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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayigash
December 22, 2012 – 9 Tevet 5773

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: Ezekiel 37:15-28 (Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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: "Just to Register Emotion"

"And they told him, ‘Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.' His heart went numb, for he did not believe them." (Genesis 45:26)

Study: Derash

"Jacob could not believe that his own children had sold Joseph... that his own children had performed so nefarious a deed... Jacob only accepted their story as true when he was told his beloved Joseph's own words of comfort... including his perspective on being sold. That perspective, his reassuring words that God and not his brothers sent him to Egypt, helped Jacob accept this reality." (Chatam Sofer)

"When his sons lied and told Jacob that Joseph was dead, he believed them. Now that they tell him truthfully that Joseph is alive, he does not believe them. This is the fate of a liar: even when telling the truth, a liar is not believed." (Avot D'Rabbi Natan)

"The text turns on the interplay between the phrases ‘and his heart stopped' and ‘the spirit of Jacob their father revived.' Jacob's initial reaction was defensive. He suppresses any temptation to give credence to the news, being still at risk from wounds too deep to heal. But as the circumstantial evidence mounts, Jacob's tenseness dissipates and he springs back to life." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

"My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: ‘I want a spiritual teacher.'" (Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love)

"There are moments in life, when the heart is so full of emotion That if by chance it be shaken, or into its depths like a pebble Drops some careless word, it overflows, and its secret, Spilt on the ground like water, can never be gathered together." (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

"Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable." (The Wizard of Oz)

Questions for Discussion

Did Jacob doubt his sons' "news" because they were so good (Chatam Sofer) or because they were so bad (Avot D'Rabbi Natan)?! Or, perhaps, because he was protecting his own wounded psyche (Chancellor Schorsch)? What else might account for Jacob's disbelief?

Whether Jacob's heart "went numb" or "skipped a beat" or "stopped" or "flat out tripped over itself and fell on its face"... he appears shocked and disbelieving at his sons' revelation. Did he never doubt their original testimony about Joseph's death? Or was he living with this painful and defining self-deception... having simply accepted that – alive or dead – he was fated never to see his beloved son again?

If Jacob did not believe his sons, why did his heart go numb at all? Doesn't the depth of his emotional reaction suggest a significant degree of initial credulity?

Do Longfellow's verses better describe Jacob's shock... or Joseph's emotional reunion with his brothers?

How does this shocking news transform Jacob's character in his remaining years? Or does it?

Theme #2: "La Rive Goshen"

"Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly." (Genesis 47:27)

Study: Derash

"This entire verse is an indictment of the Children of Israel. For the Holy One, blessed be he, decreed, ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own' (15:3). They, however, sought to settle in the place where it was decreed they should be strangers... The verse reproaches them for this settling, for they sought a portion in a land not theirs... They did not go down to Egypt originally to settle there, rather to sojourn... Now, however, they changed their minds. And they became so settled in Egypt that they did not want to leave, until the Holy One had to take them out forcibly." (Kli Yakar)

"Why does the Torah state here that Israel settled in Egypt when we know very well from the preceding verse that Goshen was a region in Egypt? To teach us that even though our destiny is to be exiled among the nations, we must do everything in our power not to intermingle with our gentile neighbors, and to avoid emulating their life-style and their values. Even though our ancestors were forced to sojourn in Egypt, they kept to themselves in a separate district." (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)

"Settled.' This verb is in the singular, whereas the succeeding three verbs are each plural. The inconsistency is deliberate. Israel the individual Patriarch merges with the national entity." (Chumash Etz Hayim)

"They had come to sojourn, but he (Joseph) ‘settled' them and made them landowners... Israel is dou"'Settled.' This verb is in the singular, whereas the succeeding three verbs are each plural. The inconsistency is deliberate. Israel the individual Patriarch merges with the national entity." (Chumash Etz Hayim)bly cursed by Joseph's policies. Its prosperity, produced by Joseph's favoritism, will arouse the envy of the Egyptians, and even more important, Joseph's consolidation of Pharaoh's power will result in the practice of wholesale slavery." (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

Questions for Discussion

Those of us who, like Dr. Kass, have "read ahead" realize the ominous tone of these verses – which, on the surface, purport to describe the blessings and progress of the Children of Israel. Things are not what they seem! How does the theme of deceptive appearances reflect the Joseph saga as a whole? How does it anticipate the major contours of the Book of Exodus... and the Torah in general?

Did the purported separatism of the early Israelites serve them and their religious/moral integrity well in Egypt? Or did the (according to Rabbi Feinstein) principled decision to "keep themselves in a separate district" actually invite resentment and suspicion among the Egyptians and lead to national suffering, enslavement, and estrangement from Israel's nascent spiritual life? What implications does this question have for contemporary Jews?

Chumash Etz Hayim suggests that these verses represent a generational and literary seachange: from the personal story of the Patriarchs and their immediate families to the history of the Israelite nation. Why is land acquisition and the distinction between sojourners and settlers critical to this historic transition?

"They were fertile and increased greatly" – or, more familiarly, "They were fruitful and multiplied." Our verse echoes the opening chapters of Genesis (1:22, 28) and the earliest mandates of the Creator to humanity, reprised in conjunction with Noah's postdiluvian activities (9:1). Why introduce this evocative language in the current context?

Historic Note

Parashat Vayigash, read on December 22, 2012, continues the saga of Joseph – who so thoroughly assimilated into Egyptian culture and rose to a position of power and prestige. The settlement of Jacob and sons in Egypt anticipates the later, collective Hebrew fall from grace and enslavement in Egypt. On December 22, 1894, French officer Alfred Dreyfus was courtmartialed for treason... convincing Theodor Herzl, among others, that assimilation of Jews into Diaspora nations – still – held no lasting hope for the Jewish People.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Tomorrow, Sunday December 23, 2012 is observed as a fast day: Asarah B'Tevet. The observance commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar (See Talmud Rosh Hashanah 18B). Like Tzom Gedaliah, Ta'anit Esther, and Shivah Asar B'Tammuz (the "minor" fasts), the fast of Asarah B'Tevet is observed only from sunrise to sunset (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 550:2, 564). There was a proposal to transform the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet into Yom Ha-Shoah – a day commemorating the losses in the Holocaust. The idea was rejected largely because it was felt, quite properly, that the Holocaust was too significant to be used as a pretext for reinvigorating a neglected fast day.... and merited its own commemoration. As the only winter fast day (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least!), Asarah B'Tevet is the briefest such observance of the year (approximately 9 hours, 15 minutes. December 21 – Erev Shabbat Parashat Vayigash – was the shortest day of 2012).

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