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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayigash
December 7, 2013 – 4 Tevet 5774

Annual (Genesis 44:18 – 27:27): Etz Hayim p. 274; Hertz p. 169
Triennial (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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Judah pleads with Joseph for mercy, knowing his father Jacob would be crestfallen if he knew that Benjamin was imprisoned. Joseph decides to tell his brothers his true identity, reassuring him that he would not take revenge on them for selling him into slavery. Instead, he insists that the entire family relocate to Egypt. Jacob rejoices at the news that Joseph is still alive, and Joseph’s extended family settles in Goshen. Jacob meets the Pharaoh and reveals the anguish he has felt in his life. Joseph proves himself a master economic planner, nationalizing Egypt’s land and livestock.

Theme #1: Protest

Judah replied, “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.” But he replied, “Far be it from me to act thus! Only he in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave; the rest of you go back in peace to your father.”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. My lord asked his servants, ‘Have you a father or another brother?” (Genesis 44:16-19)

With Joseph’s brothers on the verge of breaking their father’s hearts yetagain, Judah attempts to make Pharaoh’s chief assistant see reason. His words are filled with both yearning and frustration, as Judah still has no idea to whom he is speaking.

[Referring to Genesis 44:18, which says “Then Judah drew near to him …”]: At first glance, it seems that the words “to him” are superfluous. It is possible to explain this apparent redundancy, however, if we read the words “to him” as referring [not to Joseph, the apparent object, but to the subject, the speaker] to Judah himself. Judah reiterated his words a second time in Joseph’s presence. He did so because in the retelling he spoke them with extra feeling from the depths of his heart. (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

At first, Judah had believed that he and his brothers were about to receive their just punishment for having sold Joseph into slavery; namely, that they would be taken as slaves themselves. Therefore he had said: “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how shall we clear ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants” (Genesis 44:16), the iniquity being the sale of Joseph. But now when Judah heard that Joseph was willing to let them all go free and wanted only Benjamin as a slave, he knew that this could not be a punishment for the sale of Joseph, for Benjamin had had no part in that deed. Therefore Judah was convinced that they were being punished on a false accusation, and he lashed out at Joseph in anger. (Rabbi Moses ben Hayyim Alshekh)

“My lord asked his servants, saying: ‘Have you a father …?’” (Genesis 44:19). [It is as if Judah said,] You keep insisting, my lord, that the goblet is so precious to you because “a man such as I will indeed divine” (Genesis 44:15). If it is indeed true that the goblet tells you everything, why ask me so many questions, unless the whole story is a lie and your aim is simply to make false charges against us? (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer)

Questions for Discussion:

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk remarks how Judah reaches deep inside of himself to speak with the kind of passion the moment needed. Had Judah and his brothers really learned something about their own behavior? Or were they simply pleading to save their hides? Is it possible to tell whether someone is begging for help out of genuine concern or their own self-interest?

Rabbi Moses ben Hayyim Alshekh hypothesizes that the brothers finally know that something is suspicious about Joseph’s behavior, since Benjamin’s imprisonment is allegedly unconnected to their capture of Joseph years before. Is it possible that the brothers wonder if they’ve been dealing with Joseph all along? After all, they know (unlike Jacob) that Joseph was only sold into slavery, not necessarily killed. Would the possibility that it could be Joseph change their behavior?

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer points out that part of Judah’s strategy is to find a logical flaw in Joseph’s tactics. In this sense, he appeals to Joseph both logically and emotionally. When asking for something, is it easier to appeal to another person’s logic or emotion? Does it depend on the person? Is one tactic more effective than the other?

Theme #2: Confession

Then Joseph said to his brothers … “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. … God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8)

Even though Joseph reveals his identity only when he can no longer bear keeping it a secret, he does so powerfully and meaningfully (sobbing out of years of heartache, and simultaneously revealing a merciful approach to the people who once tried to dispose of him.

Joseph said: “I am Joseph, the brother whom you sold into slavery. Is my father still alive? If it did not occur to you when you sold me into slavery that it would kill my father, why are you so worried about him now? If he managed to withstand the terrible grief you caused him when you took me away from him, he certainly will be able to survive even the loss of Benjamin.” Thus Joseph refuted the arguments of his brothers with their own words. Therein lay his rebuke and this is the reason why the brothers became so frightened that they were unable to answer him. (Bet HaLevi)

Joseph attributes his own enslavement to God’s providence … To some extent, Joseph’s interpretation of his own misfortune as providential contradicts what we … [suggested] about God’s having no plan for Egypt or for Joseph’s rescue of Egypt, much less of his own family. Certainly, God has no announced plan. The emotional point of the scene, however, is not that God has or lacks a plan but that Joseph has a kind and forgiving heart. To the extent that it is a statement about God, the Joseph story in such moments as these addresses not power but character. God would not so favor Joseph (a transparently good man, perhaps the only true saint in the Tanakh (if God were not himself like Joseph. (Jack Miles, God: A Biography)

The origins of the remnant concept are not looked for in the religious or cultic sphere, but in civic life … In a solemn hour, Joseph declared to his brethren that the reason why Jahweh had led him in the strange way he had was “in order to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep you alive as a great remnant which escaped” (Genesis 45:7). (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology)

Questions for Discussion:

Bet HaLevi suggests that Joseph, even at this emotional moment, is compelled to prove once and for all why the brothers’ actions years ago had been so wrong. He is better able to do so only after revealing his true identity.

Is it easier to be forthright when we reveal information about ourselves or our innermost beliefs?

Miles claims that Joseph takes a certain amount of theological liberty in order to forgive his brothers. Why does Joseph mention God and an unannounced plan when addressing them? Is it because, now that he has admitted that he is Joseph, he can feel free to speak with them on terms that they can understand? Is it because Joseph wishes to cite a higher authority to make his claim more authentic? Or does Joseph simply believe it?

Von Rad explains that the term “remnant” (used frequently by the prophets to describe Israelites that survive after a great destruction) applies to the adventures of Joseph and his brothers. It is easy to forget that, were Joseph and his brothers not reunited in Egypt, the children of Israel may have dispersed almost before they started. Can Joseph sense the historical impact of his actions?

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