.  He can no longer avoid thinking about his distant father.  His own hidden identity returns to him.  He dismisses all his Egyptian attendants, and breaks into tears.

And Joseph said to his brothers:  “I am Joseph.  Is my father still alive?”  And his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were in sudden terror before him.  (Genesis 45:3)

As long as Joseph maintained his self-control, his ego led him to play one trick after another on his brothers.  Whether his purpose was revenge, or merely to test his brothers to see if they had reformed, Joseph kept thinking up and carrying out one more trick, one more test.  If Judah had merely told Joseph that he had pledged himself to return Benjamin to their father, Joseph would have received the strongest evidence yet that Judah, at least, was no longer the sort of man who would sell his own brother.

But would that additional piece of evidence have made Joseph drop his mask and end his game?  I doubt it.  It is Judah’s description of their aged, grieving, broken-hearted father that breaks Joseph’s heart, that makes him no longer able to control himself.

In my own experience, compassion is a fickle emotion.  I am not the only person I know who can feel compassion for someone—perhaps a starving child in a distant land, whose photograph appears when I open my mail—and yet do nothing about it.  And I am also not the only person who can doggedly go on doing the right thing even when my heart is not moved.  Sometimes I wonder if compassion is all it’s cracked up to be.

The story of Joseph reminds me that we humans tend to keep on doing whatever we’ve been doing, whether it’s ignoring someone or manipulating someone or trying to prove something.  We do not like to change our minds.

But if compassion suddenly touches someone’s heart, there is a moment when you lose your self-control.  The ego loses its grip.  A forgotten identity wells up.  Yes, you may harden your heart and recover your old mask and your old game.  But you may also have a change of heart, and rise to become a better person.

I find I am grateful that humans are capable of feeling compassion.  Because you never know what will happen when someone’s heart is moved.

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