Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

December 31, 2011 – 5 Tevet 5772

Annual: Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Triennial: Genesis 45:28-46:27 (Etz Hayim p. 279; Hertz p. 172)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15–28 (Etz Hayim p. 291; Hertz p. 178)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


Judah delivers an impassioned appeal to Joseph on behalf of Benjamin, offering to submit to slavery personally in his youngest brother's stead. He does so, he says, to spare both Benjamin, for whom he has pledged personal responsibility, and his father. Joseph is moved to tears by his brother's selfless and eloquent appeal. Dismissing everyone 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 then to come back, 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 tell 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, assuring him that going back down to Egypt is the proper course, while not mentioning the enslavement that is his nation's destiny. The 70 Israelites taking up residence in Egypt are listed, and 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 and details for him the personal adversity he has long endured.

Against his express instructions, Joseph's brothers tell 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 the grain and food under his control, next he takes their livestock in exchange for supplies, and finally he usurps their only remaining material resource, their land. The only land Joseph allows to remain in private ownership belongs to the priests.

Once he has secured a royal monopoly on both Egypt's land and its livestock for Pharaoh, Joseph imposes further economic duties on the populace: they owe Pharaoh one fifth of each harvest. 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 nevertheless are thankful for surviving the famine: "You have saved our lives! We are grateful to our lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh."

The parashah concludes by contrasting the impoverished Egyptian populace under a despotic regime with Israel's growing prosperity: "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 led to the Israelites' enslavement.

Theme #1: "The Thrill of Viceroy"

"You must tell my father everything about my high station in Egypt and all that you have seen; and bring my father here with all speed." (Genesis 45:13)

Derash: Study

"When Joseph instructed them to make Jacob aware of his fame, the brothers were subjected to the final act of atonement. In effect, Joseph said, 'You, not Benjamin, should tell our father about my glory.' Their good news was to compensate for the harm they had caused 22 years earlier, when they delivered the bad news that Joseph had died." (Chatam Sofer)

"Tell my father about all the difficulties I endured in Egypt, striving valiantly to remain devoted to the Holy One blessed be He, even among the Egyptians and their abominations." (Rabbi Baruch of Medzibuzh, Butzina D'Nehora)

"Tell my father of all my glory (kavod), but tell him that my heart is heavy (kaved) because of it, for I know that God gave me this wealth and power in order to cause my family to join me in this exile." (Toldot Chayim)

"Tell my father I wish to be his son." (Mario Puzo, The Godfather)

"My father was not a failure. After all, he was the father of a president of the United States." (Harry S Truman)

Questions for Discussion

What are Joseph's intentions in these instructions to his brothers? Does he want them to confront their past deceptions? To help them compensate for the pain they had brought Jacob by having them deliver such glad tidings (a la Chatam Sofer)? Is he engaging in ironic role reversal, as it was his youthful habit of reporting his brothers' indiscretions to Jacob that helped arouse their jealousy? Is he simply – quite child-like – still seeking his father's approval? Is he conveying a weak excuse for his failure to communicate with his family for so long? Is he – true to form – seeking to reclaim his perilous position as Jacob's favorite? To give Jacob a sense of personal accomplishment and worth (see Harry Truman)?

Joseph is, indeed, an early model of a Diaspora Jew. What evidence might be cited by Toldot Chayim to show that he regrets that status, and regrets as well that his family was to follow him into his Egyptian exile? Which other biblical characters are fitting or constructive role models for Jews living in the Diaspora today? What do they have in common with Joseph? How do they differ?

What clues does the Book of Genesis offer us as to Joseph's spiritual life, which Rabbi Baruch of Medzibuzh defended so adamantly, or to his ongoing identity as an Israelite and as Jacob's son, even before the family was reunited?

Had it not been for the famine that brought Joseph's brothers to Egypt, would he ever have contacted them or Jacob?

Theme #2: "Baa Humbug"

"When Pharaoh summons you and asks, 'What is your occupation?' you shall 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. Pharaoh said to his brothers, 'What is your occupation?' They answered Pharaoh, 'We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers.'" (Genesis 46:33; 47:3)

Derash: Study

"Why did they ignore Joseph's request? We can speculate that Joseph was the first of Abraham's line to grow up outside the Land and be integrated in the highest levels of a foreign society. His brothers, by contrast, grew up in the Land and see nothing embarrassing about being shepherds. (For that matter, neither does Pharaoh, who responds to their professional pride by putting them in charge of the royal flocks and herds.) We can see this passage as reflecting the healthy self-esteem of a people raised in their own land, in contrast to the concern of Diaspora Jews as to what their neighbors think of them." (Humash Etz Hayim)

"Joseph carefully rehearses his brothers before they speak to Pharaoh and his court. It is obvious that he wants to make certain that his brothers mention their profession, even though 'all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.' In essence, what Joseph wants his brothers to convey to Pharaoh is that they are ready to do unpopular labor and that like Joseph they are reliable and will be useful to the ruler." (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

"The great leaders of the Jewish people in ancient times were shepherds. As Joseph's brothers informed Pharaoh, 'Like our fathers before us, we are shepherds.' Moses and David also worked in this profession. There must be a reason that our ancestors chose to herd goats and sheep. Shepherding is a lifestyle that allows for reflection and inner contemplation. The labor is not intensive. Unlike farming, one does not need to immerse all of one's energies in physical matters. At the same time, the shepherd remains in constant contact with the real world. His reflections are sound, based on reality. He does not delve in artificial philosophies detached from life. For this reason, our forefathers, the great thinkers of their time, worked as shepherds." (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook)

"The Egyptians disdained all shepherds, because they considered sheep taboo both for eating and for sacrificial purposes." (Rashbam)

"The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year." (Elvis Presley)

Questions for Discussion

Rabbi Plaut offers an alternate reading of our text, understanding Joseph as instructing his brothers to be truthful about their status as shepherds. What might motivate or justify this reading? How does it change our understanding of Joseph's character, and of his relationship with his brothers?

The Etz Hayim commentary depicts Joseph as an insecure Diaspora Jew, sheepishly attempting to hide his own modest origins, embarrassed by his past, his family, even, by extension, his father, whom he soon will introduce to Pharaoh. Is he acting selfishly, out of concern for his own position and interests, or does he have his brothers' well-being and future at heart? Is this a new Joseph, or still the old one?

Elvis Presley speaks to the transient nature of fame and fortune. How might his insight help to explain Pharaoh's generous response to the brothers' truthfulness, despite their "abominable" profession?

Consider Rav Kook's observation about the high incidence of shepherds among the spiritual and political giants of early Jewish history. Was the shepherd abhorred in despotic Egypt because, leading a life "that allows for reflection and inner contemplation," like all deep thinkers and sensitive spiritual seekers, the shepherd represented a potential threat to the totalitarian regime? Might the social and religious taboo described by Rashbam have been designed to suppress sheep husbandry and therefore the shepherd's reflective life? That is, were the shepherds more objectionable to Egypt than the sheep?!

Halachah L'Maaseh

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote that "if a holiday is based on religious belief, such celebrations are prohibited to Jews." In reference to celebrating the Gregorian new year, Rabbi Feinstein ruled: "The first day of the non-Jewish year, January 1, and American Thanksgiving are not prohibited according to halachah because today they no longer have any religious significance, but those who are particular should be strict in respect of them" (Responsa Igrot Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 2:13). Despite Rabbi Feinstein's welcome and permissive conclusion, we note with interest that New Years Day is also marked as "The Feast of the Circumcision" because it marks the eighth day after December 25, celebrated by Christian faithful as the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. The feast day is still in currency among Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. While Rabbi Feinstein finds that this fact presents no obstacle to celebrating the secular new year, Rabbi Raymond Apple, rabbi emeritus of the Great Synagogue of Sydney, Australia, cautions: "the halachah is far from happy with the hedonism and overindulgence in eating and drinking which are common on New Year's Eve." [Best wishes for a happy and healthy, worthy and studious 2012 – JHP]

Historical Note

Parashat Vayigash, describing Joseph's continued (and alas, somewhat despotic) program of providing food to an Egypt – and surrounding nations – impoverished by seven lean years, is read on December 31, 2011. U.S. Secretary of State (and former Army Chief of Staff) General George C. Marshall was born on December 31, 1880. The general is remembered as the architect of the post-World War II Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program. After the ravages of the war, which had disrupted agricultural production for years, much of Europe was on the brink of famine. Under the Marshall Plan, European nations received nearly $13 billion in aid, which initially resulted in shipments of food, staples, fuel and machinery from the United States. As a result, from 1948 through 1952 European economies grew at an unprecedented rate.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016