Forgiveness as a Queer Response
Forgiveness as a Queer Response
Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses Joseph's account of revealing himself to his brothers as a process of accepting one's queer identity. Joseph, who was then the vizier of Egypt and was unrecognized by his family, reencountered his brothers when they pleaded him a supply of food during a famine. He kept his identity hidden and ordered his brothers to bring his other brother, Benjamin, to Egypt as part of an alleged test to prove that they are not spies. When his brothers passed the test, Joseph “no longer keep up the masquerade,” and reveals himself. This account models how LGBT people might grow into adulthoods, accepting themselves and demanding their place in their families.
Parashat Vayigash is the pinnacle of the Joseph cycle of stories in the book of Genesis. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, has risen to a position of power and prestige in Egypt second only to the Pharaoh himself. During a famine, Joseph’s brothers make their way to Egypt to seek food. Joseph engineers for them to meet. They do not recognize their brother because many years have passed, but Joseph recognizes them. Joseph has assumed a new name—an Egyptian name—and wears Egyptian clothes. He has transformed himself from beloved child of his father, Jacob, who once dressed him in a flamboyant coat of many colors, and from Hebrew slave into the architect of the Egyptian plan for sustenance during seven years of famine.1
Now in Parashat Vayigash he is face to face with his brothers, who were so cruel to him when he was a young boy. In truth, Joseph was a bit of a bratty kid. His father favored him above the other children, and he was sent to tattle on them and check up on them as they herded the sheep far from home. But the brothers went far beyond taunting a younger brother. Not only did they plan to kill him, only to sell him into slavery instead, but they told their father that he had been killed by a beast. Now many years later, Joseph in his position of power might have arrested his brothers and either had them killed or imprisoned for their poor treatment of him. Joseph might have treated them as cruelly as they had once treated him.
But instead Joseph puts them to the test. He longs to know if his father, Jacob, and his younger, full brother, Benjamin, are alive, and he tries to see if there have been any changes in the brothers as there have no doubt been changes in his own life. He speaks harshly to them the first time he encounters them in Parashat Miketz, perhaps due to feelings he built up after so many years. He puts the brothers through quite an ordeal so that he can see his youngest brother, Benjamin, and orders them to bring Benjamin to Egypt as part of an alleged test to prove that they are not spies.
Yet, when they do bring Benjamin to Egypt, Joseph is so overwhelmed with emotion that he must leave their presence. So many feelings at once leave Joseph out of control, and he must regain his regal composure. Joseph, alone in Egypt all these years, now has Benjamin near him. Reconciliation with his family, which once seemed impossible, is now within his grasp. Tears of relief, joy, and sorrow, perhaps combined with the layers of anger and hurt and the grief that come from lost time, combine in Joseph as he is confronted with the presence of his family and the knowledge that (p.65) his older brothers have complied. He hopes that his brothers have changed as he has changed in the intervening years.
But Joseph still needs proof, and he sets up another test of his older brothers by planting a goblet in Benjamin’s bag. When the brothers try to return to Canaan to bring their father down to Egypt, Benjamin is arrested by Joseph’s servants. The brothers are aghast. It is clear that in the years since they sent Joseph to Egypt they have had regrets about their behavior. They have their own families now and have matured in their relationship to one another. The brothers are distraught and upset about having to try to explain to their father, Jacob, that now the youngest son, Benjamin, will be a slave to Pharaoh’s vizier in Egypt and that both of the children of Jacob’s beloved Rachel are gone.
This is where our parasha begins. Joseph’s brother Judah pleads for the life of Benjamin to the unknown Joseph. He tells Joseph that it will kill his father, Jacob, to have lost both sons of his beloved wife Rachel.2 Judah’s eloquence and passion and willingness to change places with Benjamin and become the slave trigger deep emotions in Joseph. It was Judah so long ago that urged the brothers not to kill Joseph but to sell him into slavery, and now Judah is willing to become a slave himself to protect the life of Benjamin. Judah’s voice engenders a moment of transformation for Judah as well. Once so long ago he was willing to sell Joseph. Now he himself protects a brother from servitude. In that moment Judah’s words atone for the past; clearly this is a moment of teshuvah, repentance for the previous actions toward Joseph.
Joseph realizes the significance of the moment as well. At that moment he can no longer keep toying with his brothers. Joseph realizes that the past must remain the past but that only through revealing his true identity can he make his family whole again. He sees that there has been change among the brothers and also that his own actions could cause harm to his father. He understands that forgiveness can lead to reconciliation with his family, and he is able to see that his brothers too are ready to accept their role in the events of the past. Joseph can recognize that family is family, no matter how estranged they may have become. And now it is within his grasp to rebuild the family tie.
Joseph can no longer keep up the masquerade. “Joseph could no longer restrain himself before all who were standing in attendance on him” (Gen. 45:1). “I am Joseph,” he says (Gen. 45:3). And in his revelation and his brothers’ astonishment is a moment of true reconciliation. Joseph throws off his Egyptian royal identity and reclaims his connection with his family. And they, now matured and parents themselves, perhaps could stand in their own father’s place, understanding what it might mean to rediscover a child.
With these words, “I am Joseph,” Joseph reveals his true self, his true identity. Joseph reconnects with his past not only by his brothers’ presence but inside himself to claim his place in the family. His revelation is met with astonishment and fear, weeping and ultimately reunion. The reunion is with his brothers, but it is also so much more. It represents reconciliation of self, of true identity. Joseph had hid his familial ties as a Hebrew perhaps because it was too painful to feel the rejection of (p.66) his brothers or perhaps because a Hebrew slave had no real place in Egyptian society. But now Joseph can finally speak freely in Egypt about his God and his family. He connects with his roots, bringing them into his present. Joseph has his own journey of maturity in this parasha, and Pharaoh is so pleased to see him at peace and happy with himself that he grants to Joseph and his family a choice area of Egypt in which to dwell.
Joseph had been tormented by his family and banished because of who he was. Yet Joseph did not let his family paralyze him. His faith in his God and his willingness to utilize his own resources and talents helped him manage his differences in Egypt. Joseph utilized his God-given skill as a dream interpreter to create a different reality from that of a mere slave. He persevered despite his differences in faith and language from the Egyptians by using his talents to make a new life for himself. But Joseph also is able to keep open the idea of hope, that one day he might find a place in his family again.
Joseph, like many of us when confronted with the past, at first wants to repay in kind the hurt that was done to him. This kind of revenge is human nature. But Joseph overcomes this tendency. He lets his compassion and faith uphold him so that he stops short of replaying a terrible cycle of revenge. He allows himself to feel the love of his family even though they hurt him deeply. He can open his eyes up beyond his own disappointment and anger to see that the brothers who appear before him in Egypt are different from the brothers who sold him into slavery so many years before, acknowledging their changes along with his own. Joseph becomes self-aware and does not let the trauma of the past keep him reacting with childish habits.
In many ways Joseph’s ability to learn this lesson trumps his father, who, though reunited briefly with his brother Esau, did not live among his brother and his people after their encounter.
Joseph’s ability to forgive the wrongs done to him allows him to be all of himself—a Hebrew who lives as an Egyptian prince while revealed to his family. He tells his brothers as a sign of his forgiveness, “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45:4). Joseph is able to call on his faith as a way to frame his forgiveness.
In their moment of reconciliation, Joseph and his brothers begin a new kind of understanding. Joseph is able to resettle the entire family in Egypt. Through the act of forgiveness, Joseph’s alienation from his family is alleviated, and the brothers who so cruelly treated him can find a new life in Egypt for themselves and for their own children. This message should not escape us. Forgiveness of family members has implications not just for those involved but for future generations. If we can find a way to forgive and to overcome the pains of the past rather than be stopped by them, perhaps our own lives will be lived with a new kind of fullness. Certainly this was true for Joseph, who overcame his past, refusing to allow his own anger and hurt to keep him down. Perhaps Joseph’s story is a model for how LGBT Jews might grow into our own adulthoods, accepting ourselves and demanding our own place in our families. (p.67) But as LGBT Jews demand a place in family, Joseph’s story also invites them to utilize forgiveness, reconciliation, and faith in the name of repairing the soul.