Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Vayigash: Difficult Conversations

4 Comments 19 December 2017

Despite his justified anger, Joseph takes measures to protect his brothers from those who would harm them. In his commentary, Rabbi Gideon Sylvester shows us how Israeli human rights defenders can become more effective in their work by learning from the sensitivity of Joseph.

“Joseph recognized by his brothers.” Joseph von Cornelius. public domain

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester

I grew up in a Modern Orthodox British community where human rights activists were recognised as heroes who protect innocent lives. When I made aliya, I was shocked to discover that in Israel, they were not always seen in the same light. Those who uncover and report Israel’s failings are often branded as sneaks, snitches and even traitors. How could we alter that perception?

This week, in one of the most emotionally charged passages in the Torah, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. In doing so, he reminds them of their plot to kill him, how they eventually profited by selling him into slavery and how they left their father bereft. Before Joseph broaches this uncomfortable conversation, however, he orders his Egyptian associates out of the room.

Why does Joseph order his compatriots to leave? Rashi says that he wished to spare his brothers from public humiliation. The Ramban offers a darker picture. The Egyptians had always mistrusted the Hebrews. Were they to hear that Joseph’s brothers concocted a murderous campaign against him and caused their father so many years of mourning, the results could have been catastrophic. The Egyptians would see this family as dangerous, unstable and treacherous. ‘If this is how Joseph’s family treat their own relatives’, they would say, ‘how can we trust him to run our country?’ Joseph would be deposed from office and he and his brothers would be banished from Egypt into the midst of the famine.

So Joseph acts gently. He quietly gathers the brothers around him, provides proof of his Hebrew identity and reassures them that they can live together harmoniously. My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein points out that while Joseph dreamed of a triumphant crescendo in which the brothers would bow down to him, in reality, it turned out very differently. It was emotive and painful for everyone.

Joseph had good reason to be angry with his brothers, but with deep sensitivity, he saved them from shame and shielded them from mistrustful Egyptians. Alongside his responsibilities to Egypt, he would gather, forgive, support; nourish and lead his people. Because of this, the family would reunite around him.

Our human rights activists face enormous challenges. Israelis are staunch defenders of democracy. Time after time, they resist extremist options and vote for centrist parties. Yet, they are also worn down from years of war, terror, and anti-Semitic campaigns. In their eyes, many of those whom human rights groups seek to protect are closely associated with our murderous enemies. This is why it takes enormous sensitivity to present the cases of Palestinians, Bedouins and even asylum seekers in a palatable way.

Jewish human rights groups working on delicate issues must learn from Joseph. We must be ever vigilant in disassociating themselves from our enemies and demonstrating our love and loyalty for our people. In that way, when we raise difficult topics of conversation, our voices will be heard.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights. He is writing his doctorate on West Bank rabbis who dialogue with Palestinains.

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Your Comments

4 Comments so far

  1. Philip McFedries says:


  2. Levi says:

    I think you are reifying the distinction between ‘our people’ and ‘our murderous enemy’.

  3. judith says:

    כול כך שונה ממה שנהודג היום בסביבתינו…

  4. judith says:

    כול כך שונה ממה שנהוג היום בסביבתינו

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