By Zwi Reznik, December 23, 2023, Tevet 11, 5784

Parsha Vayeshev begins rather abruptly after the end of last weeks Parsha Miketz. We are clearly in rhe midst of a contentious confrontation between the sons of Jacob and the Viceroy of Egypt, their brother Joseph. Based on last week’s Parsha, Miketz,we begin our reading knowing that Joseph had been pursuing a well thought out strategy since first seeing and recognizing his brothers.The purpose of this strategy is suggested to us by a verse towards the end of Miketz, 42:21: 21And they said each to his brother, “Alas, we are guilty for our brother, whose mortal distress we saw when he pleaded with us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has overtaken us.” . It appears that Joseph is successfully inducing guilt in his brothers over what they had done to him. In addition, Reuben, the eldest brother seems to get in an “I told you so” in verse 22: 22Then Reuben spoke out to them in these words: “Didn’t I say to you, ‘Commit no offense through the boy,’ and you would not listen? And now, look, his blood is requited.” The commentary by Robert Alter helps clarify Joseph’s actions: 21. …. The psychological success of Joseph’s stratagem is confirmed by the fact that the accusation and the hostage taking immediately trigger feelings of guilt over their behavior toward Joseph. Notably, it is only now, not in the original report (Parshat Vayeshev 37:23–24), that we learn that Joseph pleaded with them when they cast him into the pit, a remarkable instance of withheld narrative exposition. Reuben, who tried to save him, now becomes the chief spokesman for their collective guilt.

Miketz ends with Joseph saying 44:17—“The man in whose hand the goblet was found, he shall become my slave, and you, go up in peace to your father”. What appears to be the last stage of Joseph’s strategy is in place. Benjamin will be a slave! That triggers Jehudah’s next move.

We’ve arrived at the beginning of Vayigash. As is often the case the name of the Parsha is the first word. However, let’s refer to it as ויגש יהודה—Jehudah Approached. That is important since Jehuda is NOT the firstborn. However, there is a significant amount of foreshadowing here. As we know it is Jehudah that becomes the dominant tribe, gives his name to a nation and a Roman province and we eventually refer to ourselves as Yehudim, יהודים. Commenting on this opening of the Parsha, Midrash Tanchuma states:. “Scripture states elsewhere in reference to this verse: The lion, which is the mightiest of beasts, turneth not away for anyone (Prov. 30:30)”. Jehudah proceeds to challenge the second most powerful man in Egypt, likely the most powerful empire on Earth at that time. Jehudah is well aware of this. The text repeats much that we’ve already read. Jehudah is in effect bargaining with Pharaoh’s Viceroy, Joseph. I am somewhat reminded of Avraham bargaining with God trying to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorah. The power relationship within the pair of Abraham and God and the pair of Joseph and Jehudah is similar. Jehudah ends with: 44:33And so, let your servant, pray, stay instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. 34For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with us? Let me see not the evil that would find out my father!”. Recalling Jehudah’s role in what happened to Joseph we can note Alter’s comment at this point.”Judah, who conceived the plan of selling Joseph into slavery, now comes around 180 degrees by offering himself as a slave in place of Benjamin.

Up to this point the text has noted occasions when Joseph has broken down and wept. Basically, at this point in Vayigash he loses it. Ultimately he then states :45: 3 אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑ “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”His brothers are stunned and Joseph continues:45:4

 אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־ מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃ “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. So, breathe a sigh of relief that part is finally in the open. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, which I generally turn to when preparing a Drash, was a bit difficult for me when dealing with this portion of the text. However one interesting part of the Midrash dealt with Joseph’s invitation to come come closer. Alter’s commentary helped me a bit: “The proposal of the Midrash Bereishit Rabba that he invites them to come close in order to show them that he is circumcised is of course fanciful, but the closing of physical space does reflect his sense that he must somehow bridge the enormous distance he has maintained between himself and them in his Egyptian persona”. He had even maintained that distance by having an interpreter present.

So everything is good now. Joseph goes well beyond just identifying himself. He tells them that it was God who sent him to Egypt for the specific purpose of saving his family! In fact he states it quite clearly:45:8. And so, it is not you who sent me here but God. He tells them all to go back to Canaan and get their father and the entire family. He has a great new home for them in “the land of Goshen”. This is generally identified as a region of rich pastureland in the Nile delta. This is near the Sinai border where, historically, Egypt allowed people from Sinai to feed their flocks. There’s more! The scene shifts, Joseph and Pharaoh have a conversation and from 45:16 to the end of Chapter 45 we realize what an absolutely wonderful person this Pharoah is. He tells Joseph to take food, wagons, donkeys etc. to enable the move to Egypt by his father and the rest of his family.

Since I have started doing the occasional Drash I’ve been in the habit of consulting various Midrashim. While not quite Midrashim I do have a fondness for works by Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski, M.D.,z”l. which I find as useful. Rabbi Dr. Twerski was a psychiatrist specializing in drug and alcohol abuse treatment. One of his books contains a collection of brief Drashot on each of the weekly Torah portions. The one on Vayigash opens with 44:33 cited above and is titled “An Option to Forgiveness”. I would like to share some of it with you. Following a brief summary of the Parsha up to the point that Joseph reveals himself Rabbi Dr. Twerski poses intriguing questions. “Why all the drama? Is it for sheer revenge, which the Torah explicitly forbids. (Leviticus 19:18)? An even more nagging question: After becoming viceroy why does Joseph not send a message to his grief stricken father to let him know that he is alive and well?…Forgiveness is not an unmixed blessing….Rather than simply forgive provide the offender with an opportunity to redeem himself…The brothers’ readiness to sacrifice their lives in order to return Benjamin to their father indicated that they had overcome their envy…They would now be not merely forgiven, but also proud of their growth and their self esteem would be preserved. 

About forty years ago, when I was living in Denver, my wife and I went to a program at a local synagogue that included a lecture from an academic—i.e. not a congregational Rabbi—that noted that Egypt had often been referred to quite positively in our foundational texts. Chapter 45 could well be an example of that. He also noted that Israel would never have existed as an independent nation without the support of the world’s leading empire of the time and that our texts represent an acknowledgement of that. While strictly speaking the United States is not an empire it easily fits the role of one guaranteeing Israel’s independent existence as did Egypt in antiquity. At the moment I am finding that thought both reassuring and troubling, We begin Shemot in two weeks and we know what’s coming up next.

  1. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
  2. Twerski, Rabbi Abraham J., Living Each Day, The Artscroll Series, 1990, Mesorah Publications,Ltd.
  3. Westminster Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew Tanak: Hebrew Bible Edition (Kindle Locations 8900-8902). . Kindle Edition.
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