Reflections on Parashat Vayigash
by Adina Allen, Assistant Director
At Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, we have the privilege of seeing many of our campers return to camp summer after summer. As the years go by, they grow and mature and often return to camp as staff members. They embody the values they learned at camp, and are strong role models for the next generation of campers.
At the opening of this week’s parashah, Vayigash, Joseph requests that Benjamin stay with him as his slave. Judah pleads with Joseph that he be allowed to stay instead of Benjamin. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and the brothers return home and bring their father back to Goshen to reunite him with Joseph. While the events in this parashah make for a wonderful and engaging musical about Joseph, it is the story of Judah that is most interesting to me.
Judah’s trajectory throughout the Joseph narrative is fascinating. It is a personal growth story about a young man who started out selfish and ended selfless. As we know from parashat Vayeshev, the brothers all conspired to kill Joseph. Reuben prevents them from killing him, and suggests that they throw Joseph into the pit instead. Then, the Torah says that it is Judah who selfishly recommends that they sell Joseph to a passing band of Ishmaelites, which would result in gaining profit from their brother and their father’s suffering (Bereishit 37:26-27). In last week’s parashah, Miketz, Joseph sends the brothers back to Jacob with a little food, but warns them not to return to Egypt without their younger brother Benjamin. When the food runs out and Jacob asks them to return to Egypt for more, Judah initially rejects the idea. However, we quickly see a change of heart in Judah as he takes ownership and agrees to be the responsible party for his younger brother Benjamin (Bereishit 43: 8-9).
In Vayigash, Judah turns his words into actions and demonstrates that he can be responsible for another person. Judah pleads with Joseph to release Benjamin and take him as a slave instead of his younger brother. He says, “now therefore, let me take my brother’s place as a slave for you, and let the boy go with his brothers. For how can I go up to my father if my brother is not with me? Lest I look upon the evil that will come to my father (Bereishit 44:34).” When Joseph sees this change in Judah, it overwhelms him. This act demonstrates Judah’s loyalty to his brothers and a new understanding of the importance of family and responsibility. Joseph is on the verge of tears, and requests that all of the other people in the room leave so he can reveal himself to his brothers, and share in a moment of true closeness and brotherhood with them.
After Jacob hears that Joseph is alive, he sets out with his family to go down to Egypt, to Goshen. During their travel, Jacob sends Judah ahead on the journey להורת לפניו/l’hodot l’fanav — to show the way (Bereishit 46:28). Rashi explains that the literal meaning of this verse is that Judah was sent ahead to seek out a place for the Israelites to live in Egypt and to get everything ready for their arrival. Rashi also brings a midrash from Bereishit Rabbah with an alternative explanation. The word להורת also means “to teach,” so the midrash explains that Judah was sent ahead to establish an academy to study and teach Torah (Bereishit Rabbah 95:3).
Why is Judah chosen to be the teacher of the next generation? Perhaps it is because he has grown the most. The transformation, leadership and courage of Judah demonstrated in this week’s parsha remind me of the famous Abraham Joshua Heschel quote: “What we need more than anything else is not text-books but text-people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.” Heschel points out that we need our leaders and teachers to connect with their students, understand the possibility of teshuvah, and be true role models for living positive and meaningful lives.
The presence of these kinds of leaders, these text-people, is what makes camp such a powerful place. They are the true textbooks from which our campers learn, and they are significant role models because they have been through this journey themselves. In the next couple of weeks, I look forward to interviewing many of our new and veteran staff members as we continue to prepare for the upcoming summer. For those staff members who grew up at Ramah, it will be a chance to reflect on their years as campers and what returning to camp as a staff member means to them and means for their future campers. And it will be a chance to begin to explore the role that all of these staff members will play as educators, mentors, role models, and text-people this summer and beyond.
As we enter into the first Shabbat of 2017, I hope that we all continue to learn from our past decisions in order to grow into the best versions of ourselves and the text-people we all can be. Shabbat Shalom.