This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash. In many ways it represents the culmination of the Joseph story. It starts with Joseph’s brothers standing before him appealing on behalf of their brother Benjamin. It was in this moment that Joseph revealed his true self to his brothers. As the Torah states, “Joseph could no longer restrain himself before all who were standing in attendance on him … He gave voice to a loud wail, and the Egyptians heard – Pharaoh’s palace heard! Joseph then said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph – is my father [really] alive?’ But his brothers were unable to answer him – they recoiled in fear of him” (Genesis 45:1-3).
We can read some very powerful and profound emotions into this incident. Joseph finally let loose a secret that he had been withholding from others and perhaps even himself for years. It was a secret so deep that it was tearing Joseph apart.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the games that we play with ourselves. Every secular New Year it is tradition to come up with a list of resolutions. January usually sees the highest jump in gym memberships with February seeing the largest number of gym resignations. This is because true genuine change is hard. We live in a society of immediate gratification where we tend to expect instant results. But when they do not appear, we get demoralized. So why do we so often fail? It is in part because we do not truly understand our own personal motivations.
Human beings are creatures of habit. Joseph, for example, was in a position of authority. He had everything he could want, and therefore was not compelled to come face-to-face with himself until his brothers appeared before him. One can speculate that the appearance of his brothers led Joseph down an unexpected emotional path forcing him to confront himself in ways he simply never had to do.
So too it is with us as well. If we wish to become our best selves, we must first strive to understand ourselves. Of course, in Judaism this process is supposed to start during the final month of the year, Elul, and last through Yom Kippur — though really it can last all the way through Shemini Atzeret (the separate festival at the end of Sukkot).
But what our Torah portion is reminding us is that any time of year is a good time to begin or renew the process of teshuvah, of self-reflection with an eye towards self-improvement.
For Joseph, it was an uncomfortable encounter that made him take a hard look at himself. For us, maybe we just need the gentler reminder. The road to change is not easy, but it is certainly one well worth travelling, resolutions or not.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff