It is human nature to want to reciprocate actions, whether good or bad. When someone does something nice for us, we want to pay them back or pay it forward. When someone is horrible or mean, we want to be equally mean back. But an “eye for an eye” isn’t always right or fair. In our world where we work towards fairness and equality, it can be truly difficult to stand up and do the right thing when we really want others to feel our pain.
Parshat Vayigash, our Torah portion for this week, is the continuation of the saga between Joseph and his brothers. Yehudah, one of the master perpetrators of the evil against Joseph, stands up for his brothers and asks to be imprisoned to spare Benjamin. Later, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his brothers tell Jacob that Joseph is still alive, seventy members of Jacob’s people follow him down to Egypt, and the family is reunited. At this point the narrative takes pause.
In the first lines of the parshah, we see Yehudah stand up for his brothers, we see him try to right the wrong he did against Joseph, leaving Joseph with a choice. Joseph can continue to imprison Benjamin; in doing so he would certainly inflict pain on his brothers, the kind of pain he felt years earlier when he himself was sent off. But, he would also cause more pain to his father, something he could not stomach.
Joseph is ultimately moved to tears by the speech his brother Yehudah gives. He realizes that keeping Benjamin would be acting as his brothers did, stooping to their level. Instead, he decides to rise above it and do what is right. And in a sense, Joseph is still reciprocating. He’s not reciprocating the pain he felt much earlier in his life, he’s reciprocating the positive step forward he sees from Yehudah.
Siblings know how to push each other’s buttons better than anyone else. It would have been easy for Joseph to wrong his brothers as they had wronged him, but instead, Joseph gathers his inner strength and is able to rise above the pettiness and past negative of their relationship. What better reminder that while it is easy to commit a wrong in retaliation for a wrong, righting a situation will always yield the better outcome.