Torah shows value of forgiveness in story about Joseph and Judah


At some point in this season almost everyone will spend some holiday time with their extended family. When we gather together, we catch up with each other, we see how much everyone has grown, and we usually share in a meal. There is much love in the gathering, though some may be reluctant to acknowledge it. There may also be undercurrents of wounds from years past, and there are few stories in the Torah that speak better to family dynamics than the reunion of Joseph with his brothers.

We pick up in the middle of the story where Joseph has planted his goblet in Benjamin’s traveling sack, apprehended him for theft, and Judah must now fulfill the promise he made to Jacob, his father, to assure his youngest brother’s safe return. Judah had been instrumental in selling Joseph down to Egypt, but had since experienced the loss of his own sons.

Judah rises to the occasion first by making an impassioned plea to Joseph and ultimately by offering himself in Benjamin’s place. Joseph is not only moved by Judah’s words, but is no longer able to maintain his own charade and reveals his true identity to his brothers.

The reunion that we see in this story can be inspirational as we reunite with our families in this season as well. We have intricate family histories. Parents and siblings have fought and been manipulated. We have grown apart, become estranged, been hurt. We also come together, and often make believe that the wounds have healed and no scars remain.

Judah inspires us to step forward from the past, to acknowledge our wrongs and to act differently, being the person we are today instead of reverting to the person we were in the past.

Joseph reminds us that it is better to forgive than to inflict more pain in retaliation.

So, when you sit down with your family this holiday season (or at holidays to come), take a lesson from Judah and Joseph. Have the courage to be compassionate and forgiving.

Ari Vernon, rabbi of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.