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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYIGASH
December 15, 2007 – 6 Tevet 5768

Annual: 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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Judah, the brother who had originally come up with the idea of selling Joseph, steps up and offers himself as a substitute slave, so Benjamin can return home and their father’s heart will not be broken. Joseph realizes that his brothers have changed and he reveals his identity to them. He tells his brothers that he realizes that what they had done to him was, in fact, part of God’s plan to save lives. Joseph sends his brothers home to bring Jacob and the entire family to Egypt so they will not suffer during the remaining years of famine. Jacob at first does not believe what his sons tell him, but he finally accepts the news that Joseph is alive and is eager to go to Egypt to see him. As the family sets out on its journey, God appears to Jacob and tells him not to fear because God will be with him. The 70 members of Jacob’s family in Egypt are listed. Joseph goes to meet his father and tells him of his plan that the family settle in the region of Goshen. Joseph brings his father and some of his brothers to meet Pharaoh, who gives his approval to Joseph’s plan. As the famine continues, Joseph acquires the Egyptians’ livestock and land for Pharaoh in exchange for food and transforms the population into serfs. During the same period, the Israelites in Goshen prosper.

1. Just What Do You Mean By That?

Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.” (Beresheit 44:18)

  1. You are considered in my sight as the king; this is the plain meaning. But the midrash interprets it: In the end you will be smitten because of him with leprosy, just as Pharaoh was smitten because of Sarah my grandmother for the one night he detained her. Another interpretation: Just as Pharaoh decrees but does not establish them, makes promises but does not carry them out, you too are the same... Another interpretation: If you will provoke me, I will slay you and your lord. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Judah was an astute diplomat. The words he addressed to Joseph – you who are the equal of Pharaoh – could be interpreted in various ways. They could be taken as words of respect, meaning: “You are as important in my eyes as Pharaoh himself.” Or they could be construed as a threat: “You will be stricken with leprosy just like that other Pharaoh before you.” Or else they could be interpreted as an insult: “Just as Pharaoh issues decrees and then fails to carry them out, so you too are undependable.” Judah had in mind all three of these meanings, and it is as if he had said to Joseph: “Interpret my words in any way you choose, for all the interpretations would be equally correct.” (Rabbi Judah Leib Graubart, 1861-1937, Toronto, Canada)
  3. He spoke to him harshly. At first, Judah had thought that this was retribution for their sin of selling Joseph, and it was only appropriate that their punishment should be that they be sold as slaves – just as they had sold Joseph into slavery. Now, though, that he saw that all the brothers were to be released except Benjamin, and he was the only one who had not taken part in the sale of Joseph, he understood that this was not punishment for the brothers, but a plot. That was why he spoke harshly. (Rabbi Moses Alshikh, 1508-1600, Israel)
  4. Just as Pharaoh decrees but does not fulfill, promises but does not carry out, you too are the same (Rashi). This seems strange: Here Judah is standing in front of the ruler and pleading for mercy. Is that, then, the way to talk to him? Rather, this is what Judah said: The king issues decrees that apply to everyone in the kingdom, but he himself has the right to violate them. His primary right is to pardon criminals, because according to the letter of the law they may not be freed. You, Joseph, also have that right, for you freed us even though, under Egyptian law, if a theft is found in the hands of one of a group of ten men, all are imprisoned. That being the case, I beg of you to pardon Benjamin as well. (HaDrash v’HaIyun [Rabbi Aaron Lewin of Reisha, 1880-1941, Poland])
  5. I honor you as a Pharaoh, so if anything that I say does not please you, do not think that I do it from lack of honor. What I say to you I would also say to Pharaoh. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

You who are the equal of Pharaoh could be taken as flattery, as a threat, as an insult, or as a plea for mercy. What did Judah have in mind when he spoke these words?

What did they convey to Joseph when he heard them? At this point, Joseph was still speaking with his brothers through a translator. How did the translator present these words?

Translating any text from one language to another inevitably involves at least some interpretation and distortion. What do we lose – or gain – by reading the Torah, the siddur, and other Hebrew texts in English? Is there a difference between tzedakah and charity? Between tefillah and prayer? Between teshuvah and repentance?

2. Love Means Having to Say "I'm Sorry"

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. (Beresheit 44:33)

  1. Joseph could no longer control himself (45:1) Why was Joseph able to control himself until that time, and what changed matters right then? The answer is that he had spoken to them harshly in order to have them realize the enormity of their sin and to repent, so that they would atone for the sin of having sold him. Now that Judah had said, Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and had shown that he was ready to humble himself and to become a slave with all the hardships involved, Joseph realized that they had regretted their actions. That was why he was no longer able to control himself. (Shem Mi-Shmuel [Rabbi Samuel Bornstein, 1856-1926, Poland])
  2. Then Judah said, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites.” (Beresheit 37:26-27)
  3. What constitutes complete repentance [teshuvah]? If the sinner has the opportunity of committing once again the sinful act and it is quite possible for him to repeat it and yet he refrains from so doing because he has repented - for example, a man cohabited unlawfully with a woman and, after a time found himself alone with her again and he still loves her and is still physically capable as ever and it takes place in the same province in which he had previously sinned with her and yet he refrains from repeating the transgression -- he is a true penitent... (Rambam [Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt], Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:1)
  4. Rabbi Adda bar Ahavah said: A man who confesses after committing a transgression but does not change his ways is like one who persists in holding a dead reptile in his hand – even if he immerses himself in all the waters of the world, his immersion will not cleanse him. But once he throws the reptile away and immerses himself in no more than forty seah of water, the immersion is effective. (Talmud Taanit 16a)
  5. He who says, “I will sin and then repent, I will sin and then repent,” will be given no opportunity to vow penitence. (Talmud Yoma 85b)

Sparks for Discussion

Do Judah’s words meet Rambam’s criteria for complete teshuvah? Is this standard too strict? Is a person who avoids temptation (in Rambam’s example, avoiding the woman with whom he sinned) rather than resisting it truly repentant?

It seems that hardly a week goes by without some public figure – a politician, a sports star, or an entertainer – being caught behaving badly, from sexual impropriety to misuse of funds to employing offense language. This is usually followed by a tearful public apology and a promise to go into rehab. Is this true teshuvah? Is it a necessary part of repentance? How do we know when teshuvah has occurred?


 
 
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