Parashat VaYigash brings us to the denouement of the saga of Joseph and his brothers. Favoritism and jealousy have led to immature acts of aggression, lives have been torn apart and now it seems that all is lost. Joseph’s brothers stand before him all unaware that this is their brother; Joseph, who does recognize them, taunts and threatens. According to the Midrash, he is testing to see if they have grown beyond the vindictive criminals who nearly murdered him in their youth. He creates a scene of terror that causes the brothers to fear for their lives.
In these moments of parashat VaYigash we witness the courage that it takes to speak the truth. Joseph has thrown Shimon into the dungeon; now he threatens to keep Benjamin with him, a move that the brothers fear will kill their father. Judah sees a bad situation getting worse and has a choice: he can sit back and watch disaster overtake his brothers, but hope that he himself will be unscathed – or he can step forward into naked vulnerability and stop the process.
Judah steps forward. What does it take, to take that step? What does it mean?
This is a step away from waiting for someone else to do what you yourself believe must be done.
It is a step toward honesty – and also, probably, vilification from those who have not taken the step.
It is said that when the Israelites stood at the edge of the Sea waiting for it to split so that they could cross over safely, G*d told Moshe to urge them to enter the water, that only then would it part. Everyone stood together in fear, and then, according to the midrash, Nakhshon ben Amminadav leaped into the water.
Do you know what everyone else did then? They threw rocks at him. They were angry that he had gone first. Later that anger may have changed to admiration, or just jealousy of his courage. But there is something in us that attacks those who take a stand different from the group.
If you’ve been feeling stressed because you agree with Secretary Kerry’s speech on Israel this week, you know the feeling. Those of us who agree (some polls indicate that up to 60% of American Jews do) are liable to be attacked forcefully and with great emotion by those who will tell us that we are betraying Israel and making common cause with those who would destroy it. If you’re like me, you insist that you can be pro-Israel and, as a lover of Israel, fear that the Occupation will destroy Israel. Because our prophets taught us that a society which does not help the vulnerable will not survive; because the Torah teaches that if you pass your enemy’s ox or ass fallen under its load you must help to raise it; because evil is evil no matter who causes it – terrorists or good guys, and all the venal people who do that which they know is wrong who exist in the wide swath of in between.
It can sometimes happen that one person is right and everyone else is wrong. The hard part is that you can’t know that. You can only act in accordance with the ethics that strengthen the ground on which you stand. You can check them with your community companions, but sometimes you have to take a step all alone, without knowing what will happen – only that you feel vulnerable.
In the days to come we will stand together when we can – may we protect each other when we take that one step forward.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,