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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayigash
December 26, 2009 – 9 Tevet 5770

Annual (Gen. 44:18-47:27): Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169
Triennial (Gen. 46:28-47:27): Etz Hayim, p. 283; Hertz p. 174
Haftarah: Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

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 that 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. 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 that they will not suffer during the remaining years of famine. At first Jacob 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 their 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 for the family to 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. Don’t Look Back

Then Israel said to Joseph, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:30)

  1. I am no longer dissatisfied if I were to die now, having been granted my wish to see you with my own eyes once more before my death. (Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), 1160-1235, France)
  2. I had other troubles in my life; salvation came, only to be followed by more sorrows. Now that this salvation has come, and I have seen your face, may it be God’s will that I may die in this salvation before any fresh sorrow comes upon me. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. Now let me die! He felt himself at the zenith of possible happiness, felt he could never be any happier. At the zenith of happiness he would like his life to end. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. We reviewed the Bible and did not find that Jacob asked how Joseph got to Egypt. If you want to say that Jacob did inquire about this, in any event nothing is mentioned or hinted at in the Torah about it. Why is this so? The Torah teaches us a great teaching: that a person should not pick at the scabs of the past, and should not mention former iniquities. If in the past Joseph was sold, now God has made him second in command to the king of Egypt. What difference does it make what happened in the past? Grandfather Israel looks forward to and prays for a good future, he doesn’t search for the yesterday that has passed. (Min HaTorah (Rabbi Mordecai Hacohen), 20th century, Israel)

Sparks for Discussion

Radak, Sforno, and Hirsch offer three different interpretations of Jacob’s words. What do you think our Jacob had in mind? Why?

Min HaTorah learns from this verse that we should let go of past wrongs and grudges, focusing only on the future. Do you agree? It is always possible to go forward without resolving past conflicts? Even if a conflict is resolved, how well do we do at really leaving it behind us? What is the best way to prevent the past from poisoning the present and the future?

2. The Golden Ghetto

So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, “What is your occupation?” you should answer, “Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers” – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians. (Genesis 46:33-34)

  1. [Goshen] is necessary for you for it is a land of pasture. And when you tell him that you are not skilled in (any) other work, he will send you far from him and settle you there. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. He chose for them what is good and upright, and hated, public office.For there is no doubt that if he had wanted he could have appointed them to high positions but he wanted them to say that they had been shepherds from their youth, both they and their fathers, till that vocation had been theirs from time immemorial and they could not leave it. The idea was to segregate them from the Egyptians; the shepherds were an abomination to them. This would lead to their being settled in Goshen. (Akedat Yitzhak (Rabbi Isaac Arama), 1420-1494, Spain)
  3. “For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” He will not therefore want to settle you in the main centers. It was in this way that Joseph contrived matters to achieve the goal that they would dwell apart, though it involved degrading his family in the eyes of Pharaoh. Everything was worth sacrificing in order to ensure the preservation of Israel’s sanctity. (Ha’amek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), 1817-1893, Lithuania)
  4. “In countries where we have lived for centuries,” Theodor Herzl wrote, “we are still cried down as strangers.” That barrier, as much as Talmud and Torah, maintained the concept of klal Yisrael [the community of Israel]. But as early as 1893, well before the bulk of Jewish immigration and nearly a century ahead of the peak era of assimilation, a Reform rabbi named Maurice Harris delivered a remarkably perceptive prophecy about the mixed blessing of American freedom: “Those Jews are emancipated in America in the fullest sense; we are an integral part of the nation, sharing its duties and its rights, and at times indistinguishable from the Gentiles. In the large cities there are self-imposed ghettoes, it is true, but they are created by poverty rather than religion, and their ranks are serried by many agnostic and atheistic exceptions, who, nevertheless, pass uncriticized. The religious freedom for which we have fought 3,000 years is ours at last. But there are two sides to freedom – freedom to observe, freedom to neglect. In the ghetto, it was easier to observe; in the larger world, it is easier to neglect.” (Samuel G. Freedman, “Freedom: The Promise and the Challenge,” reprinted from Hadassah Magazine by

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators understand Joseph’s instruction to his brothers as his way of insuring their separation from the Egyptians and protecting this tiny group of Jews from assimilation. Samuel Freedman points out that the separation enforced by the ghetto had the undoubtedly unintended consequence of preserving Judaism and the Jewish people. How do you react to the notion that observance – living a thoroughly Jewish life – was easier in the ghetto? The vast majority of diaspora Jews have rejected separation from the larger society. How can these Jews continue to resist assimilation? What do you think the North American Jewish community will look like in 25 years? 50 years? 100 years?

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