"Resentment is an acid that damages its container."
"Resentment presents an incredible opportunity for growth."
This week's Torah reading, Vayigash, begins with the words "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.
Nonetheless, the simple meaning of the stories is also meant to be instructive. In the words of the Talmud: "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. Joseph's brothers see that "their father loved him [Joseph] more than all his brothers, and they hated him." 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 foresee 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.
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, 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." 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.
- 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?
- Why is Joseph moved to tears by Judah, whereas he showed no such emotion in response to the brothers' collective offer?
- 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. 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?
- 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.
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.
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 hesitantly 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, 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. 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.
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.
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. 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 midrash 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.