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Torah Sparks

December 18, 2004 - 6 Tevet 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 44:18-45:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15 - 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Judah delivers an impassioned appeal to Joseph on behalf of Benjamin, offering personally to submit to slavery in his youngest brother's stead. He does so, he says, both to spare Benjamin, for whom he has pledged his personal responsibility, and to spare his father further grief. Joseph is moved to tears by his brother's selfless and eloquent appeal. Dismissing all but his brothers from his presence, Joseph finally reveals his identity, immediately inquiring about his father's well-being. He attributes his sale into slavery at his brothers' hands to Providence. Embracing his brothers, he instructs them to return to Canaan and to return with Jacob, to settle in Egypt.

News of Joseph's reunion with his brothers spreads to Pharaoh and his court. The brothers, supplied with wagons and provisions, return home and inform Jacob that his beloved son is still alive and has risen to high office in Egypt. On the return trip to Egypt, God appears to Jacob in a vision and assures him that descending to Egypt is the proper course, while not indicating the enslavement which is his nation's destiny. The seventy Israelites taking up residence in Egypt are enumerated. Joseph is tearfully reunited with Jacob. He reports his family's arrival to Pharaoh, to whom he introduces them. Jacob has a private audience with Pharaoh, to whom he articulates the personal adversity he has long endured.

Joseph's brothers, against his express instructions, inform Pharaoh that they are shepherds. Joseph settles his families in Goshen - setting the stage for future events. Despite his generous treatment of his family, Joseph is ruthless in his economic administration of Egypt. After depleting the financial resources of Pharaoh's subjects through the sale of grain and food under his control, he proceeds to take their livestock in exchange for supplies, and finally usurps their only remaining material resource, their land. Joseph leaves privately owned land only in the possession of the priesthood.

Having secured a royal monopoly on both Egypt's land and livestock for Pharaoh, Joseph imposed further economic duties on the populace: one fifth of each harvest is owed to Pharaoh. Deprived of private land and livestock, and impoverished through the sale of grain over which Joseph had exercised such visionary but shrewd control, the Egyptians are nevertheless thankful for surviving the famine: "You have saved our lives! We are grateful to our lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh."

The Parshah concludes by contrasting an impoverished Egyptian populace under a despotic regime with the growing prosperity of Israel: "They acquired holdings in [Goshen], and were fertile and increased greatly." This description anticipates the opening of the Book of Exodus, and the ethnic tensions that occasioned Israelite enslavement.

Theme #1: "Moving Magnanimity"

"Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" (Genesis 44:33-34)

Derash: Study

  • "What does this resemble? A deep pit into which no one could climb down. Then a clever person came and brought a long rope that reached down to the water within, so he could draw from it. So was Joseph deep, and Judah came to draw from him." (Tanhuma Yashan)
  • "Everything Judah said in his brothers' presence brought comfort to Joseph, comfort to his brothers, and comfort to Benjamin." (Yalkut Shimoni)
  • "The word eved, slave or bondman, occurs thirteen times in the oration, and twice in the above verse, underlining their humble posture in front of the powerful ruler." (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis)
  • "The pathos and beauty of Judah's plea on behalf of Benjamin have retained their appeal to man's heart throughout the ages. Sir Walter Scott called it 'the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language'. The spirit of self-sacrifice which Judah's speech reveals, offering to remain as a slave in Benjamin's place, has its parallel in the life-story of Moses, who besought God to blot out his name from the Book of Life, unless his people, Israel, is saved with him [Exodus xxxii:32]." (Joseph H. Hertz)
  • "This offer marks Judah as a man of exceptional character. He speaks for himself and also for his brothers; he speaks in accents of love and not sibling hatred." (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah)
  • "This of course stands in stark contrast to his willingness years before to watch his father writhe in anguish over Joseph's supposed death. The entire speech is at once a moving piece of rhetoric and the expression of a profound inner change." (Robert Alter, Genesis)
  • "What pours out in Judah's address to Joseph is a vein of such pure feeling - pure in its contrition, pure in its sense of filial respect and sibling responsibility, and pure in its selflessness - that it breaks down Joseph's theatrical spell and precipitates his own unmasking." (Peter Pitzele, Our Fathers' Wells)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Was Judah's speech actually necessary? What would Joseph have done had none of the brothers intervened on Benjamin's behalf?
  2. What accounts for Judah's strength of character in this situation? Why is it significant that it was Judah, and not another brother, who acted so decisively?
  3. What element in Judah's appeal was determinative in moving Joseph? Judah's manifest personal growth? Joseph's love for Benjamin? Jacob's pain? Joseph's own dramatic change in fortune? Sincere belief that all was part of a divine plan? Joseph's own need for "closure?" Remorse at his own youthful errors and at the fear he had again brought to his brothers? Grief at the sibling relationships of which he had so long been deprived? The newfound unity among his brothers?
  4. Is the Tanhuma's comparison of Joseph to a deep pit of all but inaccessible water complimentary? Is it supported by the Biblical account?

Theme #2: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen"

"Pharaoh asked Jacob, 'How many are the years of your life?' And Jacob answered Pharaoh, 'The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during their sojourn.'" (Genesis 47:8-9)

Derash: Study

  • "Few and hard have been the years of my life, from my youth on the run from my brother Esau, and my settling in a land not my own, and now in my old age I have come down to settle here." (Targum Yerushalmi)
  • "'Few and hard.' Since Jacob appeared older than his years to Pharaoh, when he asked him, 'How many are the years of your life,' Jacob answered him, 'They are few, but they have been difficult, and thus I appear older than I actually am.'" (Rashbam)
  • "When Pharaoh shows a courteous interest in his visitor's venerable age, Jacob counters with a modest disclaimer: his stay on earth, on borrowed time, may appear to have been impressive in length, but it has really been brief and insubstantial." (A.E. Speiser, Anchor Bible Genesis)
  • "Jacob answers Pharaoh's quantitative question qualitatively as well and speaks of the essential tragedy and transitoriness of his years." (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah)
  • "One measure of the profound moral realism of the story is that although [Jacob] gets everything he wanted, it is not in the way he would have wanted, and the consequence is far more pain than contentment. He displaces Esau, but only at the price of fear and lingering guilt and long exile. He gets Rachel, but only by having Leah imposed on him, with all the domestic strife that entails, and he loses Rachel early in childbirth. He is given a new name by his divine adversary, but comes away with a permanent wound. He gets twelve sons, but there is enmity among them, and he spends twenty-two years continually grieving over his favorite son, who he believes is dead. This is, in sum, a story with a happy ending that withholds any simple feeling of happiness at the end." (Robert Alter, Genesis)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the significance in the eponymic founder of Israel leading a life so filled with adversity? How might Jews seeking meaning outside the history of Jewish suffering view this Patriarch?
  2. Why does Jacob choose to open himself up so emotionally to Pharaoh? How might he have expected the Egyptian ruler to have reacted?
  3. For what misfortunes in Jacob's life does he bear a measure of personal responsibility?
  4. Even at this stage of Biblical history, is it fair to term a life-span of 130 years (even if they are difficult) as "few?" What does this say about Jacob's inner life? (Note that Jacob lives to the age of 147)

Historical Note

Parshat Vayigash, in which Judah offers himself as a slave at the dramatic climax of a protracted conflict that has pitted brother against brother, is read on December 18, 2004. It was on December 18, 1865 that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting slavery, was adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War, a similarly fratricidal tragedy.

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