Can’t Hold Back

Remarks delivered on Shabbat Vayigash 5783 (December 31, 2022).


The Joseph story comprises some of the most emotional, most human passages in all of Tanakh, and the climax in this week’s parashah is no exception.

Having risen from the pit into which his brothers threw him, Joseph ascends to near-king status in Egypt. His brothers come seeking relief from famine at home. Joseph recognizes them immediately, but they do not recognize him. Joseph privately weeps in distress throughout these encounters, even while he subjects his brothers to a series of tests—culminating in a plot that would keep in Egypt youngest brother Benjamin (Joseph’s only full biological sibling). At this, at the opening of our parashah, older brother Judah steps forward. Worried that their father Jacob’s grief at now losing Benjamin after losing Joseph will be too much to bear, Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place.

At Judah’s impassioned plea, Joseph finally breaks. “וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק V’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek. And Joseph could no longer hold himself back” (Genesis 45:1). He weeps again, crying so loud he could be heard throughout the Egyptian palace. Joseph stuns his brothers as he at last reveals himself. And ever so tentatively, the siblings begin to make amends.

I have long felt those four climactic words, וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק V’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek, to be among the most moving. So much has built to this point, so much in which Joseph was alienated from his family, so much in which that rift has widened to near irreparability. Finally something in him breaks; he can no longer hold himself back.

This breaking and its subsequent revelation moves me deeply. You know that teaching (of Rabbi Benay Lappe) that says if donkeys were reading the Torah, they’d spend all their time noticing Bilaam’s talking ass? As a gay man, I can’t but help read this moment in Joseph’s life as a coming out story.

I remember what it was like, the years of questioning as I slowly started to understand myself. As I became more and more sure of who I was and what I wanted in my life, I started to feel more and more like I was holding something in. Something secret. Something that because only I knew it, it was like I could never really feel seen for who I am—even by those who loved me most.

I acknowledge the immense blessing in my life that, while I couldn’t fully predict the questions and concerns others would have, I really never was concerned that my family and friends would reject what I yearned to share. But it still took time for the courage to collect within me. Until one day, לא יכולתי להתאפק lo yacholti l’hitapek, I could no longer hold myself back. I opened the door to my own integrity, and to closer relationships with everyone around me.

Not all of us have a queer coming out story, but Joseph’s revelation is powerful because there is something universal about it. In his commentary on this parashah, the Sefat Emet says that each of us has an inner point within us called “Joseph”—that is יוסף Yosef, something נוסף nosaf (“additional” or “extra”). In fact, that point in us is the spark of God itself. Yet too often in our lives we build ourselves in to a shell that hides it, separating ourselves, חס וחלילה chas v’chalilah (God forbid), from our innate godliness. (The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, translated and interpreted by Arthur Green, p. 70)

This speaks to me of the sense of disintegration we feel when we know, on some level, we’re not living authentically. Maybe we’re contemplating a change in career or a renegotiation in a relationship; maybe it’s an art seeking expression or a calling waiting to be answered. The longer we ignore our inner Joseph, the louder it knocks.

In his Letters to a Young Poet, early modern poet Rainer Maria Rilke corresponds with an apprehensive writer—someone struggling, as we all do, with whether his art is good enough. This is what Rilke advises: “[A]sk yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity” (trans. M.D. Herter Norton, p. 16).

In other words, delve into yourself and find that which cannot be held back.

I don’t know if I buy that we all have an immutable inner nature that lasts a lifetime. But I do believe that there is a calling each of us can answer for now.

Today, on the cusp of the new secular year, we are awash in the language of new year’s resolutions. At its best, such resolution-making could be just the sort of introspection that leads us to that inner point—that extra thing inside each of us that yearns for recognition.

It is that inner point that makes us who we are, differentiated from the other human beings all stamped from the Divine Image (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). Our job is to get our egos out of the way and let our inner יוסף Yosef shine. Once we’ve found it, there’s no way we can hold it back.

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