The Torah portion Vayigash begins, and the tension brewing in the first Jewish family through the Book of Genesis becomes unbearable. Joseph, now viceroy in Egypt, holds his brothers powerless in the palm of his hand. He has already incarcerated one brother, Shimone, and he now threatens to incarcerate another brother, Binyamin. Joseph’s rough demeanor blinds the brothers to his true identity; they see only the second most powerful man in Egypt. The brothers’ lingering guilt for abandoning Joseph decades prior, ramps up the tension all the more.
Yayigash Yehudah, “Then Judah drew near.” He delivers the longest speech in Genesis. Every word bespeaks the truth: To lose Binyamin now will surely drive their father to the grave.
Inferred in Judah’s every word is the family dysfunction that had festered for generations, the problems bred by parents showing favoritism toward one child over the other, followed by sibling rivalry and enmity triggering murderous intentions. We know, too, that Judah himself is on the short end of family favoritism’s wicked stick. We should wonder at how much this truth must have hurt him in the past. So we should marvel that Judah now tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However much the truth may have hurt him in the past, Judah draws near and speaks the truth. The truth now heals. Joseph tearfully reveals his identity. He beckons his brothers to “draw near.” The brothers “draw near.” They all kiss and cry together.
We could have guessed that Judah would rise to the occasion, resolve the long-festering problems and relieve the unbearable tension. Judah is the consummate truth teller in Genesis. Earlier in Genesis, he had deceived his daughter-in-law Tamar, who then deceived him to conceive with her. When Judah realizes his wrongdoing, his self-criticism is direct and unflinching. He acknowledges that the fault was his to begin. He accepts full responsibility. And please note that the truth he tells is about himself.
All of us have heard the words, “I have to tell you the truth.” They are usually the preamble for someone telling us something about ourselves, words that typically sting and criticize us, not them. Judah’s truth is the precise opposite. Judah tells the truth even when it is at his own expense. The former “truth” only hurts. It is hostility under the guise of honesty. Judah’s truth only heals.
So next time you would speak the truth, first consider if your words will hurt or heal. Judah teaches that words are true only when they heal.
That we call ourselves Jews is derived from our ancestor Judah. Among all the brothers of that generation, his name alone endures with us and with all generations of the Jewish people. Our religion is Judaism, Judah’s religion. We are here to tell the world the truths of Judaism that heal, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, for the whole world and nothing but the whole world.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)