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Positive Criticism and What It Means to Be a Jew

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )


This parashah is perhaps the most emotional parashah in the Torah. After 22 years of separation, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and declares, "I am Joseph - is my father still alive?"[1] These words were the most devastating admonishment that Joseph could have given to his brothers. Instead of berating them for having sold him into bondage, he simply said, "I am Joseph," implying, "My dreams, which you attributed to delusions of grandeur, were fulfilled; God did make me king, and He did send you to bow down before me." But note that nowhere does Joseph actually utter those words.

The declaration, "I am Joseph," was sufficient. He allows his brothers to infer the rest and his question, "Is my father [rather than our father] still alive?" cuts to the core of the issue, for it suggests that they had not conducted themselves as sons should, else they could not have sold their brother and led their elderly father to believe him dead. But again, Joseph does not introduce himself with these words. Rather, with his terse "Is my father still alive?" he invites his brothers to judge themselves.

From this we learn that admonishment is most effective when used as a mirror and that it can never be accomplished through painful jokes, shouting, cynical remarks, or name-calling. Such tactics can only result in secondary problems that lead to further resentment and alienation.

When Joseph embraces his brother Benjamin, he falls on his neck and weeps profusely, and Benjamin, in turn, does the same.[2] The Gemara explains that Joseph was crying over the Holy Temples that would be destroyed in the land allotted to Benjamin, and Benjamin was crying over the Tabernacle that would be destroyed in the portion allotted to Joseph. The question remains, however, why they chose this particular moment to weep over the Temples and the Tabernacle. The message that the Torah imparts is that, tragically, they foresaw that the very same acrimony that led to the splintering of the House of Jacob would continue to divide our people and lead to the destruction of the Temples. Joseph and Benjamin cried for each other's pain, teaching us that the only remedy to this plague of hatred is for us to learn to empathize with one another, to feel each other's pain, and reach out with chesed - exemplifying kindness and love.


In this parashah we discover some of the ways through which the name "Jew" defines us as a people. When the sons of Jacob are confronted by the irrational accusations of the viceroy of Egypt (Joseph), and realize that the life of their younger brother Benjamin is at risk, then Judah (whose name connotes "Jew," for a Jew is called a Yehudi) rises like a lion and does battle for his brother. As desperate and as hopeless as the situation appears to be, Judah - a man of complete faith - does not give up. Similarly, we, his descendants, have never given up.

The obstacles that Judah confronts are many. The Egyptian viceroy (Joseph) pretends that he doesn't speak or understand Hebrew. An interpreter acts as an intermediary, and the evidence weighs heavily against Benjamin. Nevertheless, speaking Hebrew from his heart, Judah cites Jewish sensitivity. One may ask what Judah could possibly have hoped to accomplish by speaking in Hebrew and referring to Jewish values to this supposed Egyptian, Joseph.

A wonderful story about the great Sage, the Chofetz Chaim, explains it all. The Polish government had passed an edict that would have the effect of prohibiting independent Jewish education, thus jeopardizing the continuation of Torah life. The Chofetz Chaim requested a meeting with the Polish president. Even as Judah spoke in Hebrew, the Chofetz Chaim spoke in Yiddish and a Jewish senator stood by to translate. Although the president did not understand Yiddish, the Chofetz Chaim's heartrending plea touched him so deeply that tears filled his eyes. When the interpreter began to translate, the president quickly interrupted him and said, "Although I do not speak Yiddish, I understand the words of this holy man. He spoke from the heart, and one heart understands another heart. The edict is rescinded."

This is the legacy of Judah: If we speak in the name of God, if we uphold our Torah, and are prepared to put our lives on the line for the sake of our brethren, there will be no barrier that we cannot overcome.

We, the Jewish people, have survived the centuries with the Torah as our guide. Our emunah (faith) has sustained us. We have never lost hope. So, if we feel overwhelmed by life's struggles, we must remember that we are Jews - descended from the family of Judah. Let us connect with our Torah, with our faith, and God will surely come to our aid. Let us remember that the name Judah also means "to give thanks and praise to God."[3] Ultimately, that is probably the most compelling definition of us as a Jewish people: In times of joy as well as in times of adversity, we give thanks to our Creator; we never give up, knowing that He will always protect us.

  1. Genesis 45:3.
  2. Ibid. 45:14.
  3. Ibid. 29:35.

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