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Vayigash 5781: Get Peace or Pieces

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! This past week I had a new experience – a “White Hanukah.” The Nor’easter that dumped several feet of snow over the course of 24 hours in the (where else?) Northeastern United States, was not something that I was familiar with. As a native of South Florida and having lived there for 46 years, I have very little experience with snow in general.

(To put it into perspective, when we first arrived at our northern destination my 18-year-old son wandered from room to room and finally asked, “What are these things mounted on the floor near the walls in every room?” He had never seen a radiator before.)

The morning after the storm I walked outside. As I marveled at the peace and tranquility induced by having everything covered in a fresh blanket of remarkably powdery snow, I reflected on the silver lining of the pandemic; I had nowhere to go. I didn’t need to rush out and hurriedly dig out my car and scrape my windshield and back windows to go to work or take my kids to school. I didn’t have to worry about navigating icy roads and hazardous conditions.

I spent a few more minutes drinking in the quiet tranquility, which seemed to be a byproduct of seeing everything blanketed by fresh snow. The snow had a way of tying everything together. I was reminded that the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) is a derivative of the Hebrew word shalem, which means “whole” or “complete.” I reasoned that it was therefore only natural that the unifying element of the snow would also usher in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.

In this week’s Torah portion, we have an extraordinary lesson as to what it really takes to achieve peace. This is a primer for both interstate relations as well personal relationships. First, a little background.

Joseph, a onetime slave had suddenly risen to prominence in Egypt, becoming second only to Pharaoh. A famine gripped Egypt and the neighboring states. Jacob sent his sons (Joesph’s brothers) down to Egypt to purchase food (Egypt, as per Joseph’s suggestion, had stockpiled storehouses of grain in preparation for the famine).

Joseph recognized his brothers (though they did not recognize him) and insisted that the next time they returned they must bring their youngest brother Benjamin (Joseph’s only full brother as they were both children of Rachel). Knowing their father’s reticence in sending his youngest son (Jacob had not emotionally recovered from losing Joseph) they were hesitant to return to Egypt. But the famine was devastating and, as it wore on, they needed to purchase more food.

The leader of the brothers was Judah (the royal line of Jewish kings descend primarily from Judah) and he guarantees their father that Benjamin will return safely. They then travel down to Egypt, where they are welcomed by Joseph who is elated to see his little brother. Joseph devises a ruse to scapegoat Benjamin as a thief and threatens him with many years of slavery. Last week’s Torah portion ends with that cliffhanger. This week’s reading opens with the epic showdown between Judah and Joseph:

“If you please, my lord, may your servant speak a word [...] and may your anger not flare up at your servant...” (Genesis 44:18)

The sages comment that Judah spoke to Joseph harshly, and actually threatened to wage a war and destroy the city. For this reason, Judah felt compelled to ask Joseph not to get angry. Yet elsewhere (Genesis 18:23 see Rashi’s comments ad loc) our sages indicate that Judah was approaching Joseph to try to appease him. Well, which was it? Did Judah come to threaten Joseph or to appease him?

The classic example of appeasement is that of Neville Chamberlain’s response to Germany’s demands for territorial conquest and rapprochement of areas that they had lost in the Great War. After many meetings and detailed negotiations, Chamberlain’s response, in brief, was “okay.”

Adolph Hitler (yemach shemo – may his name be blotted out) almost immediately invades Poland and begins to put into effect his plans for European conquest. Mistakenly believing he had forestalled another European World War, Chamberlain returns to London declaring that he had achieved “peace in our time.” This led to the observation that “Chamberlain takes a weekend in the country, while Hitler takes a country in the weekend.”

Winston Churchill, Chamberlain’s main foe in the British parliament, later termed Neville’s efforts as “the great surrender.”
This distinction is key. Effective appeasement is not the same as surrender. In fact, surrender is one of the worst responses to conflict because capitulation merely indicates that you have no interest in fighting, but it doesn’t resolve anything.

Appeasement (unsurprisingly) comes from the French “apaiser” – to bring to peace. But surrender doesn’t create peace, just a ceasing of hostilities for the time being. Surrender is an avenue of last resort when the other option is death.

The only way to create a real peace is through negotiations, and negotiations can only be successful when both parties come from a position of strength. A few weeks ago we discussed the military strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which led to the uneasy peace that resulted from the nuclear buildup during the Cold War.

This is true in relationships as well. For example, marriage isn’t a partnership it’s a merger. A partnership is two or more parties with aligned interests. A merger, on the other hand, is when two or more parties form a new single entity. In marriage, the husband and wife become a unified whole. A marriage doesn’t mean that one identity swallows the other; rather they merge to form an even stronger union. The only way to truly achieve this is from a position of strength – whereby each party has a distinct identity and source of their power.

When one party in a relationship feels aggrieved, the proper response isn’t merely “you’re right.” This just indicates that you surrender because you don’t want to fight. The person who feels wronged hasn’t really been validated, in fact the message received is “it’s not even worth the effort to fight with you.” A much better approach is validating their feelings and conveying your desire to resolve the issues through conversation and actions and to arrive at a new understanding.

This was the tactic that Judah took in his approach to Joseph. Judah was in effect warning Joseph: “I am perfectly capable of going to war with you – I am prepared to inflict heavy damage as well as take some losses myself. But I would prefer to work out some sort of arrangement between us.”

Judah was not trying to beg Joseph for mercy, hoping that he would get what he wanted through a surrender. He was negotiating from a position of strength, looking for a compromise that would bring an understanding between them and a lasting peace. That is what appeasement is really supposed to be.

Torah Portion of the Week

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18 - 47:27

We left off last week with Joseph's pronouncement that he was keeping Benjamin as a slave for stealing his wine cup. Judah steps forward to challenge the decision and offers himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph is overcome with emotion, clears the room of all Egyptians and then reveals his identity to his unsuspecting brothers.

The brothers are shocked! They suspect Joseph's intentions, but accept his offer to bring the extended family to Egypt. Jacob is initially numb and disbelieving of the news, but becomes very excited to see his son.

The Torah recounts the 70 members of Jacob's family who went down to Egypt. Jacob reunites with Joseph, meets Pharaoh and settles with the family in the Goshen district. During the famine, Joseph buys up all of the property and people in Egypt for Pharaoh with the grain stored during the seven good years.

Candle Lighting Times

(or go to

Jerusalem 4:06
Miami 5:19 - Cape Town 7:40 - Guatemala 5:22
Hong Kong 5:29 - Honolulu 5:39 - Johannesburg 6:43
Los Angeles 4:32 - London 3:41 - Melbourne 8:25
Mexico 5:47 - Moscow 3:42 - New York 4:16
Singapore 6:48 - Toronto 4:28

Quote of the Week

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile,
hoping it will eat him last.

— Winston Churchill

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Stanley Beck


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