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Throw Me a Rope- A D'var Torah
by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Parashat Vayigash- Gen.44:18-47:27
What can be more satisfying than a story about a family torn apart by ego, envy, pain and suffering, but who, through the trials of life, actually evolves and finds the path to compassion, forgiveness and redemption?! Do we not all long for such healing in our own families, in our world family? As we begin the Joseph cycle each year, I fall into the dreams as they unfold, but in the back of my mind, I eagerly anticipate this moment- the moment of
vayigash, when the higher dream of transformation will occur.
Vayigash opens at the height of tension between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph has demanded that Benjamin, his full-brother, remain in Egypt as his slave in retribution for having apparently stolen Joseph's silver goblet. In an ironic and devastating twist, Joseph, who was sold into Egyptian slavery at Judah's urging for 20 silver pieces, now demands payment for his silver goblet through the enslavement of his youngest and only full-blood brother. Judah has promised his father Jacob, on his life, that he will allow no harm to befall Benjamin. Thus unfolds an encounter between Joseph and Judah that could potentially have resulted in the gravest of consequences for the family. One could easily imagine that Joseph, having been the victim of profound abuse by his brothers, resulting in 13 years as slave and 10 of those years in prison for a crime he did not commit, would have no compunction meting out punishment to his brothers, especially to Judah.
As likely as that would seem, that is not what occurred. What occurred was a powerful transformation in Joseph brought about by hearing Judah's words. The
parashah begins with the words:
And Judah came near to Joseph. Many of the commentators explain this coming close, to mean that he approached Joseph "heart to heart".
Regarding this opening verse, the midrash begins by bringing a quote from Proverbs, "
Designs in the heart of man is like deep waters, but a man of understanding can draw them out (Proverbs 20:5). The midrash explains that, the deep waters are a reference to Joseph's thoughts and the man of understanding who draws them out is a reference to Judah.
The midrash continues,
"Then Judah came near to him." What does this resemble? A deep pit into which no one could climb down. Then a clever person came and brought a long rope that reached down to the water so he could draw from it. In this way, Joseph was deep and Judah came to draw from him."
The image of a deep pit into which no one could climb down is clearly reminiscent of the pit in which Joseph was thrown. But now in the midst of this confrontation between Judah and Joseph, the midrash still envisions Joseph in that pit. He is trapped in the dark place of his wound, in the darkness of his pain and likely, justified anger. He is a man in hiding, unable to claim his true and complete self. Thus when his first child is born, Torah states, "He named his first-born Menashe- meaning, God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." (Gen. 41:51) Like many others survivors of extreme abuse, he is able to move forward in his life only by splitting off from the wounded self of his past. Joseph's complete identity, his fullness of self, is in hiding and as such, he is not yet able to reveal his true identity to his brothers.
Judah approaches Joseph and pleads from his heart for Benjamin's life to be spared. With a deft and beautiful use of language, it is Judah who will pull Joseph out of that pit. Judah, the one who sent him down to the dark pit in the midst of Egypt, will be the one to pull him out of hiding and restore him to his full self, through compassionate words and actions. In fact, it can really
only be Judah who can do this. It is only through Judah's own
teshuvah, his recognition and remorse for the pain he has caused, his empathy, that will allow the full Joseph to emerge from the darkness.
An earlier midrash on Judah's drawing near to Joseph states:
This may be compared to a deep well full of cold and excellent water, yet none could drink of it. Then came one who tied cord to cord and thread to thread, drew up its water and drank, whereupon all drew water and drank thereof. In the same way Judah did not cease from answering Joseph word for word until he penetrated his very heart. Thus, "
Then Judah came near unto him."
Here the midrash goes further to say, that Judah was only able to pull Joseph up and out through his carefully chosen words, "cord by cord and thread by thread." A cord is made up of a multitude of tiny seemingly insignificant threads. What I hear in this midrash is that in order to achieve a transformation in relationship, every word counts- even the small and seemingly insignificant words, when spoken with the power and intention of penetrating the heart, can become tools for transformation. The effects of such a healing between two people have profound implications that go beyond the two individuals. As Joseph was restored to his fullness of being, the midrash describes him as a font of life-giving waters for others. His personal salvation becomes a source for a much greater and far reaching redemption.
As Judah draws near Joseph, there is a sea change at hand. Each responds to a call far greater than their own personal needs.
Judah responds to the needs of his father and his brother Benjamin, with empathy, compassion and a willingness to sacrifice himself on the altar of love.
Joseph is overcome by Judah's compassion and his whole self rises to the surface in weeping, that the Torah describes as so loud, "it was heard by all of Egypt." (Gen. 45:2) With the power of his full self restored, Joseph immediately communicates his recognition of the greater story at work in his life. He tells his brothers not to be distressed or reproach themselves for "it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you."(Gen. 45: 5) He effectively rewrites his own narrative, such that he no longer sees his brothers as the agents of his descent, but rather it was God who sent him down for a greater purpose. Joseph has forgiven his brothers, yes, but his story reveals that forgiveness is more than just a tool for personal healing. It holds the seeds for profound inter-generational transformation, that effectively re-writes the past as it re-imagines the future.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
Forgiveness is more than a technique of conflict resolution. It is a stunningly original strategy. In a world without forgiveness, evil begets evil, harm generates harm, and there is no way short of exhaustion or forgetfulness of breaking the sequence. Forgiveness breaks the chain. It introduces into the logic of interpersonal encounter the unpredictability of grace. It represents a decision not to do what instinct and passion urge us to do. It answers hate with a refusal to hate, animosity with generosity. Few more daring ideas have ever entered the human situation. Forgiveness means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability to live with the past without being held captive by the past. It would not be an exaggeration to say that forgiveness is the most compelling testimony to human freedom. It is about the action that is not reaction. It is the refusal to be defined by circumstance. It represents our ability to change course, reframe the narrative of the past and create an unexpected set of possibilities for the future. (Dignity of Difference, pps. 178-9).
Each of us holds these seeds of transformation, for ourselves and for the world. May we find the courage and compassion to bring them to life, to rescue those parts of ourselves and others still trapped in a dark place. May we throw down the rope and pull one another out of hiding, for we are all in great need of those life-giving waters.
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