We Are Family (Parashat Vayigash)

The author argues that Joseph and his brothers teach us the important lesson that within family we must look at how we can grow and how we can forgive.

January 2, 2009

By Jase Schwartz

Torah Queeries logo
Parashat Vayigash
We Are Family
by Jase Schwartz on Friday January 02, 2009
6 Tevet 5769
Genesis 44:18-47:27


Joseph, with his flamboyant coat and shifts of identity is often hailed as the queer character in the Torah. When his brothers sell him into slavery such betrayal reminds me of the current struggle of queer youth who live in shelters because they have been cast out of their homes because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. This week, Joseph not only reconciles with his family but then provides them with the best goods and land he has to offer.

If Joseph’s motivation was out of his own desire to do anything possible to reunite with his family, then why didn’t he announce himself as soon as he saw his brothers? After spending years away from family it isn’t hard to image that one would want to immediately embrace despite past wrongdoings. Even so, Joseph’s words to his brothers baffle me. I can not imagine a youth living on the streets saying, “You didn‘t throw me out, God did.” (paraphrasing Genesis 45:8) So how does Joseph do it? How does he say, “It was not you who sent me here, but God”?

Joseph is able to embrace his brothers because he is strategic about coming out as himself. Joseph knows he is in a position of power and physically safe. He tests his brothers, by asking about Benjamin, in an attempt to learn if he is emotionally safe. If his brothers will cast Benjamin aside as they did to him in the past, Joseph has no need to give them the opportunity to harm him again. Only when Joseph sees that his brothers have changed, “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph sobs and embraces his family when he sees they learned from their past mistakes. His cries recognize the hardship that he faced. After family betrays you, mourning can happen even at the time of reunification. After he is safe, after he sobs, Joseph takes the first step to rebuild trust. He announces himself, “I am your brother Joseph,” (Genesis 45:3) then he tells his brothers that it was not their fault that they sold him to slavery because his journey through hardship was for the best, “Now do not be distressed or reproach Yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance“. (Genesis 45:6-7) Joseph is telling his brothers they are forgiven and now it is time to move forward. His honest display of anguish and then forgiveness is how he is able to say, “So, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:8)

Joseph and his brothers teach us the important lesson that within family we must look at how we can grow and how we can forgive. Joseph and his brothers are not perfect. But, Joseph knows in his position of power he has a responsibility to take care of his kin, which is why he gives his family the best goods and land. Today, when terrible things are said about the LGBT community by outsiders, it is easy to overlook how we need to reconcile within our own queer family. Unfortunately all of the “-isms” and phobias are part of our community as well. While fighting for our rights it is understandable that we don’t want to point out that at times we are ourselves divided amongst economic, racial or generational lines. Yet, we need to come together more often than at annual Pride Parades and in the few mixed bars. We need to pass a transgender inclusive ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) and provide safe havens for homeless queer youth. We need to ensure that our Temples, meeting spaces and social gatherings are easily accessible for people who have kids in strollers and for people who are in wheel chairs. We need to ensure the safety of queer youth in schools and in prisons. We need to fight for the right to marry and quality health care. We should ask about gender neutral and handicap accessible bathrooms even if we aren’t transgender and are in great physical health.

Like Joseph’s family, we may not have done things perfectly in the past, but from now on we must take steps towards building trust within our complex and diverse family. Joseph’s story reminds us that even when our fight for justice seems endless, we must remember that people can grow and learn from the past. Through betrayals, hardships, and tears, we must retain our hope for reconciliation, progress and peace.