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Can Love Overcome Resentment?

Can Love Overcome Resentment?

A Lesson from Vayigash


"Resentment is an acid that damages its container."

"Resentment presents an incredible opportunity for growth."

This week's Torah reading, Vayigash, begins with the words1 "Vayigash elav Yehudah," meaning, "and Judah drew near to him." I personally find this moment to be the most moving and emotional event in the entire Bible. And so, with each annual reading of these words, I find myself eager to explore it further.

At a Shabbat dinner, a chassid once told the Rebbe of Kotzk, "I love fish." The Rebbe responded, "You don't love fish. If you loved the fish, you would not have killed it and cooked it on a fire."

There is a seductive, addictive pleasure in self-righteous resentment, which leaves a terrible hangoverUltimately, love is beyond simply saying, "Being with you gives me extreme pleasure."

We all want loving relationships in our lives. And yet, resentment can sour those connections. Creating a loving mutually-appreciative relationship takes skill and commitment. We see daily the challenges in creating closeness between spouses, between parents and children, and between members of a community.

How do we achieve closeness? The Torah warns us that the destructive forces of the universe manipulate our minds, creating "cognitive distortions" (tachbulot, in Hebrew) that justify our holding on to self-righteous resentment. Torah warns us that there is a seductive, addictive pleasure in self-righteous resentment, a pleasure which leaves a terrible hangover. Torah encourages us that we can be "bigger" than our resentments. We can choose to be generous and loving. This week's Torah reading provides us with a dramatic and motivating example of this choice.

Before going on to the example, however, a needed word of caution: Interpreting the meanings of a story about biblical figures has certain dangers. Our biblical ancestors were people who lived at a level of holiness that we have not experienced and therefore do not understand. Spiritual giants like our forefather Jacob and his sons did not descend to feelings of common jealousy or anger, as we common people today understand these emotions.

Given the limits of our simple understanding, we may read a story in which a biblical figure appears to us to have sinned. Yet, when our sages reveal to us the deeper meaning of the story, we find there was no sin at all, but rather quite the opposite.2

Nonetheless, the simple meaning of the stories is also meant to be instructive. In the words of the Talmud:3 "A verse cannot be divested of its simplest meaning." So let us look at the story of our ancestor Judah as a simple story of family turmoil, involving a man named Judah. Keep in mind the caveat, that the true deeper meaning of the story as it applies to the holy Judah and his family is certainly quite different.

A summary of the "simple" story prior to this week's reading:

Although their real anger should have been against Jacob, they vent on JosephThere's a family in which the father, Jacob, visibly favors his wife Rachel and her children, Joseph and Benjamin, over his other wives and their sons. He does so even after Rachel's death.4 Joseph's brothers see that "their father loved him [Joseph] more than all his brothers, and they hated him."5 They feel a murderous jealousy and they ultimately sell him into slavery.

Although their real anger should have been against Jacob, they vent on Joseph.

Their anger blinds them to the consequences of their actions. For the moment, they detach (i.e., dissociate) from their underlying feelings of love for their father. They fail to foresee6 Jacob's reaction of unending, inconsolable mourning. Once exposed to Jacob's grief, they regret their actions. One of the sons in particular, Judah, goes into a spiritual decline.7

Jacob's favoritism is next directed toward Joseph's younger brother Benjamin. He sends all of his sons to Egypt to purchase food during a famine, but refuses to risk sending Benjamin. Meanwhile, Joseph has become viceroy to the king of Egypt. He tells the brothers that he will not sell them any more food unless they bring down their youngest brother. The brothers do not recognize that the viceroy is Joseph.

Jacob, at first, refuses to allow Benjamin to go, although he is willing to allow all of Leah's sons to take the risk of returning to Egypt. Pressured and reassured by his sons, Jacob relents and Benjamin goes to Egypt. There, Benjamin is framed by Joseph, who now seizes the "criminal" Benjamin as his slave. Feeling guilty,8 the brothers offer themselves as slaves. The viceroy declines their offer, saying he will take only Benjamin.

And thus, last week's Torah reading, Mikeitz, ends with the viceroy saying to the brothers "Return in peace to your father."

And now we reach the climax of the story, the opening verse in this week's Torah reading:

"And Judah drew near to him."

Why is Joseph moved by Judah, whereas he showed no emotion in response to the brothers' offer?Judah then offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin. He tells Joseph that Jacob will not be able to bear the loss of his youngest son, Benjamin, especially as he is the only living child of Rachel. He says, "My father's very soul is intertwined with Benjamin's soul."9 Joseph is moved to tears and he reveals his true identity to his brothers.


There are a number of problems with this story. Let us consider four questions.

  1. Why would Judah think that Joseph would accept him as a slave in place of Benjamin, when Joseph had already rejected the offer of all of the brothers to become his slaves?
  2. Why is Joseph moved to tears by Judah, whereas he showed no such emotion in response to the brothers' collective offer?
  3. Why does our Torah use Judah's approaching Joseph as the start of a new "Parshah" (Torah reading), when we appear to be in the middle of a story? In fact, Vayigash begins in the middle of a chapter.10 The structure of the chapter seems to make more sense than the division of weekly readings. (Chapter 44 begins with Joseph framing Benjamin and continues through the end of Judah's plea.) Why did our sages choose to break the story in the middle and start a reading at the word Vayigash, giving such major emphasis to that word that it becomes the name of the reading? The Rebbe noted many times that the name of a reading holds within it powerful, mystical messages that go beyond the simple meaning of the word. What is the special meaning in the word Vayigash?
  4. How was Judah allowed to approach Joseph? Judah was a commoner, previously suspected of being a spy, and the brother of a Hebrew criminal. Even an Egyptian would not have been allowed to draw near to the viceroy.

Suggested Answers:

Judah's actions flowed from a love that transcended ego and resentment. The brothers' previous offer was motivated by guilt, by a fear that the predicament was G‑d's way of punishing them. Judah's action was based, not on guilt, but rather on a love for his father. Judah was essentially saying, "It makes no difference whether I think that my father was unfair in favoring Joseph and then Benjamin. I have reached deep within myself and know that the most important truth is that I love my father and I cannot allow him such pain. My father's happiness is more important than my freedom or my complaints."

It is this level of selfless love that moved Joseph to tears.

"My father's happiness is more important than my freedom or my complaints..."In one sense, it is no surprise that Joseph weeps. I assume that most readers are also touched. Each year as I hear Judah's selfless loving compassion and identification with his father, I am similarly moved. Judah is so deeply in touch with his love for his father that he has no room inside himself to entertain his feelings of hurt and anger.11

Judah has overcome some of the cognitive distortions that we referred to in the opening of this article. One frequent such distortion is: "I can't love someone who continues to do bad things to me," or "I cannot and should not love someone who, at this point in time, does not return my love." (For example, parents who have successfully guided their children through teenhood know that during those years a parent must be able to communicate love to the teen, even if the teen is unable to reciprocate.)

With regard to questions 3 and 4, I hesitantly12 offer this interpretation:

In the words "Judah approached him," the "him" may be referring primarily to Jacob. The major point of the narrative seems to be that, at that moment, Judah was able to draw close to Jacob. In fact the last words in the sentence immediately prior to Vayigash are "el avichem" – "to your father," referring to Jacob. So grammatically, the logical referent for "him" is Jacob. And, in fact, Judah is following the symbolic meaning of Joseph's immediately preceding words: "return in peace to your father."

Judah has found peace within himself; he has freed himself of hurt and jealous rage; he has returned to a loving attitude toward his father.

The Torah reading starts with the word Vayigash because this word contains the primary message of the story of Judah and Joseph that now unfolds—the new emotional closeness between son and father.

While the logic for the division into chapters is based on the literal surface meaning of the story, the division into readings, which is much more ancient,13 is based on the inner, mystical meaning of the narrative. Up until this point, the brothers were motivated by guilt. Now we start a new reading, and an entirely new idea is introduced—a pure love that transcends all previously felt resentments.

There is also no longer wonderment at Judah having approached the viceroy. According to t his interpretation, he, in fact, did not do so. The word Vayigash refers to the emotional proximity of Judah to his father, not his physical proximity to Joseph.

May we all say to each other, "return in peace to your father..." After reading Vayigash, we move on to its companion haftorah.14 In the haftorah we read that Judah's future role will surpass that of Joseph's; Moshiach will descend from Judah. Perhaps it is in the merit of the selfless love he manifested, that Judah is chosen to be the ancestor of Moshiach.15

The narrative is an instruction to us all about enhancing our capacity to forgive and to love. We have a choice. We can throw away our resentments—even when we are convinced that we have legitimate complaints. We can choose to be loving—as a better position than being "technically right." We can reach the deeper part of ourselves that wants to be loving, generous, dedicated, and forgiving.16

Clearly, for us, we bring about a "redemption" in our personal relationships when we follow the example of Judah. May we all say to each other, "return in peace to your father." May we find the power to do so within ourselves, and may we experience G‑d's reciprocity by His bringing about the ultimate redemption, with His fulfillment of the haftorah's promise "and My servant David will be king over them," with the literal, immediate coming of Moshiach.

Before concluding, a necessary note:

This essay refers to dealings between reasonable – even if flawed – people, who are in a personal relationship. My comments do not apply to other issues such as military and political conflicts, street violence, and domestic abuse.

And even in interpersonal relationships, the Torah commands that we be open in confronting people who have wronged us.17 Further, we are enjoined not to be "kind" in a situation that demands of us to be harsh: "He who is merciful at a time when he should be cruel," the midrash18 says, "will end up being cruel at a time when he should be merciful."

That having been said, a major emphasis in Torah is on our need to develop our capacity to forgive.


This deeper interpretation of the story is not a "whitewashing"; rather, it reflects the fact that many of the profoundest truths in Torah are hidden. We see an analogous hidden quality in our current exile, where we have to work to experience G‑d's presence, despite the existence of suffering in the world.


Tractate Shabbat 63a.


When Rachel dies, Leah's sons anticipate that their mother will now receive her due attention. But no, Jacob is so attached to Rachel that he moves his main residence into the tent of Rachel's handmaiden Bilhah. Leah's firstborn son, Reuben, is so offended that he removes his father's bed from Bilhah's tent, as noted in Genesis 35:22 (according to Rashi's interpretation ad loc).


As the Torah warns, even a prophet loses the ability to anticipate the future if he is caught up in anger.


"Vayered Yehudah," "Judah 'descended'" Genesis 38:1, and see Rashi ad loc.


The brothers see this event as G‑d's punishment for their earlier crime against Joseph; so to assuage their guilt, they offer themselves as slaves to the viceroy. When he rejects their offer, the brothers are relieved, and conclude that Benjamin's arrest is not a sign that G‑d is punishing them.


Ibid. 44:30.


The division of the Torah into its current chapters was created by Christian clergy and printers in the 14 and 1500s, to facilitate the translating and printing of the "Old Testament." Johannes Gutenberg (c.1398-1468) was a German who is credited with inventing the printing press in 1440. He printed his famous Gutenberg Bible in 1455. Robert Estienne (1503-1559), also known as Robert Stephens, was a Parisian printer. His division of the Bible into chapters is followed by most current editions of the Bible.


There is a hint that Judah has achieved a level of selfless identification with his father in Judah's repeated use of the word "servant" (eved), to the point of being redundant. Judah uses variations of "your servant" – when referencing Jacob – thirteen times. Thirteen is the gematria (numerological value) of the word echad ("one" or "unity"). Judah has given himself over to his father to the point that he mystically merged with him.


"Hesitantly" because I have not seen a Torah source for this interpretation, and thus worry that it may be erroneous. Nonetheless, the interpretation resonates strongly with me. Perhaps one of the readers will be able to guide me to a confirming Torah source.


The division of the Torah into 54 readings goes back at least 2,500 years, to the period of the First Temple.


The Maharal, in his opus Netivot Olam (ch. "Netiv ha-Ka'as"), notes that a leader who leads his people in a calm, peaceful and settled manner, merits to be their leader in the World to Come too.


A brief summary of some of the Talmudic literature on forgiving appears in my article, The Gift of Forgiveness.


Leviticus 19:17: "Rebuke your fellow!"


Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, quoted in Midrash Rabbah Ecclesiastics 7:33.

Dr. Yisroel Susskind is a clinical psychologist who practices locally in Monsey, New York, and internationally over the telephone. He can be reached via e‑mail ( or by phone (845-425-9531).
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Laura Silver Toronto December 17, 2015

Beautifully presented and explained. Thank- you Reply

Tuviah Dovid Seattle December 23, 2012

Drawing near -- what's in a name The "him" in the opening line of the parshah need not be exclusive. Rather than thinking it's primarily Jacob or primarily Judah to whom Joseph is drawing near, I believe this commentary offers a marvelous "eilu v'eilu." In drawing physically (as well as spiritually and emotionally) near to Joseph, Judah was also drawing spiritually and emotionally closer to Jacob. To draw spiritually and emotionally near to Jacob, Judah realized, it was necessary to draw physically as well as emotionally and spiritually near to Joseph. Further, because Judah is acting as representative of the other 10 brothers, we can envision them drawing emotionally, spiritually and perhaps physically closer as Judah as spoke, eager to hear Joseph's response. Clearly, Judah drew the entire family together -- again, physically, emotionaly and spiritually. Todah rabbah for a truly new insight to this fascinating parshah. Reply

warren werksman Sydney, Australia. December 17, 2012

I am sorry, please forgive me. Thank you for your beautiful drasha. It seems a truism to me that forgiveness is essential to create peace and unity and to bring moshiach. How do we do it? Forgiveness surely is a simple choice. Why is it so hard to make that choice? So often, I think people confuse forgiveness with losing - losing honour, respect, or losing witness to their pain. Forgiveness also means taking ownership of one's own life, responsibility to create one's own path. I guess that means as a Jewish Nation, Am Yisrael is destined to forgive, to bring Tikkun Olam. If we truly believe that we are God's creation, then we can not resent ourselves or others. I am willing to participate, to play my part. I am sorry, please forgive me, I love you. Thank you. Reply

Yehuda Hodara Sao Paulo, Brasil January 1, 2012

Can Love Overcome Resentment I believe that if we are here because we did something bad in our previous life and we have to return in order to make up for our mistakes in order to elevate our soul. Yehuda reached a great spiritual state because he conquered his resentment through forgivness and restored his love for his father and thus elevated his spiritual soul. As elevated in the spiritual world as he was, Jacob should have loved all his children equally and thus there would have not existed any resentments and hate among his children and the suffering that Joseph went through would have not happened. I am very thankful for the beautiful article and the Torah brings to our attention that Yehuda elevated his soul by conquering his resentment through forgivness and thus elevated his soul to a higher level toward G-d. Reply

Yehudis Chana December 9, 2010

vayigash Beautifully analyzed, Dr. Susskind! I also have always found this parasha to be heartbreakingly poignant.Your sensitive insights helped me to understand why...and they are exactly what i needed to hear and (hopefully) internalize at this moment. Thank you -- Reply

Yisroel Susskind Monsey, NY December 25, 2009

response to Anonymous wc wc noted "Yehuda put himself out there . It worked because Joseph was reasonable".

We do well to be willing to take the risk of putting ourselves out there. A person told me that he had spent two hours very recently in the cold and snow at the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Ohel asking for guidance re his severely estranged children. When he came back into the building to warm himself with a cup of tea, printed on the teabag were the words "He who forgives first ends the quarrel" Reply

Anonymous wc December 25, 2009

reasonable people I find your caveat at the end of this column : Forgiveness and dissolving resentments is for reasonable people. In other words like any ' military campaign ', one must try diplomacy. If diplomacy with honest and true intentions doesn't work, the resentment must be handled otherwise, the most common of which is to let sleeping bears lie. This said, your article still teaches us how to handle our own side of the resentment relationship. Yehuda put himself ' out there '. It worked because Joseph was reasonable. As you point out, biblical times had more refined characters. It still makes their reactions the right ones in our times.
Thank you. Reply

Carmen December 24, 2009

And even towards parents... Even towards parents,I think we have to grow older and see our parents also grow older,in their winter days,in order to be able to act with such a compassionate love.

When younger,the differences and conflicts between parts can overcome such a capability and we may think that we have plenty of time to forgive later ,to have compassion later,and to act later in order to not let them go to Heavens,when there comes the time, in sorrow or regret ,even if they have eventually failled too much,according to our limited understanding.
We think,when we are younger ,that we have plenty of time to make mistakes,correct them,make new mistakes,correct them....And we have indeed that time.We many times even hate them when we are younger and sometimes we still hate them when not so younger anymore,but just up at the time of their winter days...Then,before is too late, we must fix things. Reply

Carmen December 24, 2009

It is missing the word compassion... ...But anyway,I think that such an attitude is not only possible but should be an obligation only towards our parents.Actually,it is a stated obligation in the commandment to honor parents,and Judah honored his father in the most elevate possible sense of this commandment.

For all others that we relate,even a brother or a sister,the last note of your writting is what applies:harshness when needed and love when possible. Reply

Yisroel Susskind Monsey, NY December 24, 2009

Esther and Anonymous Dallas posts Dec '09 Thank you for taking the time to let me know that the article was helpful.
To AnonymousDallas: I don’t know any of the details, but I have seen that when a parent non-intrusively keeps a loving door open, time can bring a reconciliation. I don’t know if you have someone to counsel you or engage in joint problem solving around this difficulty; I do know that having such a person does help. My best wishes, Reply

Yisroel Susskind monsey, ny December 24, 2009

post by Rus Devorah Wallen thanks for your appreciative, encouraging post. You are such a warm and sensitive person Reply

BC SF, CA December 24, 2009

This is very poignant I appreciate such appropriate comments relating to love and forgiveness. Reply

Anonymous Dallas, TX USA December 23, 2009

As if handed a Gift Thank you for writing such a clear interpretation. I am suffering through an estrangement with my oldest daughter for almost 3 years. It has affected my mental health, belief in my abilities and has shaken my soul. All my attempts at reconciliation have been rejected, and it only gets worse as time goes by. I can only pray that the love Judah had for Jacob will be as strong as the love for my daughter, when G-d willing we reconcile and begin to heal. Reply

esther southfield December 23, 2009

Thank you! so well written! What a wonderful article! I've learned many commentaries on the Chumash, yet this is the first time this topic is explained like this. The article was so easy to follow and the question answer format made it very clear. Thank you so much! Reply

Yisroel Susskind November 12, 2009

Posts by Rus Devorah W and Sara W Thanks for appreciating the article. I find this moment in Vayigash deeply touches my heart and helps my ability to love the wonderful in my parents (peace be upon them) and to accept the imperfect parts. Reply

Sara Weinstein Pittsburgh, Pa November 11, 2009

Right on Target! Thank you for sharing such deep meaning on such important topics as love, relationships, and the ability to forgive. After reading your enlightening article, I feel like I just stepped upon a gold mine! Reply

Rus Devorah Wallen Brooklyn, NY January 1, 2009

As Always, Yisroel, beautiful! Thank you so much for this analysis. It helps us see the character development in the Torah. Very revealing.

Thanks for making the Rebbe's words so clear. Reply

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