Vayigash: When sorrow is embedded
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Vayigash: When sorrow is embedded

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

I wonder what it would have been like to be Joseph at that moment. Was he standing or was he seated? Did he fall to the ground, shaking, as the waves of incessant, uncontrollable tears poured through him? Did anyone try to comfort him, to offer any wisdom, to place a hand on his shoulder, to stand by him as the memory of the trauma that he had suffered poured out of him?

With Joseph’s goblet having been found in Benjamin’s bag (the conclusion of Miketz, last week’s parasha), Joseph’s brothers have rent their clothes (a sign of deep mourning), and returned to Joseph’s house, throwing themselves on the ground, pleading for clemency. Joseph holds the power; all the cards are in his hand. He can imprison all of his brothers, enslave them, and possibly go so far as to put them to death. Joseph decides to enslave Benjamin, sending the rest of the brothers away. Until…

Judah approaches Joseph with the gentlest of requests, a reminder that if Benjamin were to leave his father Jacob forever, then Jacob would die. Judah’s emotional request, according to Dr. Meira Polliack, lecturer in Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, in her paper “Joseph’s Trauma: Memory and Resolution” “…functions as…a display of generosity, not only by endearingly acknowledging the deep bond between Jacob, Joseph and Benjamin (44:20), but also by verbalizing yet again the traumatic event, this time through the father’s eyes (vv. 27-29); and by its expression of binding commitment to Jacob and Benjamin, even at the price of self-sacrifice (vv. 30-34).” And it is this display of generosity, which leads Joseph to reveal his shattered truth.

The text, in Parashat Vayigash, is resplendent in the Hebrew. V’lo yachol yosef l’hitapek, Genesis 45:1. JPS translates this phrase as “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants.” The BDB Lexicon takes the translation a step further, suggesting that apek (aleph-pei-qoph), means that Joseph couldn’t hold himself together or be strong any longer; he couldn’t channel his emotions any further. Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) comments, “Because until now, Joseph was completing all of his work by controlling himself in his heart.” He controls himself, until he can’t anymore, until the tears begin to flow and the floodgates open.

Va-yitein et kolo biv-chi, Genesis 45:2. And Joseph brought forth his voice in tears, and Egypt heard, and the House of Pharaoh heard (my own translation). There are those among us, in our own way and our own right, who know full well what crying like that sounds like; gasping, breathless sobs that we think will never stop, tears of deepest grief that rack us to the very core of who we are, all captured in four words in Hebrew.

The expression of Joseph’s pain is so raw, and so real, that the first words he can muster are very simply, very plainly, “Ani yosef, I am Joseph.” And who is Joseph? He is a dreamer, a visionary, a favorite child. He is someone who has been thrown into a pit, left for dead, sold into slavery, harassed, imprisoned, and who finally, in a foreign country, found a way to ascend to a position of great importance.

But who is Joseph? Joseph is still a son, still a brother, and he is still afraid, filled with grief, and deeply traumatized. The pain has never left him, and it never will. Yet still, he is Joseph. In the fullness and the glory of his deep wounding and trauma, he is present before his brothers, and he knows who he is.

And all Joseph can do, is offer the moments of his pain to God, because if he holds on to the blame, the victimization any longer, it will eat away at his soul and destroy him. Even in the midst of a terrible emotional breakdown, a collapse that is heard far and wide, Joseph knows who he is. Saying Ani yosef, is a statement, that he is Joseph in his success, as much as he is Joseph in his deepest sorrow. No matter the time elapsed, no matter the lessening of the wound, the pain remains there, always lurking beneath the surface, for some encounter, malicious or inadvertent, that triggers the feelings, leading them to bubble to the surface once more.

No, Joseph reminds us. Life never leaves us. No matter how much we try to run away, no matter how far we might go, body and soul always seems to have a way of remembering.

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