Torah portion: A lesson in Joseph’s pain

In Parashat Vayigash, we witness the intense climax of the Joseph story, a story that begins in familial jealousy and estrangement and ends in empathy and reunion.

One message emerging from this tale is that when we hold our own pain and experience deeply, our own grief of loss and betrayal, we create the possibility for true empathy. Empathy is what drives characters in this narrative to acts that defy the expected order and ultimately result in life-saving, redemptive new possibilities.

Joseph, as we know, had been entirely rejected by his brothers. So strong was the brothers’ antipathy for Joseph that they saw even murder as an option. We are a people whose sacred text tells the hard truth about family life: It is the place where we are loved more strongly — but also hurt more deeply — than anywhere else.

By this parsha, Joseph has become a sort of prince in Egypt. Second in power only to Pharaoh, he has complete power of life and death over his brothers who appear before him. Revenge, justice, retribution — all of these must tempt Joseph as he engages the starving brothers who have come seeking food.

This part of the story occurs a few chapters after we are told the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Judah loses two sons and withholds his third son from Tamar out of fear that their deaths may have been connected with marriage to Tamar. The Judah who stands before Joseph as vizier of Egypt has experienced the death of his own sons as well as the terror accompanying the thought of something happening to his surviving one.

That is why it is Judah who makes an impassioned plea here for the release of Benjamin — whom Joseph had framed for theft. Judah explains, in moving detail, what it would do to their father should the boy not return with them to Canaan. He communicates effectively to Joseph his deep empathy for his father’s loss of Joseph and his horror at the thought of losing Rachel’s second and only other surviving son.

From behind the trappings of his station, Joseph is safe to observe, manipulate and test his brothers. It would be completely understandable for him to use this opportunity to exercise his power and mete out the justice his brothers arguably deserve. Instead, Judah’s depth of identification with his father’s pain moves Joseph so deeply that he bursts into tears. It is Judah’s empathy that causes a change in Joseph and results in his own choice to empathize and to risk self–disclosure.

This change in Joseph is an extraordinary moment of courage. It is so tempting to remain in our wounded self-righteousness and to identify with our pain. It is human nature to want to hurt or punish those who have hurt or betrayed us. Who among us would blame Joseph for revealing himself as the brother they savagely rejected and sending them away hungry and hopeless?

In choosing to allow himself to respond to Judah’s empathy for his father (and regret of having caused that pain), Joseph saves his family from starvation and begins to understand the events of his life as having been for this purpose all along. He tells his brothers that everything that has happened to him, including being sold into slavery by them, ultimately put him in a position to help them, their father and all of Egypt survive the famine. Joseph now articulates an understanding of his life as part of a mystery that he could only begin to understand in retrospect.

This story about how we can revisit the painful events or circumstances of our lives in order to understand the meaning of our own lives speaks to me in many ways. One is that I was given away by my birth parents and adopted by a Jewish family as an infant. I have always lived in a profound sense of existential free-fall and longed for some connection to my actual origins. In the absence of that, I have taken being a descendant of Abraham and Sarah very seriously. These were ancestors I could share with my people, removed enough in time that I could read myself as being as close to them as anyone else in my Jewish community. This cosmic sense of dislocation and loneliness — and my drive to belong and connect through Jewish identity — ultimately became my path to the rabbinate.

I recently found — and made the terrifying choice to make contact with — my birth family. In meeting my family of origin and in looking at family photographs and exploring generations of stories and photos online, I have begun exploring the identity of the baby who was given away. In risking contact with this family and with whom I might have become, I, like Joseph, understand in a place beyond words or reason that had my own childhood been “normal” and had my story unfolded in the usual way, I would not now be a rabbi able to live this life of service and abiding meaning.

We come into this world as part of particular families, each with their idiosyncrasies, their unique experiences of loving care and their very real transgressions and tragedies. Torah tells us, by way of Joseph’s story, that it is the work of the soul to make meaning of our lives by acknowledging our pain and allowing it to soften our hearts that we might empathize with the suffering of others and to choose to find purpose and meaning in our own stories. Like Joseph, this is how we find our unique path to serving the mysterious and marvelous unfolding of the One. 

Rabbi Amy Bernstein is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.