B’reshit (Genesis) 44:18-47:27
First Triennial Torah Reading: B’reshit 44:18-45:27
Thoughts on Parashat Vayigash: What Do We Want to Be When We Grow Up?
This week’s portion continues without interruption from last week – now, Yehudah (Judah) steps forward and offers himself as a slave, if Tzofnat Paaneach (Yosef) would free Benjamin. Yosef could restrain himself no longer – he dismisses everyone, save his brothers, from his presence and proclaims in a loud voice, “ Ani Yosef! HaOd Avi Chai?” (I am Yosef! Is my father still living?) The brothers are rendered speechless. Yosef calls his brothers closer and includes himself as one of them – a brother. He gives God glory for hatching this masterful plan – having them reunite in Mitzrayim (Egypt). Further, Yosef requests that Ya’akov’s entire family relocate to Goshen to live, where they will be provided in the remaining years of the famine. Pharaoh too is supportive of this plan and he sends Yosef’s brothers back to Canaan with the promise that they will settle in the best of all the land of Mitzrayim. Upon hearing the news, the spirit of Ya’akov/Yisrael is revived as he proclaims: “Rav Od-Yosef b’ni chai!, El’cha v’er’enu b’terem amut.” ( How great it is that my son Yosef is still living! I will go and see him before I die.) On the way to Mitzrayim, Ya’akov encounters God at night – God promises him that Ya’akov/Yisrael will be a great nation – as God will descend with him to Mitzrayim and will also bring him up, presumably after his death. Consequently, the Torah recounts the seventy members of Ya’akov’s family who cast their lot in Mitzrayim. Once in Mitzrayim, Ya’akov/Yisrael reunites with Yosef, his long-lost son. Ya’akov and Pharaoh meet in a brief encounter. Yosef then negotiates with Pharaoh to save his brothers from serving the royal house and he sets them up in the region of Ra’amses (Goshen), the best part of the land, where they settled and multiplied greatly. The portion ends with Yosef setting terms for the Egyptian people – bread in exchange for livestock, land and perpetual servitude – with the exception of the priests, a fifth of all produce gained from the land becomes property of Pharaoh. The Egyptian people seem to express appreciation with this arrangement.
This week’s parashah, Vayigash,showcases the most dramatic moment of the Joseph narrative. Coerced by Joseph to bring their brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt, they find themselves involved in a Kafkaesque plot. Benjamin now stands accused of stealing a goblet from the Pharaonic household. Judah’s promises to his father to return the child before him as he pleads with Joseph to let himself be enslaved in place of their brother Benjamin. How are we to understand the emerging character of Judah? And why does his plea open the emotional floodgates for Joseph, leading him to finally reveal himself before his brothers?
Joseph B’khor Shor (French Bible commentator, Orleans, 12th century) imagines a dialogue taking place between Judah and Joseph, on the one hand, and between Judah and himself, on the other. He explains, If you ask “why is it that I am spokesman before brothers that are senior to me, it is because I am the guarantor”: [Judah had said to Jacob, their father] “if I do not bring him (Benjamin) back to you and set him before you, I will stand guilty before you forever” (Genesis 43:9). “And if you need a servant, behold I will be your slave in place of the lad, because if you delay him then I will not return, for how could I be witness to this evil; it is better that I stay here alone and he will go up. He cannot remain here . . . and you have also said that you do not want to buy us as slaves since we have not sinned. So how is it that you are prepared to kill our father since surely, he has not sinned . . . ”
Seniority is on Judah’s mind. That is to say, Reuven, Simeon, or Levi should be the appropriate spokesperson for the group, as each of these siblings is older than Judah. The reason that Judah owns his role as interlocutor is because of a promise made to Jacob. Judah assures his father that he will be surety for his beloved son Benjamin. And true to his word, Judah fulfills the vow made to Jacob. He presses his seemingly Egyptian nemesis, urging Joseph to take himself into custody in place of his younger brother.
We are privy to a portrait of Judah, once again standing within earshot of the pit into which Joseph is thrown. The brothers are about to lose another. Rather than respond with hatred, venom, and indifference, Judah is now ready to put his own life on the line. One imagines that Judah’s impassioned and compassion-filled words and Joseph’s painful memories of a very a different brother lead Joseph to reveal himself in the moment. Joseph is prepared to love again, and admit of the splendid possibility of teshuvah. It is, at the end of the day, Judah’s words and emotion that open the doorway to his brother’s mercy.
A Commentary by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Director of Israel Programs, JTS