You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayigash.
A Song of Hope
BY RABBI BURTON L. VISOTZKY
In a curious foreshadowing of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah reading (Gen. 46:8) we read, “Ve’eleh shemot—These are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt . . .” This is verbatim the same report as the opening verse of the book of Exodus. But there, the names are limited only to Jacob’s actual sons, and the full enumeration of their own offspring is absent.
Here, however, we get the list of Jacob’s sons, and his grandsons, as well. Curiouser, there is even mention of great-grandsons: Judah’s son Perez’s boys Hetzron and Hamul are listed (Gen. 46:12), as are some others. Curiouser and curiouser, in addition to the matriarchs who were Jacob/Israel’s wives, we learn the name of Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen. 46:15). And then, although unnamed, we find out in that same verse that Jacob had sons and daughters (note the plural)! The only one of Jacob’s daughters we know by name is Dinah; and we only know about her thanks to her sad misadventure and likely rape at the hands of Shekhem, the local prince, and the violent rampage by her brothers that followed (Gen. 34).
But look carefully, for most curious of all is the mention of Jacob’s son Asher, and Asher’s daughter, Serah. Serah bat Asher is Jacob’s granddaughter. She is mentioned again briefly in another genealogy list in Numbers 26:46, and finally in 1 Chronicles 7:30. Serah bat Asher is mentioned three times in the Bible; and unlike her aunt Dinah, she seems to have merited mention without extreme suffering and violence.
Her repeated appearance is one of those occasions in Scripture that scream for Midrash to fill in the gaps. Within the Torah, her chief virtue seems to be that she was among the Israelite clan who went down to Egypt during the famine to live off the largesse of her long-lost uncle Joseph. But it’s hard to see what separates her from her unnamed (and unnumbered) sisters who also made the journey. Yet through Midrash, like Alice through the looking glass, in Serah bat Asher, our Sages of blessed memory have given us a heroine for our times!
Early in the third century CE, the Rabbis imagine Serah is still alive in Egypt after centuries, when the Israelites are on the cusp of Exodus. Before they can leave Egypt, the children of Israel must fulfill a vow that their ancestor Joseph had placed upon them. In the very final verses of Genesis, which we will read next week, he adjures them, “Carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25).
But at that point in the Exodus story, centuries have passed since the Israelites entered Egypt. Who even remembered the vow that Joseph made them take? Why Moses, of course! In the midst of the tumult of the Exodus we are quietly informed, “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him . . .” (Exod. 13:19). How did faithful Moses know where Joseph’s bones were buried? The Tosefta Sotah (4:3) teaches that our heroine, long-lived Serah bat Asher, informed him, “In the River Nile are Joseph’s bones!”
Many centuries after the Exodus, long after the Land of Israel has been conquered, a certain no-goodnik named Sheba ben Bichri rebelled against King David (2 Sam. 20). Sheba sought refuge in a town that David’s general Yoav then besieged. Yoav threatened to destroy that town if they did not surrender Sheba. Scripture teaches that a “wise-woman” counseled them to give up the rebel and save the town. Who was that unnamed wise woman, the Rabbis ask a millennium later (Eccl. Rabbah 9:18:12)? Why she was Serah bat Asher; who else?
How long did Serah live? One midrash (Pesikta Derav Kahana 11:13) reports that the third-century CE Sage Rabbi Yohanan claimed that when the Red Sea parted, the walls of water that formed were like an impervious net. Serah bat Asher showed up to correct him, saying, “I was there! The walls of water had transparent windows!”
It is tempting to add to Serah’s adventures. Perhaps we could suggest that she was in another besieged city, Jerusalem, when the King of Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar, surrounded it on the 10th of Tevet, which this year coincidently falls on December 25th. Or maybe Serah was there to save us on so many other December 25ths during pogroms in the Pale of Settlement.
Does Serah dwell among us yet today?
A late Midrash, probably from around the year 1300 CE, called Sefer Hayashar, commenting on this week’s Torah reading, tells us why Serah merited to live forever: When the sons of Jacob went down to Egypt during the famine and were met there by their long-lost brother Joseph—he who forgave them, fed them, and helped them survive—they realized they would have to inform their father, who was still anxiously awaiting their return to the Land of Canaan. It would be difficult to let their father know of the cruel deception they had perpetrated upon him, allowing him, for all those years, to believe his beloved Joseph was dead, and watching Jacob mourn him without cease. Who could they send to break this terrible, yet exhilaratingly revivifying, news to him?
The brothers sent Serah bat Asher. She took her lyre and sang to the elderly Jacob, “Od Yosef hai—Joseph still lives” (Gen. 45:26). When he heard her song, his heart grew faint; for through all his years of despair, he yet held hope. Od Yosef hai, she sang—the very words that Jacob longed to hear. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Jacob rewarded his granddaughter for being the bearer of such good tidings. He blessed her and rewarded her with the promise that she might live forever.
May that song always be our hope: “Od Yosef hai.” For so long as Joseph still lives—and through us forgives and nourishes his family, which is our family—Serah and the Jewish people live forever.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
It’s the Tzimzum, Stupid
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Does My Father Love Me? (Vayigash 5779)
It is one of the great questions we naturally ask each time we read the story of Joseph. Why did he not, at some time during their twenty-two year separation, send word to his father that he was alive? For part of that time – when he was a slave in Potiphar’s house, and when he was in prison – it would have been impossible. But certainly he could have done so when he became the second most powerful person in Egypt. At the very least he could have done so when the brothers came before him on their first journey to buy food.
Joseph knew how much his father loved him. He must have known how much their separation grieved him. He did not know, could not know, what Jacob thought had happened to him, but this surely he knew: that it was his duty to communicate with him when the opportunity arose, to tell his father that he was alive and well. Why then did he not? The following explanation, is a tantalising possibility.
The story of Joseph’s descent into slavery and exile began when his father sent him, alone, to see how the brothers were faring.
His brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”
“Very well,” he replied.
So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
What does the narrative tell us immediately prior to this episode? It tells us about the second of Joseph’s dreams. In the first, he had dreamt that he and his brothers were in the field binding sheaves. His stood upright while the sheaves of his brothers bowed down to him. Naturally, when he told them about the dream, they were angry. “Do you intend to reign over us? Would you rule over us?” There is no mention of Jacob in relation to the first dream.
The second dream was different:
Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind. (Gen. 37:9–11).
Immediately afterwards, we read of Jacob sending Joseph, alone, to his brothers. It was there, at that meeting far from home, that they plotted to kill him, lowered him into a pit, and eventually sold him as a slave.
Joseph had many years to reflect on that episode. That his brothers were hostile to him, he knew. But surely Jacob knew this as well. In which case, why did he send Joseph to them? Did Jacob not contemplate the possibility that they might do him harm? Did he not know the dangers of sibling rivalry? Did he not at least contemplate the possibility that by sending Joseph to them he was risking Joseph’s life?
No one knew this better from personal experience. Recall that Jacob himself had been forced to leave home because his brother Esau threatened to kill him, once he discovered that Jacob had taken his blessing. Recall too that when Jacob was about to meet Esau again, after an interval of twenty-two years, he was “in great fear and distress,” believing that his brother would try to kill him. That fear provoked one of the great crises of Jacob’s life. So Jacob knew, better than anyone else in Genesis, that hate can lead to killing, that sibling rivalry carries with it the risk of fratricide.
Yet Jacob sent Joseph to his other sons knowing that they were jealous of him and hated him. Joseph presumably knew these facts. What else could he conclude, as he reflected on the events that led up to his sale as a slave, that Jacob had deliberately placed him in this danger? Why? Because of the immediately prior event, when Joseph had told his father that “the sun and moon” – his father and mother – would bow down to him.
This angered Jacob, and Joseph knew it. His father had “rebuked” him. It was outrageous to suggest that his parents would prostrate themselves before him. It was wrong to imagine it, all the more so to say it. Besides which, who was the “moon”? Joseph’s mother, Rachel, the great love of Jacob’s life, was dead. Presumably, then, he was referring to Leah. But his very mention of “the sun and moon and eleven stars” must have brought back to his father the pain of Rachel’s death. Joseph knew he had provoked his father’s wrath. What else could he conclude but that Jacob had deliberately put his life at risk?
Joseph did not communicate with his father because he believed his father no longer wanted to see him or hear from him. His father had terminated the relationship. That was a reasonable inference from the facts as Joseph knew them. He could not have known that Jacob still loved him, that his brothers had deceived their father by showing him Joseph’s bloodstained cloak, and that his father mourned for him, “refusing to be comforted.” We know these facts because the Torah tells us. But Joseph, far away, in another land, serving as a slave, could not have known. This places the story in a completely new and tragic light.
Is there any supporting evidence for this interpretation? There is. Joseph must have known that his father was capable of being angered by his sons. He had seen it twice before.
The first time was when Shimon and Levi killed the inhabitants of Shechem after their prince had raped and abducted their sister Dina. Jacob bitterly reprimanded them, saying:
“You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed”(Gen. 34:30).
The second happened after Rachel died. “While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah – and Israel heard of it” (Gen. 35:22). Actually according to the sages, Reuben merely moved his father’s bed, but Jacob believed that he had slept with his handmaid, an act of usurpation.
As a result of these two episodes, Jacob virtually broke off contact with his three eldest sons. He was still angry with them at the end of his life, cursing them instead of blessing them. Of Reuben, he said:
Unstable as water, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it. (Gen. 49:4)
Of his second and third sons he said:
Shimon and Levi are brothers –
Their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly,
For they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
And their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
And disperse them in Israel. (Gen. 49:5–7)
So Joseph knew that Jacob was capable of anger at his children, and of terminating his relationship with them (that is why, in the absence of Joseph, Judah became the key figure. He was Jacob’s fourth son, and Jacob no longer trusted the three eldest).
There is evidence of another kind as well. When Joseph was appointed second-in-command in Egypt, given the name Tzafenat Pa’neaĥ, and had married an Egyptian wife, Asenat, he had his first child. We then read:
Joseph named his firstborn Menasheh, saying, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s house.” (Gen. 41:51)
Uppermost in Joseph’s mind was the desire to forget the past, not just his brothers’ conduct towards him but “all my father’s house.” Why so, if not that he associated “all my trouble” not just with his siblings but also with his father Jacob? Joseph believed that his father had deliberately put him at his brothers’ mercy because, angered by the second dream, he no longer wanted contact with the son he had once loved. That is why he never sent a message to Jacob that he was still alive.
If this is so, it sheds new light on the great opening scene of Vayigash. What was it in Judah’s speech that made Joseph break down in tears and finally reveal his identity to his brothers? One answer is that Judah, by asking that he be held as a slave so that Benjamin could go free, showed that he had done teshuva; that he was a penitent; that he was no longer the same person who had once sold Joseph into slavery. That, as I have argued previously, is a central theme of the entire narrative. It is a story about repentance and forgiveness.
But we can now offer a second interpretation. Judah says words that, for the first time, allow Joseph to understand what had actually occurred twenty-two years previously. Judah is recounting what happened after the brothers returned from their first journey to buy food in Egypt:
Then our father said, “Go back and buy a little more food.” But we said, “We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother is with us will we go. We cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.”
Your servant my father said to us, “You know that my wife bore me two sons. One of them went away from me, and I said, ‘He has surely been torn to pieces.’ And I have not seen him since. If you take this one from me too and harm comes to him, you will bring my grey head down to the grave in misery.” (Gen. 44:27–31)
At that moment Joseph realised that his fear that his father had rejected him was unwarranted. On the contrary, he had been bereft when Joseph did not return. He believed that he had been “torn to pieces,” killed by a wild animal. His father still loved him, still grieved for him. Against this background we can better understand Joseph’s reaction to this disclosure:
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:1–3)
Joseph’s first thought is not about Judah or Benjamin, but about Jacob. A doubt he had harboured for twenty-two years had turned out to be unfounded. Hence his first question: “Is my father still alive?”
Is this the only possible interpretation of the story? Clearly not. But it is a possibility. In which case, we can now set the Joseph narrative in two other thematic contexts which play a large part in Genesis as a whole.
The first is tragic misunderstanding. We think here of at least two other episodes. The first has to do with Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac, we recall, loved Esau; Rebecca loved Jacob. At least one possible explanation, offered by Abarbanel, is that Rebecca had been told “by God,” before the twins were born, that “the elder will serve the younger.” Hence her attachment to Jacob, the younger, and her determination that he, not Esau, should have Isaac’s blessing.
The other concerns Jacob and Rachel. Rachel had stolen her father’s terafim, “icons” or “household gods,” when they left Laban to return to the land of Canaan. She did not tell Jacob that she had done so. The text says explicitly, “Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods” (Gen. 31:32). When Laban pursued and caught up with them, he accused Jacob’s party of having stolen them. Jacob indignantly denies this and says “If you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live”. Several chapters later, we read that Rachel died prematurely, on the way. The possibility hinted at by the text, articulated by a Midrash and by Rashi, is that, unwittingly, Jacob had condemned her to death. In both cases, misunderstanding flowed from a failure of communication. Had Rebecca told Isaac about the oracle, and had Rachel told Jacob about the terafim, tragedy might have been averted. Judaism is a religion of holy words, and one of the themes of Genesis as a whole is the power of speech to create, mislead, harm or heal. From Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers (“They hated him and could not speak peaceably to him”), we are shown how, when words fail, violence begins.
The other theme, even more poignant, has to do with fathers and sons. How did Isaac feel towards Abraham, knowing that he had lifted a knife to sacrifice him? How did Jacob feel towards Isaac, knowing that he loved Esau more than him? How did Leah’s sons feel about Jacob, knowing that he loved Rachel and her children more? Does my father really love me? – that is a question we feel must have arisen in each of these cases. Now we see that there is a strong case for supposing that Joseph, too, must have asked himself the same question.
“Though my father and mother may forsake me, the Lord will receive me,” says Psalm 27. That is a line that resonates throughout Genesis. No one did more than Sigmund Freud to place this at the heart of human psychology. For Freud, the Oedipus complex – the tension between fathers and sons – is the single most powerful determinant of the psychology of the individual, and of religion as a whole.
Freud, however, took as his key text a Greek myth, not the narratives of Genesis. Had he turned to Torah instead, he would have seen that this fraught relationship can have a non-tragic resolution. Abraham did love Isaac. Isaac did bless Jacob a second time, this time knowing he was Jacob. Jacob did love Joseph. And transcending all these human loves is divine love, rescuing us from feelings of rejection, and redeeming the human condition from tragedy.
 I am indebted for this entire line of thought to Mr. Joshua Rowe of Manchester. Others have pointed out that a similar idea was subsequently and independently written by Rav Yoel Bin Nun in volume one of Megadim.
 Rashi to Bereishit 35:22; Shabbat 55b
 Abarbanel to Bereishit 25:28. Isaac loved Esau, Abarbanel argues, because he was the firstborn. Isaac believed, therefore, that he would inherit the divine blessing and covenant. From her oracle, Rebecca knew otherwise. On this reading, the drama unfolded because of a failure of communication between husband and wife.
 Rashi to Bereishit 31:32; Bereishit Rabbah and Zohar ad loc.
BY RABBI ZOHAR ATKINS
Although we know how it ends, this week’s Torah reading can be, by turns, anxiety-provoking, cathartic, and unsettling. We know a reconciliation between the brothers will take place, but we don’t fully understand how. We know a peace deal will be reached, but we suspect that, like all new agreements, its character will be tenuous, fragile, and ad hoc, its consensus constructed atop a minefield of lingering resentments and fundamentally conflicting narratives.
More than two decades have passed since the brothers last saw each other as brothers. Joseph was just a boy when his older siblings had thrown him in a pit, then pulled him out, and sold him into slavery. Now Joseph is a successful consultant, Pharaoh’s life coach. His brothers have come to him as homeless beggars in search of welfare. It is Joseph, now, who holds the cards, while his brothers are reduced to the pathos of victimhood.
At the opening of this week’s parashah, Joseph holds not just the economic upper hand, but has the advantage of more information, as well. He knows the identity of his brothers, while they are in the dark. The moment in which the brothers reconcile can only happen when Joseph makes known who he is. There is no truth and reconciliation without first, recognition and disclosure; for healing to happen the asymmetry between the brothers must be overcome by mutuality and reciprocity:
Joseph could not restrain himself before all who stood by him … Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; is my father still alive?” But his brothers were unable to answer him, because they were terrified before him. But Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” And they came close. And he said, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold, Egyptwards.” (Gen. 45:1-4)
Note that Joseph says “I am Joseph” twice, as if surprised by his own words. Or perhaps Joseph has to repeat himself because the brothers are in a state of shock and disbelief. The power of Joseph’s “big reveal” is stunning. A man in Egyptian clothing, who has achieved the rank of royalty, takes off his masks, peels away his persona of success and refers to himself as “your brother, the one whom you sold.” Joseph demonstrates both to his brothers and to himself that his essence has not changed; his story is more core to his identity than his outward displays of power. Ultimately, it is Joseph’s ownership of his story that enables him to establish connection with his brothers, to forgive them, and to seek solidarity and alliance with them. Sharing who he is, Joseph receives his true power.
Still, it’s worth noting that Joseph’s moment of self-disclosure does not come easy. Genesis 45 opens with the words “velo yakhol Yosef lehitapek”; Joseph was not able to restrain himself. One way to read this verse is to say that he couldn’t restrain himself from crying; his emotional sensitivity betrayed him. But another way to understand this verse is that Joseph could no longer hold back his identity. He could no longer live a life of outward deception, and possibly, inward deception. The language of lo yakhol, being unable, implies that were he able, Joseph would have been happy to keep up appearances. His moment of authenticity comes upon him, almost like an external force.
What, then, prompts Joseph to change course, to seek intimacy, to look his former oppressors in the eye, and to forgive them? In his opening speech, Yehudah recounts their previous interaction from last week’s parashah:
My lord asked his servants, “Have you a father or another brother?” We told my lord, “We have an old father, and there is a child of his old age, the youngest; his full brother is dead, so that he alone is left of his mother, and his father dotes on him.” And you said to your servants: “Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes upon him.” And we said to my lord: “The boy cannot leave his father; for if he should leave his father, his father would die.” (Gen. 45:19-21).
Yehudah reflects Joseph’s own words and actions back to him. He enables Joseph to experience the impact of his behavior from a new perspective. More significantly, Yehudah lets Joseph know the brothers’ commitment to Benjamin, and to their father. When Joseph hears that “the boy cannot leave his father,” he understands the subtext: Yehudah is speaking about him.
Listening to Yehudah remark that “[Benjamin’s] brother is dead,” Joseph experiences a profound emotional paradox. On the one hand, Yehudah’s statement is true. Joseph, the boy, is dead, replaced by a new Joseph, this Egyptian dignitary. On the other hand, Joseph is still alive. In hearing that he is dead, Joseph understands that he is both dead and alive, a survivor, and that Yehudah’s commitment to save Benjamin is a kind of commitment to save him; this insight enables Joseph to come alive, to be resurrected, and to move towards a reconciliation with his Hebraic identity. Although describing the brothers’ own plight, Yehudah inadvertently helps Joseph understand his own.
Yehudah’s recitation of Joseph’s story also confirms that Joseph is not alone or crazy. Joseph can now feel, for the first time, that his own suffering is real, not imaginary. Yehudah cannot rectify the past injustices done to Joseph, but by speaking of Benjamin, he is able to speak, obliquely, of Joseph to Joseph. Without knowing it, Yehudah’s speech begins a long process of rectifying what philosopher Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice,” that is, the further injustice committed when victims’ stories are systematically marginalized, disbelieved, and unheard. More powerful than any other gift he can give, Yehudah enables Joseph (ironically in a moment in which he is mistaken for an Egyptian overlord) to feel recognized and affirmed.
A similar idea can be found in the story of the Odyssey. Philosopher Adriana Cavarero writes:
In the most beautiful scene in the Odyssey, Ulysses is seated as a guest in the court of the Phaecians, incognito. A blind rhapsod entertains those gathered with his song. He sings, “the famous deeds of men, that song whose renown had already reached the wide sky.” He sings of the Trojan war, and tells of Ulysses and his undertakings. And Ulysses, hiding himself, in a great purple tunic, weeps. “He has never wept before,” comments Hannah Arendt. “And certainly not when what we he is now hearing actually happened. Only when he hears the story does he become fully aware of its significance.” (Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, 17)
According to Cavarero and Arendt, the unique power of hearing our own stories reflected back to us is that they allow us to experience that which we cannot experience alone. We need the Other, and we need narrative, to discover, and thus become who we are.
Yehudah’s speech becomes a kind of cipher for the Torah’s story of Joseph and the Brothers, taken as a whole, a way for us to read the story and find ourselves in it. The Joseph story is about the healing and redemptive power of storytelling, of sharing and being heard. Sometimes our stories can take the form of tears and the entrusting of secrets; often, they can only be told obliquely, with masks, through the conceit of literature and the play within a play.
May we be so moved, reading the Joseph story, that we too, will merit to say our own version of, “I am Joseph.” And like Yehudah, may we merit to show others that we hear them and believe them in their moments of isolation. In so doing, may we pave a new path for healing, transformation, and abiding empowerment.
Torah Reading for Week of December 17-23, 2017
“Joseph’s Primal Scream”
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Spiritual Development
In Vayigash Judah confronts Egypt’s second in command, not knowing that he is his brother, Joseph, and later Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. This is one of the most emotionally wrenching moments in Torah. While Jacob’s earlier cries of “taref, taref” and “shecahti, shecahti,” when he is told that Joseph is probably dead, may be the most raw expressions of grief in the Torah, in Vayigash the human expressions necessary to transform grief are exceptionally demonstrated.
Here Judah challenges the capricious actions of Joseph, the seeming demi-god of Egypt, just as Job challenged God regarding the unjust punishments he endured, and as any of us might rage against the whims of the universe (a.k.a. God) when we are the recipients of its incomprehensible blows. In Vayigash, Joseph falls to the final rung of his descent, which took him down into the pit, slavery, prison, and finally here, as he wails in a voice heard throughout Egypt that shatters the walls of his emotional prison.
Judah’s confrontation and Joseph’s cry are perfect examples of the work that must be done when life presents us with great trauma. “Vayigash” can mean, “confront,” “approach,” or “meet.” In Midrash Rabba Rabbi Yohannan, places “Vayigash” on a list of ten words that can be translated as “prayer,” depicting the urgency, dignity, and honesty with which Judah pleads his case and describes his family dynamics. Would that my prayers were as clear, assertive, and heart-felt as Judah’s words, when I direct them to HaMakom/The Place.
Joseph hears Judah’s pleas and his concern for their father’s well being. He perceives a change in his brother and can no longer maintain his distance from his brothers or from his past:
45:1- 2 and he cried out… His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, so the news reached pharaoh’s palace.”
In this crying out, Joseph hits bottom. This precipitates his transformation and dissolves the boundaries that froze him in the prison of memory, delivering him to that emotional wilderness, that liminal place of mystery where change can happen. In that place (HaMakom-the name for God in the Mourner’s Blessing), all of the spiritual and emotional adhesions that bound Joseph in the prison of his past dissolved. He could see something new. Joseph is no longer in the pit. His primal scream exposes Leonard Cohen’s proverbial: “crack in everything [where] the light gets in.” He reveals himself to his brothers.
It will be the similar crying out of the people of Israel that will summon God’s compassion and lead them to the Exodus. It is our crying out from the depths that enables us to turn memory into blessing. In Joseph’s crying, he encounters his journey and reframes it:
45:5-8 it was not you who sent me here ahead of you, but God … [that I] be a provider.” Joseph is no longer in the pit.
One of the most familiar Hebrew word for God, “Adonai,” shares its root with a word that means “sill” or “threshold.” This suggests for me a theology of the wilderness, the uncharted territory of the great unknown, the mysterious corridor, which we enter when we surrender to the primal emotions and, like Joseph, allow ourselves to be transported through the mystifying passageway into something new.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Wake up, wake up! (Weekly Torah)
Don’t stress, and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here into slavery; actually God sent me ahead of you to save lives — says Joseph to his brothers. (Gen. 45:5)
At what point does Joseph clearly discern God’s plan for his work in Egypt?
Torah offers an answer: vayehi miketz shnatayim (Gen. 41:1)
Here is a literal, conventional translation: It happened at the end of two years.
And here is a literal, less conventional translation: It happened after waking up from two sleeps.
The two translations are connected. At the end of two years, Pharaoh wakes from two sleeps, each with a similarly disturbing dream. After each dream, Torah says: vayikatz Paroh, Pharaoh woke up.
But from what does Pharaoh wake up? Does he wake, like Jacob, from a sleep? If so, from what kind of sleep?
After Jacob dreams of the ladder, Torah says, vayikatz Ya’akov mishnato, Jacob woke up from his sleep (Gen 28:16). Jacob wakes up, and interprets his own dream, saying, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” Jacob seems to have woken up from two kinds of sleep: a physical sleep, and a spiritual sleep. He now sees the everyday waking world, and the presence of God within it.
Pharaoh, however, cannot interpret his own dream. He has awakened only from a physical sleep. When Joseph hears the dream, however, Joseph awakes from a spiritual sleep. Joseph sees that God has intertwined his fate with Pharaoh’s fate. He says, “What God does has been shown to Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:28).
Vayehi miketz shnatayim. It happened after two people awoke: after Pharaoh woke from his dream, and after Joseph woke to a new spiritual consciousness.
What would it take for you to see anew the presence of God in your life? Motivated by your new vision, what would you do differently?
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE WOMAN BETWEEN THE WALLS – Parshat Vayigash
These rabbis, they don’t miss a thing.
The verse says:
These were the sons whom Leah bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, along with Dinah his daughter, and all of his grandsons and granddaughters, thirty-three souls. (Gen. 46:15)
אֵלֶּה בְּנֵי לֵאָה, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב בְּפַדַּן אֲרָם, וְאֵת, דִּינָה בִתּוֹ: כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ בָּנָיו וּבְנוֹתָיו, שְׁלֹשִׁים וְשָׁלֹשׁ
We are in the midst of Jacob’s descent into Egypt. He has been summoned by his long-lost son, Joseph, who has promised to provide for the whole family during this time of severe famine. And so they all go down. The Torah – not uncharacteristically, during a great migration – takes the time to list the names of all the travellers. It does not make for such an interesting read, perhaps, but there it is, a verse in the Torah, and it says Leah had a total of thirty-three children and grandchildren.
So, just to be sure, the rabbis go back and count.
And there are only thirty-two.
Is this a scribal error? Or did we miss someone? Where’s the thirty-third? Rashi gives a most intriguing answer:
Thirty-three – But if you count them, you find only thirty-two. The missing one is Yocheved, who was born between the walls when they entered the city, as it says (in Numbers Ch. 26): “[Yocheved was the daughter of Levi, whose wife] had borne her to Levi in Egypt.” That is, her birth was in Egypt, but her conception was not in Egypt.
שלשים ושלש – ובפרטן אי אתה מוצא אלא שלשים ושנים, אלא זו יוכבד שנולדה בין החומות בכניסתן לעיר, שנאמר (במדבר כו נט) אשר ילדה אותה ללוי במצרים, לידתה במצרים ואין הורתה במצרים:
Let’s clarify what Rashi’s saying here. Yocheved will go on to be the mother of Miriam, Aaron, and – most famously – Moses. She is certainly not listed here, and we generally assume she is not yet born, for she is only first mentioned in the second chapter of the Book of Exodus. Even then, she is not named, only referred to as “a daughter of Levi.” When we do learn her name – in yet another of the Torah’s genealogies, in the Book of Numbers – we are told explicitly that she was born in Egypt. But since that fact seems obvious, the rabbis wonder why it is mentioned at all. So they conclude that it was to emphasize that while her birth, yes, was in Egypt, her conception was not. She was already in the womb on the way down, and was actually born – in Rashi’s striking phrasing – “between the walls” – for major cities in those days (says Rashi in another place – II Kings 22:14), were guarded by a double wall. In other words, Yocheved was born in a liminal space that was somehow both just after the moment of entry into Egypt, and also just before it.
It is a powerful description. And indeed, Rashi seems so taken with it, that he mentions it again, eleven verses later, when we read:
All the souls coming to Egypt with Jacob – those descended from him, not his wives – were sixty-six. And Joseph’s sons, who were born to him in Egypt, two souls; so all the souls of the House of Jacob who came to Egypt were seventy. (Gen. 46:26-27)
כָּל-הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַבָּאָה לְיַעֲקֹב מִצְרַיְמָה, יֹצְאֵי יְרֵכוֹ, מִלְּבַד, נְשֵׁי בְנֵי-יַעֲקֹב–כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ, שִׁשִּׁים וָשֵׁשׁ. וּבְנֵי יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר-יֻלַּד-לוֹ בְמִצְרַיִם, נֶפֶשׁ שְׁנָיִם: כָּל-הַנֶּפֶשׁ לְבֵית-יַעֲקֹב הַבָּאָה מִצְרַיְמָה, שִׁבְעִים
They were sixty-six when they were coming to Egypt. But then it says they seventy when they got there. What happened along the way? Says Rashi:
They found Joseph and his two sons there and Yocheved had been added, “between the walls.”
שמצאו שם יוסף ושני בניו ונתוספה להם יוכבד בין החומות
Joseph and his two sons make sixty-nine, and then… there’s Yocheved again, born between the walls – seventy.
It’s unusual for Rashi to give us the same narrative information twice, in such quick succession. But in fact, he will go on to mention this auspicious birth two more times in his commentary. Again at the beginning of Exodus (2:1), when we are introduced to Yocheved, he says:
She was born when they came to Egypt, between the walls.
שנולדה בבואה למצרים בין החומות
And then again, at the verse in Numbers (26:59), when she is finally identified as Yocheved:
When they entered into the first wall, [her mother] gave birth
כשנכנסו לתוך החומה ילדתה
Four references in all, in his commentary, to this birth between the walls.
What was it about that image that stuck with Rashi? Why did he keep insisting that Moses’ mother was the missing one in the count, the one who only fully arrived in Egypt but had, in a sense, been with them all along?
It is true that this story appears all over rabbinic literature, several times in Talmud (Sotah 11b; Bava Batra 120a, 123b), and several times in the various Midrashim (Gen. Rab. 9, Exod Rab. 1:19, Num. Rab. 13:19, Pesikta Rabati 29:1, Yalkut Shimoni 152:2, etc.).
But then again, Rashi had other legends to choose from. The Midrash in which Yocheved is first offered as the seventieth traveller, for example, goes on to offer us several other interesting possibilities:
1. There are those who say that Jacob completed the number.
ויש אומרים: יעקב השלים עמהם את המנין.
This answer, perhaps the most straightforward, is that the count of “all of those who came to Egypt with Jacob,” is naturally meant to include Jacob himself. That is precisely the interpretation favored by more literalist commentators, such as the Ibn Ezra (though a later verse, in Exodus, which says that these seventy souls all “came forth from the loins of Jacob,” seems to suggest that Jacob could not have been included in the count).
Next, the Midrash offers this grand suggestion:
2. There are those who say that the Holy Blessed One completed the number.
ויש אומרים: הקב“ה השלים עמהם את המנין.
Well, well! Number seventy was none other than God Almighty! God accompanied them down to Egypt. Now this idea is not only theologically exciting, it also has some grounding in the text. In this same chapter, just before they descend to Egypt and are counted, God appears to Jacob in a night-vision and says:
I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up again. (Gen. 46:4)
אָנֹכִי, אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי, אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה
So what may have appeared at first to be a metaphor for God’s closeness and a promise of protection, the midrash now seems to be taking literally: God will travel down with them, as one of the troop.
From there the proposals get slightly more obscure:
3. There are those who say that Hushim ben Dan completed the number.
ויש אומרים: חושים בן דן השלים עמהן את המנין.
Hushim is an interesting figure, described in later midrashim as a deaf man, who arises to defend the family honor during times of threat (see one such story here). Now, Hushim actually does appear here in our chapter, in the family count:
And the sons of Dan: Hushim. (Gen. 46:23)
However, the verse speaks of the sons of Dan, plural, but only mentions one. And then that one, Hushim, has a name that ends in the Hebrew plural sound – im. So these clues prompt the rabbis to wonder if there was a missing, uncounted Hushim.
Finally, the midrash has this suggestion:
4. There are those who say that Serach bat Asher completed the number.
ויש אומרים: סרח בת אשר השלימה עמהן את המנין
Serach bat Asher, like Hushim ben Dan, goes on to become a fascinating character in rabbinic literature, appearing again and again throughout the Biblical narrative to provide assistance and guidance to the people (see one such story here). However, also like Hushim, Serach has already been counted in the list, so it’s hard to see how she could be the seventieth without counting her twice.
So here we have four additional possibilities for the seventieth traveler: Jacob himself, God, Hushim ben Dan, or Serach bat Asher. Yet Rashi clearly and firmly chooses the Yocheved narrative and, not only that, he reinserts it whenever he gets the chance. So again, we ask: what was it about this story that edged out all the others?
Much ink has been spilled by scholars over the years in the attempt to figure out why Rashi chooses the midrashim he does, and leaves out others. So when he has five options, as he did here, how and why does he decide on just one? There is no clear formula at work, nor did Rashi leave us a thorough explanation of his methodology. So we are left to speculate on what motivations drive his selection process.
In this case, we have already alluded to a couple of possible reasons for Rashi’s choice. The first is simply the preponderance of the Yocheved story in rabbinic literature when compared to the others. The description of her birth appears in multiple sources, whereas the suggestion that God, for example, completed the count – while powerful – is only here in Genesis Rabbah.
Secondly, we have seen textual difficulties with each of these other suggestions. Counting Jacob in the seventy seems reasonable at first, but less so when we read that these were specifically the offspring of Jacob; he cannot be the fruit of his own loins. For the same reason, the figure of God is a difficult suggestion. The notion that God is a fellow traveler is already metaphysical enough – but God certainly is not the descendant of Jacob! And both Hushim ben Dan and Serach bat Asher have already been mentioned in the text – so it’s rather messy to just ignore their first mention and count them again. That leaves us with Yocheved.
But there is another reason, I think, why Rashi might have found the Yocheved narrative so compelling. For it is also unique among the other possibilities in that it is always accompanied by the image of her being born “between the walls.” Surely this unusual description is more than just a way of accounting for her conception in one place and her birth in another. It also symbolically lends her character an in-between status, at just the moment when the family is moving between the land of Israel and the land Egypt, and we, the readers, are moving between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. She thus becomes someone who does not belong fully to either place, or to either book, but instead serves as the bridge between them.
Without this midrash, we would have simply counted Yocheved as an Exodus character. But once we say that she was conceived in the land of Israel, some time at the end of the Genesis story, then Yocheved becomes someone who brings that legacy with her into Egypt. So then, when she gives birth to Moses, he becomes not only the future hero of Exodus, but also the inheritor of the saga of Genesis – with all of its symbols and lessons, its tragedies and triumphs. These two books, through Yocheved, are now powerfully forged together. For she was born between the “walls” of Genesis and Exodus.
No wonder, then, that the first thing we see Yocheved do in the Book of Exodus is charged with language from Genesis:
The woman conceived and bore a son, and she saw that he was good… (Exod. 2:2)
וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא
In the beginning of this new book, she creates life, just as God did at the beginning of the previous book of the Torah, and then – just like Yocheved:
God saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:21)
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים, כִּי-טוֹב
Next, fearing that her son would be destroyed by Pharaoh, Yocheved builds him a little ark (תבה) and places it in the water, just as God once, in anticipation of destruction, called upon Noah to build an ark (תבת עצי גפר), also to be placed in the water, also to save his life.
The last thing we see Yocheved do, after Pharaoh’s daughter has discovered and named little Moses, is to secretly become his nursemaid:
So the woman took the child and nursed it. And when the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became a son to her. (Exod. 2:9-10)
וַתִּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּנִיקֵהוּ. וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה, וַיְהִי-לָהּ, לְבֵן
This boy will come of age in the house of the Pharaoh, but having been reared by a descendant of the house of Jacob. He has been nourished by the mother’s milk of Genesis, in order to be able go out and lead the people into Exodus. Moses’ being, like his mother Yocheved’s, will be formed somewhere between the walls.
I cannot help but throw out one final reason why Rashi might have favored the Yocheved story above all the others – though this one is less in the realm of parshanut, and more a bit of biographical speculation.
Rashi, it is well known, had no sons and three daughters. They each married one of Rashi’s finest students, and went on to give birth to the next generation of outstanding French Talmudists. Many studies have claimed that he was particularly close to these daughters, and even went out of his way to give them a rich Jewish education – which would have been unusual for women in those days.
Now Rashi’s eldest daughter, who was surely already born when he was writing his Torah commentary, was named… (have you guessed by now?)…Yocheved.
So one presumes he could hardly have read these Yocheved stories without thinking of his beloved firstborn. Did he choose to repeat them so often in his commentary as a tribute to her?
Or was it the opposite – did he already know and love these midrashim when she was born, and name her for them. If so, then what, one wonders, were the circumstances of this Yocheved’s birth? Was Rashi’s family travelling at the time? Did they face some kind of danger or hunger? In what way was Rashi’s Yocheved also born “between the walls”?
Perhaps it was that Rashi already intended, contrary to the cultural norms of his time, to raise this girl to become a Torah scholar. Yocheved, then, would have to walk a fine line. She would be expected to be the pious daughter of a renowned rabbi, to marry one of his students and dutifully raise their children. But she would also be able to hold her own as a thinker, a teacher, and a leader in her community. She would be a woman both of her time, and beyond it. Like Moses – but more so, like Moses’ mother – this Yocheved, too, would exist in a liminal space, straddling the threshold between the past and the future.
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
A little Bee Says: Vayigash
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Adam Greenwald
“I am Joseph, your brother.” (Gen. 45:4)
I will never forget the first question that I was asked in my interview for rabbinical school.
Rabbi Aaron Alexander, now my friend and still my teacher, opened the questioning by asking: “If you could teach only one text, what text would it be?” My answer today is the same as my answer was then — of all the beautiful texts of our Tradition, there is one that stays with me every day and that I believe holds the key to the transformation of the world:
The Mishnah, the first collection of Jewish law, enters into a short excursus in the middle of a discussion of criminal procedure, in order to teach us about the meaning and value of human life. It begins by asking the following question: “Why was Adam HaRishon, the first human being, created all alone?”
Here is its answer:
“Therefore, Adam was created alone in the world, in order to teach that whosoever destroys one life, the Torah considers it as though he destroyed the entire world. And, whosoever saves one life, the Torah considers it as though he saved the entire world. And it is also for the sake of peace among people, so that no man can say to his fellow ‘My father is greater than your father”… And also to portray the grandeur of the Sovereign of sovereigns, Blessed be God, since when a person stamps many coins with a single seal, they are all alike. But when the Sovereign of sovereigns, Blessed be God, fashioned all human beings with the seal with which he made the first person, not one of them is like any other.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Our Mishnah instructs us that the first human being was created alone, in order to teach us three things: First, that every life matters infinitely. Second, that we are all of us brothers and sisters– that no matter our differences, we are part of a single human family. And finally, that our uniqueness is to be celebrated, not feared, for our diversity is a testament to God’s awesome majesty.
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph, who was sold into slavery and later rose to become grand vizier over Egypt, is reunited with his brothers. They come to him in the Egyptian court seeking grain in a time of famine. They don’t recognize him, and Joseph chooses to keep his identity a secret. Finally, after many painful interactions, Joseph is unable to restrain himself any longer and declares: “I am Joseph, your brother!” In a moment, the powerful vizier and his pleading visitors recognize each other for what they were all along– siblings, the estranged children of a single father.
As we close a year that has been so unbearably full of pain, violence, and bloodshed-now is a time to remember that we too are all the children of a single Parent. If religion still has a vital message in this new and challenging century, it must be first and foremost to remind us of that simple fact. We may be disguised from one another, unable to recognize the commonality that links us all together. The walls that separate us– Black and White, Jew and Arab, Sunni and Shiite– may seem at times utterly impregnable. Yet, religion, at its best, is meant to open our eyes to our shared humanity, to reconnect us with the fundamental truth that we are all made in the Image of God, and we are meant to receive one another with love and compassion.
A Prayer for the New Year:
May the coming year usher in a time when we will be able to look at one another and say:
“I am Joseph, your brother.”
May we open our arms and hearts to each other as siblings.
May we treat each other, and may we be treated ourselves, as unique and precious manifestations of the Divine.
May this be the year. Amen.
From Prahaladon Mandelkorn
Dear Alef Adventurers, Loving greetings.
For years I have been fascinated with the stories of Joseph and his brothers, and even wrote out a little booklet about it. The mystics see Joseph and Tamar as the biblical male and female personifications of the infinite depth (sefirah) of Yesod, the Foundation (one of 10 fruits on the tree of life), which may explain why Tamar’s story appears right in the midst of the Joseph tales.
Commentators say Tamar is the daughter of Shem, son of Noah, who lived 600 years before and after the flood and even became Mechizedek, high priest of God who blessed Abraham after he rescued Lot and everyone else at that time.
Tamar and Judah are destined to be the partners and parents of the Davidic lineage, and Tamar seems to know it. Judah was one of the cruel ringleaders in getting rid of Joseph, the favored son with the portentious dreams. But when he saw the terrible grief his father was experiencing over the death of his 17 year old son with the amazing aura (coat of many colors, even before his father gave him the jacket), Judah moved away, married and had three sons, two of whom died before his eyes, which was his karma on seeing his father’s grief over the loss of a child.
Judah was in line to become the top banana after Joseph’s disappearance and apparent death. He had the robe and the bowl of our lineage, which after his wife died he gave to Tamar, disguised then as a fertility prostitute before the sheep shearing. (This is our lineage: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Tamar.) But Tamar brings Judah around. “She is more righteous than I,” he declares, and they never stopped knowing and loving each other after that (according to a translation of the Hebrew Zalman told me).
Tamar gets Judah to do t’shuvah which prepares him later to offer himself in slavery to the Egyptian Prime Minister to save Benjamin’s life (as reported in this week’s parsha). According to the Q’ran, not just Judah but each brother comes forward and offers himself in slavery to save Benjamin, the next “favorite” son, but this time they redeemed themselves completely, which is why Joseph never revealed himself earlier either to them or to his father; he saves their souls.
When he was young, like you and me, Joseph sensed he was blessed, gifted, special and even set himself above his brothers who were not so obviously gifted. He was not yet mature enough not to set himself above others. That humility and maturity came to him in slavery and prison. But this week he reveals himself and tells his brothers, don’t blame yourselves. It was God who brought me here to save many lives, to feed all the people and the nations all around during this famine; it’s all God’s doling. Yes, cream rises.
When Joseph was in the pit, midrash says Ruben came back during the night with a donkey and a rope to rescue his little brother, but Joseph told him, no, this is my fate and I have to go with it, and Ruben despaired.
This is just to give you another hit on these amazing Joseph stories.
SHABBAT PARASHAT – פרשת השבוע
By: Rabbi Yehuda Hausman
Near and Far in Goshen
Vayiggash is perhaps best translated as to “come-closer.” The verb is most often used in the Torah to depict a lessening of physical distance between one party and another. But it can have a psychic component as well, signaling imminent rapport and rapprochement, or its opposite – the possibility of failure – and thusly all the heightened tension that comes with drawing too near.
Our Torah portion begins with Judah’s plea for Benjamin’s freedom. His soliloquy attempts to bridge the vast misunderstanding between the brothers and the powerful viceroy of Egypt. “Now Judah came-closer to him and said…” (Genesis 45.18) We know Judah’s words melt the iron mail around Joseph’s heart, they pierce his shell of outer indifference till the dam finally cracks and tears flow forth. But what comes afterward? Even after Joseph reveals himself – “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” – there remains a gulf: “They could not answer him, for they were confounded.” Joseph pleads: “Pray come-close to me – Geshu Na.” But Joseph still senses hesitation for he launches into a soliloquy of his own. “Do not be pained, do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here….”
For some hurts, even the most earnest of apologies, even the most wholesome of pardons may not mend a fabric so severely torn. If we recall, for example, Jacob may have reconciled with Esau, but he could never live in harmony with him. ‘Jacob bowed seven times until he came-close to Esau…. The maidservants and their children came-close…. Leah and her children came-close. Rachel and Joseph came-close.” But once it was over there was separation. Esau and his camp journeyed southeast toward Seir, and Jacob traveled west to Canaan. (Genesis 33) Would the same hold true for Joseph and his brothers? Would they know reconciliation and civility but never anything more?
Perhaps the thought occurred to Joseph. Amidst his speech, he says to his brothers, “Hasten to my father and say to him: Thus says your son, Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt, come down to me…and you shall stay in the region of Goshen, which is near me.” (45.10)
The region of Goshen is remarkable on several accounts. On the lower Nile, the northeastern delta provides good pasture for flocks. Moreover, it is geographically closer to Canaan than Upper Egypt, all around, a generally sensible move for a family of shepherds who would continue to think of Canaan as their homeland. But the invitation is also remarkable for what it is not. Quite strikingly, it is not a request that Jacob and his family come reside in Joseph’s palace(s), be it in Heliopolis, Ramses, or anywhere else in the center of the country. Goshen was a significant part and parcel of Egypt, but it was also some distance away. “And Joseph made ready his chariot, and he went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen.” (46.28-9)This was no quick walk up the street.
Yet perhaps in this there is a lesson. The expression ‘to Goshen’ in Hebrew is a contraction of Gesha Na – “Pray, come-close.” More than anything Joseph wants his family near. “T’is my brothers, I seek,” he once remarked to a total stranger. But often, to satisfy a desire for psychological closeness requires a measure of physical or even temporal distance. What Goshen then becomes is a needed stretch in space and time, a middle ground, if you will, not quite the culture of Canaan, and nothing like Egyptian aristocracy. Goshen becomes that place where Jacob and his sons will journey toward and sojourn in, and serves as a mecca where Joseph can make his visits. But in the time between these visits, and in the physical distance between palace and prairie, there remained for Joseph and his brothers a space to contemplate failure, fortune and forgiveness. To come any closer, it would seem, they needed a place both near and far.
From American Jewish World Service
Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla
In my work as a hospital chaplain, I am often privileged to accompany people in the last days of their lives or the lives of their loved ones. I recently spent a long night with Mark, a middle-aged man who had camped out in the waiting room outside his mother’s hospital room. The doctors had withdrawn artificial forms of life support and she was expected to pass away within hours.
Mark had paid for his mother to have the very best health care during the last months of her life, but he had not actually visited her in person. He had not seen her face or held her hand for over ten years. That night, Mark refused to leave the building, but he was also unwilling to actually open the door to his mother’s room, despite pressure from the hospital staff to say goodbye. As we talked, it became clear to me that what was stopping Mark was not just his unresolved relationship with his mother, but also a sense of being overwhelmed. “It’s already too late,” he said. “She can’t speak or understand me. How can we fix anything now?” Out of fear of doing too little, Mark chose to do nothing at all.
This week’s Torah portion offers a very different image of the human capacity to take steps toward healing, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming tragedy. In our parashah, Joseph is reunited with his brothers who, years earlier, had sold him into slavery. Despite the weight of this shared history, the brothers do not try to repair the mistakes of the past. They mostly just hold each other and weep. Joseph is brief in his words to the brothers who betrayed him, “Now, don’t be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here,” says Joseph. “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you [to provide a refuge from famine.]”1 Despite the power of these words, they cannot heal the wounds of the past for they do not address the underlying injustice of the situation. Still, Joseph’s words have a profound impact—they bring the family closer together.
The name of our parashah points to this vision of moving toward action in the face of deep-seated wrongs that feel insurmountable. Vayigash means to draw near. The Torah is teaching us that to move in the direction of repairing relationships is literally to move toward one another. Even if we are unable to fully meet, to fully fix what’s broken, we can begin to make a difference by stepping forward.
When I think about my relationship with my brothers and sisters in the Global South, I sometimes feel like Mark—trapped and frozen outside his mother’s hospital door—feeling that the injustices that have been done are too big for me to fix. When I receive donation envelopes in the mail reminding me about the vast needs for food, medicine, shelter and basic safety that billions of people are lacking due to systemic inequalities—I feel paralyzed.
For many years this sense of being overwhelmed led me to engage exclusively in local political organizing and to not even educate myself about global issues. Yet, in 2006, I traveled to El Salvador with AJWS’s Rabbinical Students’ Delegation. I was struck by the hospitality of the people in our host community who invited me to draw closer to them and take part in their lives. As I listened to stories of their struggles against violence and hopelessness after years of economic repression and civil war, I realized that I could no longer stand outside the “hospital door.” Vayigash offers a Jewish approach to global justice work—let us draw near. The divide of inequality between the Global North and the Global South may not be bridged in our lifetimes, but we can draw nearer to the people and the issues most impacted by global poverty and racism. We can draw near by educating ourselves, by being involved in advocacy efforts and by supporting grassroots community development projects.
During this week of Parashat Vayigash, the week of drawing near, may we not be like my patient Mark, frozen outside the door. May we let go of the fear of doing too little that often leads us to do nothing at all. May we have faith that drawing a bit closer to other people, even if it is only one step, is the first step toward changing the world.
The Maqam Project
From Rabbi Fern Feldman
Parshat VaYigash: Hashem is with Us in Suffering
By Rabbi Fern
Monday, December 17th, 2012
In Genesis 46:1-4, Jacob/Israel (in hebrew, Ya’akov) has a vision on his way to Egypt:
1 So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. 2 God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” 3 And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. 4 I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”
One of my favorite authors, 20th century Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzofsky, Slonimer Rebbe, looks at this passage in his work, Netivot Shalom.
He asks a few questions. First, what is Ya’akov afraid of in descending into Egypt? If it is physical suffering, and the exile decreed for his descendants, then Hashem’s answer to him makes no sense. Secondly, why does Hashem say He will make Ya’akov a great nation there (sham)? And thirdly, why mention Joseph/Yosef?
The Slonimer says that Ya’akov is not afraid of physical suffering, or the servitude of his people which he knows is coming, (due to Avraham’s vision from Hashem), because he knows his people are strong enough to survive. Rather, he is afraid Hashem will not be there with them. He is afraid the divine presence will not make the journey. Thus the need for Hashem’s answer—I will go down with you to Egypt.
But why does Hashem first calm Ya’akov’s fears by saying “al tira meir’da mitzrayma ki goi gadol asimcha sham”,—“don’t be afraid of going down to Egypt because I will make you a great nation there”– there, specifically? Here he quotes the Ba’al Shem Tov, on Deuteronomy 4:29—“Uvikashtem misham et Hashem Elokecha umatzata ki tidrishenu bchol levavcha uv’chol nafshecha” –“But if you search there for Adonai your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.” The Ba’al Shem Tov says from there in particular, as in our case in Vayigash, it is in the purifying power of the iron smelter that Israel is tempered, is made into a great nation. Both the physical suffering of servitude, and the spiritual suffering of being in an unholy place transform us, and clarify our vision. We are not made into a great nation in size or numbers. Rather, the Slonimer says, we are to be made great on another level. The tempering process can give us compassion for the suffering of others that allows us to work for justice in the world.
Not only is Hashem with us, but Hashem is with us there, sham, in our suffering in particular; and here he quotes Isaiah—“b’chol tzaratam lo tzar”— “all their suffering is for Him suffering.” That is, not only is Hashem with us in our suffering, but Hashem takes on the suffering.
The Zohar tells us regarding our passage that “everywhere Israel is in Exile, the Shechinah, (that is, the Divine Presence), is in exile with us”.
Here Hashem says “anochi”, “I” will go with you—and Slonimer points out, numerically, anochi=kisay (throne)=81. The throne of glory, Hashem’s divine presence, will go down with us.
And as verse 4 says “a’alcha gam aloh”—“I will certainly raise you up.” Why certainly, expressed in Hebrew as a repetition of the verb root? Why the emphasis? The Slonimer explains that this means not only are we to be redeemed from our descent, but we are to be raised to a higher level, the level of receiving Torah, which we reach during the Exodus. It is particularly in the tempering process of Egypt, in suffering, that we are transformed, and become able to reach beyond where we have been before.
But another question is raised here—Our tradition says Shechinah doesn’t dwell in sadness, or in places of impurity. How could Her presence come with us to Egypt? The Slonimer quotes Sh’mot Rabbah, which connects the word for Egypt, mitzrayim with mitzar, “from our suffering”. (They are not connected etymologically, but they are homologous.) The Slonimer says there are endless levels to the divine presence. Sometimes the Shechinah comes to us in various levels of holiness, such as in the Mishkan, (the traveling sanctuary that we carried through the desert), or when we engage in Torah study, but there are also times She comes to us out of our suffering. Later in the Egypt story, Torah says we sighed in our servitude and cried out to G-d, and that is what aroused G-d to start the process by which we were liberated from slavery. Our suffering arouses divine compassion, draws the divine presence to us. There are ways we can feel the divine presence when we are in pain that we are unable to reach at other times.
And, the Slonimer says, the collective exile is paralleled by the individual’s own experience of exile. Just as the Shechinah accompanied Israel into every exile, so each of us is accompanied. Whenever any of us feels we are suffering hopelessly, that we are descending into our own mitzrayim, our own servitude, we can have faith that “Anochi Yored imcha Mitzrayma”, “I am going down with you to Egypt.” Hashem is found everywhere, even in the most difficult situation.
Finally, the Slonimer asks, why does Hashem mention Yosef? On the surface, Hashem is comforting Ya’akov that his favorite son will be there in Egypt with him when he dies. But what else is being said? It is Yosef who brings holiness to Mitzrayim, so that the Shechinah may dwell there. Or, another way of putting it, it is the righteous one, the tzaddik, who brings holiness to the places of suffering. And just as earlier in the parsha Yosef tells his brothers that it was Hashem who brought him to Egypt, that all his suffering was in order to save the people from starvation, so are we to understand that our pain and our exiles are for a greater goal, that there is holiness in all that happens to us. All our experiences, says the Slonimer, are there for the good, to help us repair all of creation.
For the individual as well as the broader community, the exile or the pain may seem endless, but as Ps. 136 says “b’shuv Hashem et shivat Tzion hayinu k’cholmim”, “In G-d’s returning us from exile we were like dreamers.” The Slonimer says, we were dreamers like Yosef, we were able to return from exile because we could see that the path we were on led to a greater good.
So I leave us all with these questions: How can we make it more possible for the divine presence to dwell with us? Especially, how can we discern the presence of the sacred in our own difficulties? If we are sad, confused, worried, sick, grieving—how do we find G-d in that? Can we allow ourselves to cry out in our pain, and still, or even particularly, believe that we can find the presence of the sacred there in the midst of pain? And how can we be like Yosef, and recognize that every challenge is an opportunity to manifest divine will, an opportunity to feed the starving, to repair the world? Finally, how can we be like dreamers–what can we do, for ourselves and the world, to live our dreams?
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
KIN (VAYIGASH) 2008
Understand: we sat shiva.
Every moment of that week
I ached with what we had done.
Our father began moving slowly
as though he no longer trusted his feet.
His hair paled and thinned.
Remorse settled on my heart
like a clenched fist
constricting every beat.
Mine is the third generation
estranged, brotherhood buried
beneath years of angry silt…
When the vizier sent his courtiers away
I thought he was going to kill us
and my heart flew to our father.
But now our sons and Joseph’s sons
will play together
on the stony Egyptian sands.
Shabbat Parashat Vayiggash
December 31, 2011 / 5 Tevet 5772
By: Rabbi Elliot Dorff
Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
at American Jewish University
Cremation vs. Burial
Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 37:15-28
“…and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Genesis 46:4)
As the note in Etz Hayim indicates, this is “a reference to the custom that the eldest son or nearest relative would gently close the eyes of the deceased.” Those of us who have never witnessed a person dying may presume, as Hollywood until recently has led us to believe, that all people die with their eyes closed, but that is not true. In fact, Jewish law specifically forbids anyone from closing the eyes of the deceased until it is absolutely clear that the person has indeed died (determined until modern times by cessation of breath and heartbeat), for our ancestors feared that closing the person’s eyes would hasten his or her death. Once the person has died, however, the first act of kindness (hesed) that relatives perform for the deceased is exactly what the Torah describes here – namely, closing the eyes of the deceased (S.A. Yoreh De’ah 339:1).
All of the rituals following death are based on the value of kevod ha-met, honoring the dead person. We retain a sense of modesty after death, and so men deal with a male body and women with a female body. The people attending the body, the hevra kaddisha, “the holy group,” wash the body first for purposes of hygiene and then ritually, and they then clothe the body in shrouds. Someone (called a shomer, a guardian) stays with the body overnight, for we do not abandon the person even in death. Because the body disintegrates rapidly after death, the body is buried as soon after death as possible and in a closed casket (or, in Israel, in the shrouds covering the deceased fully). After burial, the seven-day period of mourning (shiva) begins, in which friends and family of the deceased and the community as a whole create a minyan for morning and evening services in their home, attend to their practical needs, and help the immediate relatives voice memories of the deceased, which is the psychological work of mourning. All of this is how the Jewish tradition has us express honor for the dead person.
In contemporary times, for a variety of reasons, many people are electing to cremate their dead relatives rather than bury them. For most, it is a matter of money. Although prices for both burial and cremation vary widely by region, a recent New York Times article (Kevin Sack, “In Tough Times, a Boom in Cremations as a Way to Save Money,” December 8, 2011) quotes a price of $1,600 for a cremation that included “a death notice, a death certificate, and an urn bought online,” in contrast to “the $10,000 to $16,000 that is typically spent on a traditional funeral and burial.” This factor is, of course, exacerbated in times of economic distress, such as our own.
Another factor that figures in the thinking of some people is ecology. Cremation saves land. Depending on what happens with the smoke of the crematorium, it can even be done in an environmentally protective way. That same article mentions that “To broaden cremation’s appeal to the environmentally minded, and to comfort people fearful of fire, the company is marketing a new ‘biocremation’ process that dissolves the body with chemicals.”
Yet another factor is modern living conditions. As that same article maintained, “the family plot had become anachronistic in today’s transient society and that cremation afforded relatives and friends more time to gather from afar for a memorial service.”
Given these very real issues, why do we Jews insist on burial? One reason goes to the heart of how the Jewish tradition understands us. In American ideology, each of us owns our own body and thus may decide how to dispose of it when we die. In contrast, the Torah asserts that God, as Creator of the world and us within it, owns our bodies: “Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it!” (Deuteronomy 10:14). Similarly, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants” (Psalms 24:1). Thus we do not have the right actively to destroy that which does not belong to us.
Another reason, of course, comes from Jewish law. Based on the theological conviction just described, traditional Jewish law requires that we bury our dead rather than cremate them. This is not only the Orthodox approach. The Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has explicitly ruled that cremation is forbidden by Jewish law, and the Reform Movement’s Committee on Halakhic Inquiry strongly discourages it.
An historical concern is also relevant. In a community that has witnessed the cremation of six million of our coreligionists by the Nazis, how can we do that to our own family members, those we know and love? All the messages that cremation transmits about how we think about our deceased are wrong.
Finally, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times raises yet another issue. The author, James Channing Shaw (“My Turn: The Cremation-versus-Burial Question,” December 5, 2011), a dermatologist at the University of Toronto, identifies himself as a Protestant whose parents specifically asked to be cremated. Scattering his mother’s ashes raises questions about his own choices. Interestingly, he says that his marriage to a Jewish woman and thus his exposure to Jewish practices on death and mourning has sensitized him to the values embedded in Jewish practice. In the end, despite carrying out his mother’s wishes, he says this:
I keep memories of my parents close. However, I suspect that actually visiting a grave site would carry more meaning than memories alone. I picture a simple headstone with a succinct epitaph. I picture the site surrounded by trees, rain, songs of birds, even those twitchy squirrels that frustrated them over the years in their garden. I wish I had such a place to visit.
So how do we deal with the important reasons that people choose cremation, especially the predominant one – money? I am a Past President of Los Angeles Jewish Family Service. It was founded in 1854, and one of its two first programs was providing Jewish burial for free for those who could not afford a Jewish burial. I am proud to say that that program continues to this day. People who apply for this program are vetted to make sure that they indeed cannot afford to bury their dead, and they are asked to contribute what they can, but each year some 50 people are served by this program. It is made possible through the cooperation of the Jewish cemeteries in town, who alternate in accommodating these people and share its financial burden. This is, to put it bluntly, “putting our money where our mouths are” as a community in asserting that burial is the Jewish way, and I would encourage every community to make such arrangements. Indeed, when the Board was asked whether as part of this program it would sponsor cremations for those who want that but cannot afford it, the Board’s answer was “No,” for we are, after all, Jewish Family Service, and burial is the Jewish way.
In the end, as God assured Jacob in this week’s Torah reading, we all want to be treated honorably and lovingly when we die. The Jewish way to do that is through burial and Jewish mourning rites. We as a community must ensure that every Jewish family can honor their dead in the way Jews have always done.
From Rav Kook
VaYigash: The Hazards of Leadership
Joseph Dies First
Out of Jacob’s twelve sons, it appears that Joseph was the first to die. “Joseph died, and [then] his brothers and all that generation” (Ex. 1:6). Why was Joseph’s life shorter than that of his brothers?
The Sages explained the reason for Joseph’s early demise was due to his public office. When one assumes a position of authority, ‘his days and years are shortened’ (Berachot 55a). Yet this hardly seems fair. Why should those who dedicate their lives to public affairs be punished with fewer years?
Working for the public good is certainly laudable. However, there are certain hazards in such a career. Precisely because one is occupied attending to important communal needs, one may come to disregard his own personal needs. A communal leader may view his own needs – whether material, spiritual, or moral – as insignificant and inconsequential.
We may observe this phenomenon in Joseph. As viceroy, Joseph was busy supervising the national and economic affairs of Egypt. And he saw in his public office the vehicle by which the covenant of Bein HaBetarim – foretelling the exile of Abraham’s descendants – would come to pass. When Joseph heard his father referred to as “your servant,” he did not object. Joseph was occupied with the overall objective; he did not want it to be compromised due to his personal obligation to show respect for his father.
Joseph’s mistake was not a private failing. This is a universal lesson for all leaders. They should not to allow any goal or aspiration, no matter how important, bring them to disregard lesser obligations.
The King’s Sefer Torah
We find a similar idea in the special laws of a king. The Torah instructs the king to write his own sefer Torah and keep it with him at all times. In this way, “his heart will not be raised above his brothers, and he will not stray from the Law to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:20). The Torah specifically cautions the monarch that, despite his involvement in critical national affairs, his public service should not lead him to ignore his private obligations. He is obligated to observe the law in his personal life, like every other citizen.
The Torah promises that a king who heeds this warning will be blessed with a long reign. Unlike those who fail the tests of public office, such a king will not live a life of ‘shortened days and years.’
Life is not just major goals and aspirations. All of us, even the most prominent leader, must conduct ourselves appropriately in all facets of life. Those who maintain their integrity in life’s private aspects, will be blessed with strength and energy to succeed in their most important and elevated goals.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II on Berachot IX: 25)
From Reb Mimi Feigleson
Shabbat Parashat Va’Yiggash – 4 Tevet 5771 – An Understudy For The Mashiach!
People never believe me, but it is always the most innocent of Rashi’s commentary (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) that are the most revolutionary. When I quote Prof. Moshe Idel, in his book Kabbalah- New Perspectives, as saying that when Rashi says, “kif’shutow” (literally, “the literal meaning”) he is actually masking secrets of the Kabbalah, then I at least get the rise of an eyebrow. Some are willing to even entertain the notion since I’m now supported by a renowned scholar. It is hard to embrace such a method of thinking since many of us have been trained to read Rashi as the one to offer us the most immediate and simple answer to our questions when reading the Torah or even the Talmud. And, no, I will not repeat my confession that I offered a year ago (when commenting on parashat Vayishlach) regarding almost flunking Rashi in tenth grade.
Nonetheless, I’m back to sharing an innocent commentary of Rashi that for me reveals secrets of a future unknown.
The Torah mentions all those that descended to Egypt with Ya’akov.
“And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had acquired in the land of Kena’an; and came to Mitzrayim, Ya’akov, and all his seed with him: his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed he brought with him to Mitzrayim” (Breishit/Genesis 46: 7)
Rashi simply mentions that the daughters of the sons were no less than Serach, the daughter of Asher and Yocheved, the daughter of Levi. Seemingly Rashis comment seems to be an innocent interjection, informative in its’ nature. These two women also, seemingly lived very long lives. Yocheved is Moshe’s mother – the Moshe that took us out of Egypt after 210 years of slavery.
According to the Talmud (Sotah 13a) Serach was the one that Moshe turned to when the time of Exodus came for help. Yoseph was promised that upon leaving Egypt his bones would be taken for burial in Israel (already then dying to be buried in Israel…). But the question remained, ‘Where were his bones buried?’ The Talmud tells us that Moshe turned to Serach, for she was alive in Yoseph’s lifetime – she came down to Egypt with her father Asher and grandfather Ya’akov, and she undoubtedly would remember where he was buried.
The Midrash, in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, asks why Serach merited such longevity. We hear very little of her in the Torah itself, so what secret is she hiding in her biography?
The answer to this question lies in a memorable night that I experienced at LIMMUD (yes, the original one in the England…), in Manchester almost fifteen years ago! It was Friday night and five Jewish educators and artists were summoned to choose an understudy for the Mashiach (Messiah). The premise of the evening was that the Mashiach clearly is a bit late and maybe the time had come to call to the stage of history the one whom had been the designated understudy. The evening was held on the nexus of ‘serious’ and ‘entertaining’. It is therefore that among the many suggestions that our panel came up with, you could find Sir Isaiah Berlin and Natan Sharansky on the one hand, and Glinda (the good witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) on the other hand. One panelist suggested his mother (you could tell how attached he was to his mother…), while another staggered across the stage, as one who was assassinated the moment before he was to reveal the true identity of the Mashiach’s understudy.
I was the last to voice her opinion and I offered my five (!) runners up… Among them you could find the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) – I chose him because of his questionable opinion of women. In a moment of sweet revenge I realized that in order for the Rambam to be the Mashiach’s understudy he would have to first be resurrected, and the thought that a woman caused his resurrection was a sweet temptation that I could not allow to slip through my hands… I also suggested Prof. Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) – I wanted to honor the revolution that she created in the study of Torah; and my teacher and Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) – for the manner in which he brought God’s light to so many people that seemed to feel invisible. But Serach, the daughter of Asher was a serious runner up! (If you want to find out who I chose as the ultimate understudy, you’ll have to ask Rabbi Marc Soloway).
The midrash teaches us that the brothers came back from Egypt with the knowledge that Yoseph was alive; they did not know how to tell Ya’akov. Yes, Ya’akov was never consoled with the loss of his beloved son. Yes, he most probably prayed every day that the day would come and he would see his son again. But did he believe in the depth of his heart that these were prayers that would be answered? The brothers were afraid that when they told Ya’akov that Yoseph was alive he would have a heart attack from the shock. They didn’t know how to tell him in a way that he would be able to assimilate the greatness of the moment and the reality that his prayers had been answered. The Midrash tells us that Serach was three years old at the time and she started dancing outside her grandfather Ya’akov’s tent singing “Ode Yoseph chai” / “Yoseph is alive.” It was understood that her singing outside her grandfather’s tent planted in him the thought and possibility that impossible is indeed possible!
It was for this reason I suggested that Friday night, she should be the understudy! I shared that what was crucial was that we had someone to help us assimilate the magnitude of the reality that we were yearning for as it was actualizing in our lifetime. That the most crucial step in redemption is actually the moment before redemption! It is the preparation needed to be able to entertain the notion that years (or generations) of suffering were coming to an end. Serach created the space in Ya’akov’s heart to hear the proclamation of the brothers that indeed Yoseph was alive and to live to see him. It is for this reason that she merited a life of longevity. A life that saw the famine of Kena’an, that experienced the enslavement of Egypt and that danced with Miriam at the moment of redemption with the splitting of the Red Sea.
Rashi, in his commentary on our quoted verse as the Torah was taking inventory as to who was descending into the darkness of Egypt with Ya’akov, was already planting the seed in our mind and hearts as to how we were going to return back Home to the Land of Israel. Redemption was going to come through Yocheved, the daughter of Asher in the same way that Ya’akov’s personal redemption came through Serach, the daughter of Asher.
I write these words as the light of the fifth night of Chanuka is still burning, and as the blazes that engulfed the Carmel Mountains have been contained. I pray that the legacy of the people that were consumed by the fires will manifest as source of comfort for those left to continue living. And I pray that the international community of firefighters that came together to save life and lives, will be our Serach, teaching us to hold on to a vision of a future we still pray for.
May the light of the future merge with the light of the Shabbat candles.
From Melissa Carpenter
And Joseph said to his brothers: I am Joseph. Is my father really still alive? But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified before his face. And Joseph said to his brothers: Please step close to me. And they stepped close. And he said: I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. And now, don’t feel bad, and don’t consider it disturbing that you sold me here, because God sent me before you to preserve life. (Genesis/Bereishit 45:3-5)
Therefore you did not send me here, but the God! (Genesis/Berishit 45:8)
nivhalu = they were terrified, they were out of their senses, they panicked, they were shocked
Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped close). When Joseph’s older brothers, who sold him into slavery when he was 17, first come to him to buy grain, Joseph is Pharaoh’s head administrator and economic advisor. He is twenty years older, he has an Egyptian name, and he wears Egyptian clothes. He pretends to be the stranger he appears, speaking to his brothers through an interpreter, and he forces them to go through a series of punishing tests to see if they have changed … and, perhaps, to get revenge on them. The final “test” is when Joseph plants his silver goblet in the sack of Benjamin (the youngest brother and the only one who had nothing to do with Joseph’s sale), then insists that Benjamin stole it and must remain in Egypt as a slave.
As this week’s portion begins, one of the brothers, Judah, steps up to Joseph and begs to be enslaved in Benjamin’s place, because if Benjamin does not return to Canaan, their father Jacob will die of grief.
This moves Joseph so much that he can no longer continue either his masquerade or his testing. He sends away the Egyptians, and says in Hebrew, “I am Joseph.” When his brothers are too terrified to answer, he tells them not to worry about their old crime, because God made them do it for a good reason.
This is sufficiently reassuring, combined with Joseph’s tears, that the brothers become able to speak to him (though only Benjamin, the one brother without a crime on his conscience, responds with tears of his own). The brothers even take Joseph’s message back to their father, Jacob, and move their whole extended family down to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection.
Yet the reconciliation of the brothers is incomplete. After Jacob dies, 17 years later, the ten older brothers are afraid Joseph will take revenge on him after all, so they beg him for forgiveness. Obviously they did not take Joseph’s speech that I translated above as words of forgiveness.
I believe that when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he not only fails to tell them he forgives them, but he also prevents them from apologizing. Joseph has overheard them speaking to each other in Hebrew, saying their bad fortune with this Egyptian administrator must be God’s punishment for their cruelty to their little brother Joseph. He knows they feel guilty. Yet when he tells them he is the one they “sold into Egypt”, he does not pause to give them a chance to apologize. Instead he rushes on to say that God made them do it so that he would wind up in his current position as master of Egypt’s economy and preserver of their lives. In other words, they are not really responsible for their own crime; it was all determined by God.
The brothers don’t buy it. They still blame themselves for their cruelty to Joseph. Joseph’s speech allays their fear of retribution for a while, but does not resolve their guilt.
When the ten brothers beg Joseph for forgiveness at the end of the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Joseph at least grants them the dignity of being responsible for their own bad intentions, and says God just used their wicked deed to generate good. Joseph assures his brothers he will continue to take care of them, but he still does not explicitly forgive them.
It’s a tall order, but I try to do better than Joseph. When people admit they might have harmed me, I remember Joseph, and I’m careful to accept their apologies, implied or explicit, and to say not merely, “It’s okay,” but “It’s okay, I forgive you.”
I don’t want anyone to suffer lingering guilt or uncertainty on my account.
(On the other hand, if I believe someone has done me wrong, and that person never admits it nor apologizes, is true forgiveness possible? That will have to be a subject for another blog!)
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Vayigash
The Torah reading of this week begins with the dramatic encounter between Yehudah/Judah and Yosef/Joseph.
Yosef’s brothers do not yet recognize him as their brother but Yosef knows who they are. Yosef has accused his brothers of being spies and has threatened to take the youngest as his slave.
The Torah reading begins with the words “Then Yehudah approached him (Yosef) and said, “Please, my master, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears…for you are like Pharaoh.” (44:18)
The word Vayigash means to encounter.
There were years of misunderstanding and anguish between the brothers until this moment. At this juncture Yehuda, leader of the brothers, approaches Yosef and says – ‘Bi Adoni’ – “please, my master”
After this statement, they finally encounter each other in a true and meaningful way which brings about a resolution of their differences.
‘Bi Adoni’ can literally be translated as – “You are within me, my master.”
To encounter another, we need to first identify with them completely.
When Yehudah says “Bi Adoni,” Yosef is moved, because at this juncture Yosef feels that Yehudah is finally indentifying himself with Yosef, and his struggles. Yehudah is finally seeing the “other” as someone close to him, finding the other within himself, and himself within the other.
Yehudah says “for you are like Pharaoh”, which is to say, “we are all part of each other”
When Yehudah is moved to truly encounter the other and to move toward Yosef, Yosef is also moved forward, and reveals himself to him as his brothers.
In the words of Kabbalah, Yehudah experiences Hiskalelus with Yosef, and then Yosef can experience Hiskalelus with them.
I see you and experience you, this is a true encounter.
ENERGY OF THE WEEK
The energy coming to us from Vayigash, is that of the personal encounter.
This weeks Torah reading gives us the impetus to experience true encounters with others.
In resolving all matters, personal and business – one must be fully present in person.
In this age of ‘virtual communication’, we need to remember to make real ‘face time.’
A time to truly enounter the other in person and see ourselves within them.
Focus on that which is similar between you and the other that you are encountering and you will see resolution and healing.
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayigash
Maqam Bayat (D E half-flat F G)
Vayigash Means To Come Close
I love what these guys do for a living.
When Pharaoh asks the brothers
what’s your occupation? [47:3]
They answer —
Occupation please –
Shepherds with lutes
we also play flutes.
Joseph is a shepherd too.
He learns how to be a good shepherd
he is known as one of the seven shepherds —
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David.
Joesph is mysterious for a shepherd
you don’t know what he will say
once he starts talking.
When his brothers show up
he might be angry with them after having sold him out
Joseph opens with the truth —
you sold me out.
His brother Judah gets in his face
he comes close – clue —
it‘s the closeness that melts Joseph.
Joseph can be so right.
He has reason enough to be angry
but he dissolves face into face
moves into a larger space
than he has been living.
It wasn’t you who sent me here,
Joseph says, but God. [Gen. 45:8]
I am guilty too,
all of us guilty of something.
God sent me ahead of you to save lives. [45:5]
Joseph can be such a kid sometimes.
he speaks like a holy man
It wasn’t you
who sent me here,
Joseph is also a sower of crops
he is known as the harvester
he is the one who harvests events
for truth –
it is a surprise most to him.
1) But if you count them, you find only sixty-nine; the seventieth is Jocheved the daughter of Levi, who was born between the boundary walls as they entered Egypt.
(Talmud, Bava Batra 123a)
2) Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com
“As the soul fills the body,” say our Sages, “so G-d fills the world.” Just as there is a “neck” that joins the world to its divine soul, so, too, there is need for a personal “Holy Temple,” Beit HaMikdash, in the life of each and every individual, a “neck” to join his spiritual head (his soul) to his material body.
The human soul is a pure and perfect spark of its Creator, the source of all that is good and G-dly in man. But in order that it head his life, man must construct a “neck” to join his soul to his material self. He must sanctify his mind, heart and behavior, so that they form a conduit through which his G-dly essence may control, vitalize and permeate his entire being.
The Sanctuary’s destruction, whether on the cosmic or the individual level, is the breakdown of the juncture between head and body — between Creator and creation, between soul and physical self. Indeed, the two are intertwined. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem and openly served as the spiritual nerve center of the universe, this obviously enhanced the bond between body and soul in every individual. And when man repairs his personal “Holy Temple,” bridging the gap between matter and essence in his own life, he contributes toward the reconstruction of the universal Holy Temple and the renewal of the open and uninhibited bond between G-d and creation.
This explains why Joseph and Benjamin wept on each other’s necks: the state of the “head” is never a cause for distress, for the quintessential soul can never be compromised or corrupted; but they foresaw times when the “neck” between spirit and matter would be damaged, alienating earth from heaven and body from soul.
Torah Reading for Week of December 20 – December 26, 2009
“A Day of Life”
by Rabbi David Baron
Few sections in Torah compare in high drama and suspense to the story of Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers. I still remember the very first time that I heard the story read to us in installments by my second grade Torah teacher. The plot was still fresh and new, and I recall waiting with suspense each week to learn the outcome. Would the brothers get to Jacob to tell to him the news in time before his death? Jacob was so old – would he survive the journey to Egypt to see his son? The drama of life and death was quite alive in my young imagination.
Can the same story reread numerous times still garner such curiosity and excitement? Interestingly, this year the topic of life and death once again captured my heart, but this time the concern for life took on a different meaning.
The Torah recalls that upon receiving the news, “the spirit of Jacob was revived.” (Genesis 45:27) Rashi explains that at that moment the Shechinah, which had departed from him years before, now rested upon him again. As if to demonstrate this, three lines later we read that G-d speaks to Israel in visions saying, “Jacob, Jacob”, and he answers “‘Hineni!” (46:2) Rashi explains that G-d’s repeated address is a sign of loving affection. Not only did Jacob’s spirit revive, and not only did the Shechinah dwell with him once more, but all this was accompanied by a spirit of divine love.
Clearly there is a connection in Torah between being truly alive and living in relationship with G-d. Our parasha hints to this in the famous words of the first exchange between Jacob and Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” (47:8) The questionable propriety and peculiar phrasing of the question “How old are you?” are significant. Jacob first answers a different question, saying that “The days of the years of my sojourns have been 130″, but then adds, “few and bad have been the days of the years of my life…”
The question of life’s deeper meaning is posed to each of us as well, and it is to this question that that Torah alludes to when it asks that we “Choose life.” (Deut 30:19) What makes an ordinary day into a day of life? In Jacob’s case, many were the days when the Shechinah was gone, when G-d did not seem nearby. This need not be so merely because life hits hard times. Sometimes it is in the depth of darkness that we encounter G-d’s presence in revealing, loving, and significant ways.
Our own Jewish prayer can be a guide towards this encounter each day. In blessed moments of deep devotion, words of the daily Amidah act as a climactic vessel of our yearning for G-d’s Presence. We pray the words, “Ve techezeina eineinu …”, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion. Blessed are you, Hashem, who restores his Shechinah to Zion.” This is a powerful request. Beyond its literal or messianic connotation, this is also a personal plea:
Just as you return to Zion, the heart of Israel, to the heart of Jacob…
Return to dwell in our own hearts each day
Is today one of those days that counts as a day of life in our life? Each according to our own way, a day of life may be one where we live in harmony with our own divine purpose. Or it might be a day when a familiar portion of Torah is studied once more with renewed curiosity.
May our spirits be revived anew again and again, and may our own lives be a source of contagious inspiration to enliven the spirit of all we meet.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(And He Came Near)
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
The story of Joseph and his brothers continues.
WHEN JOSEPH’S BROTHERS LEARN that he is still alive, they must go and tell their father, but they are afraid that he will die of shock upon learning the truth. They are afraid that this news will be too great a blessing, and that Jacob’s soul will fly out of him upon hearing it. They argue with each other about who will deliver the news.
There is a legend that recounts the solution to their problem. Jacob had a favorite grand-daughter, Serach, who was the daughter of his son Asher. Serach was a musician with a gentle voice and a powerful spirit. Her songs were a healing balm for Jacob during his dark nights of wrestling. Whenever he called for Serach, she sang for him and he was comforted.
It was agreed that only Serach would be able to reveal this great news, because when Jacob’s soul, overcome by blessing, flew out, Serach would be able to sing a song that would call his soul back to this world.
THE SONG THAT SERACH SANG to Jacob was the most beautiful melody she had ever sung. Everyone that heard it wept with joy because in it Joseph’s spirit was revealed. The melody carried Joseph’s beauty, pain, longing, love and devotion. Her words told the story of his journey and it was woven with his dreams. Serach’s song also told the truth about the whole family, a truth that would have been hard to hear if it were not delivered with such purity.
When Jacob heard Serach’s song, his soul indeed flew out and left this world… but it was called back by the beauty of her song. For this gift, Serach was rewarded with a very long life. It is said that she sang through 400 years of slavery in Egypt.
When the people were about to leave Egypt, they were at first held back by their promise to bring Joseph’s bones along with them. Fortunately, having lived long enough to both witness Joseph’s burial and be present at the time of the Exodus, Serach located exactly where Joseph was buried, and the liberation could begin.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
WE, LIKE JACOB, WILL REMAIN ignorant of the greatest blessing – the miracle of life itself – unless we can receive that blessing in beauty. The truth of our lives will remain mute and invisible unless it becomes a song. The vast miracle of our existence would be overwhelming if received unadorned, and all at once. It would tear us open, and our souls, set free, would fly. Yet, artful glimpses of that same vast miracle gradually expand our capacity to know the truth. The spiritual challenge that we share with our father Jacob is to prepare ourselves to listen for the song of truth and blessing, and to let its beauty call us to deeper living.
We, like Serach, will be rewarded for our song. Our reward will be the ability to preserve the precious memory (of the etzem, which means “bones” or “essence”) that will eventually lead to freedom. And we are challenged to keep singing, to keep the memory and blessing alive in our song, even through the darkest days of slavery.
ALL THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE and blessings of Vayigash rest on a pivotal moment – the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. He steps out from behind the mask of power, the mask of the false self, and weeps aloud. These are the tears of profound relief and of love unbound. This moment of expansion is the result of Joseph’s embrace of a paradox. Two seemingly contradictory truths live inside Joseph, and when he can hold them both, then the true self is set free from artifice.
LATER IN THE STORY Joseph describes this moment to his brothers. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”1 On some days we acknowledge the deep woundings that we have suffered; we mourn the loss of innocence; we confront the face of evil. And on some days we absolutely know that those very same wounds are the source of our compassion and power; we celebrate the essential rightness of the path of Life in all its turnings, understanding that what feels like evil is an aspect of the goading force that unfolds the soul to its true breadth.
And there comes a day when both these perspectives exist at once. On that day joy and anguish meet within us and the resulting alchemical reaction explodes the boundaries of the false self. On that day we are set free. This freedom allows us to come out of hiding, to finally tell the truth and reveal ourselves.
1 Genesis 50:20
For Guidelines for Practice please click on link to website.
From Rav Kook
Vayigash: The Shepherd-Philosopher
The 4th-century scholar Rabbi Zeira once found his teacher Rav Yehuda in an unusually good mood. Realizing that it was a propitious time to ask whatever he wanted, Rabbi Zeira posed the following question:
“Why is it that the goats always stride in front of the herd, to be followed by the sheep?”
Perhaps the last thing we would expect Rabbi Zeira to ask about would be a mundane fact of animal husbandry. Rav Yehuda, however, wasn’t fazed. Good-humoredly, he explained that this phenomenon reflects the order of Creation. “It is like the creation of the universe: first there was darkness (the goats, who are usually black), and afterwards light (the white sheep)” [Shabbat 77b].
A treasure-trove of wisdom had opened up for Rabbi Zeira – he had the opportunity to inquire into the deepest secrets of the universe! – and instead he quizzed his master about goats and sheep?
In fact, Rabbi Zeira’s query was not so out of line. 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” [Gen. 47:5]. 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.
Development of Thought
Rabbi Zeira’s observation about flocks makes a connection between the external focus of the shepherd – his goats and sheep – with his internal focus – his thoughts and ideas.
Ideas first come to us as vague thoughts, obscured by the blurry mist of our imaginative powers. Hidden in the murky fog, however, lies a great treasure. In time, our thoughts are refined and clarified, and from the shrouded darkness comes forth light and wisdom.
The pattern of traveling animals corresponds to the development of thought in the shepherd’s mind. The dark goats break out in front of the white sheep – a metaphor for the inspired but hazy notions that surge forth in our thoughts. These streaks of insight are followed by a flock of clarified ideas that have been examined by our faculties of reason. In this way we develop the concepts that form the basis for our intellectual and spiritual life.
The Need for Opacity
As Rav Yehuda pointed out, this order is inherent to the nature of the world. The light in the universe was created out of the darkness. This phenomenon is also true on a personal level. We cannot completely dismiss the illusory aspects of our minds, for they inspire us to originality of thought. Our imagination dominates our thought processes; it is only through its opaque insights that we can arrive at the path of enlightened wisdom.
[adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 144-5]
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Serach Bat Asher
Serach Bat Asher is one of the most intriguing women in the Torah. She is mentioned twice; once in this parsha as one of the 70 Israelites who went down to Egypt and once in Bamidbar (Numbers 26:46) as one of the Israelites to leave with the Exodus. How could she be present through all those generations? In the Women’s Torah Commentary Rabbi Barbara Rosman Penzerabbi nicely desribes the midrashim about Serach. Although R Penzer writes about Serach in her commentary on the next parsha, Vayechi, it seems appropriate to include the midrashim here.
Serach Gives Jacob the News that Joseph is Living in Egypt
“Worried that the news might kill Jacob, the brothers ask Asher’s daughter Serach to convey the information. She waits until he is enraptured in prayer and repeats in rhyme, ’Joseph is in Mitzrayim [Egypt], and has fathered two sons, Menashe and Ephraim’. Because of Serach, the children of Israel may descend into Egypt with their father’s approval. For this gentle and courageous act, according to the midrash, Serach’s grandfather blesses her saying, ’My child, may death never rule over you, for you brought my spirit back to life’, thus explaining the secret of her longevity.”
Serach Supports Moses
“In the midrash on Exodus, 3:16, we learn that Asher entrusted Serach with the secret code that Moses will later hear at the burning bush—pakod pakad’ti, ‘God will surely take notice of you’—indicating that the time of the redemption has come. This code, the Midrash tells us, was passed down from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Joseph, who shared it with his brothers in our Torah portion, Vayechi, at the end of his life (cf. Genesis 50:24).
The midrash continues with Moses’ appearance before the elders of Israel (Exodus 4:29-31). Unsure of the meaning of his signs and words, the elders turn to Serach, more advanced in age than the ‘wise men’ of the time, asking for her opinion of Moses’ credibility. Dismissing the signs and wonders, Serach then confirms that God had spoken to him, saying, ‘I have taken notice of you’. Reognizing the secret code, she announces that he has passed the test by using the words that she heard from her father.”
“In the midrash on Exodus, 3:16, we learn that Asher entrusted Serach with the secret code that Moses will later hear at the burning bush—pakod pakad’ti, ‘God will surely take notice of you’—indicating that the time of the redemption has come. This code, the Midrash tells us, was passed down from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Joseph, who shared it with his brothers in our Torah portion, Vayechi, at the end of his life (cf. Genesis 50:24).
The midrash continues with Moses’ appearance before the elders of Israel (Exodus 4:29-31). Unsure of the meaning of his signs and words, the elders turn to Serach, more advanced in age than the ‘wise men’ of the time, asking for her opinion of Moses’ credibility. Dismissing the signs and wonders, Serach then confirms that God had spoken to him, saying, ‘I have taken notice of you’. Reognizing the secret code, she announces that he has passed the test by using the words that she heard from her father.”
Serach Helps to Find Joseph’s Bones
“Finally Moses depends upon Serach’s penetrating memory once more, at the crucial moment before crossing the Red Sea. On his deathbed, Joseph made his brothers swear that they would bury him back in his homeland, as they did for their father, Jacob (Genesis 50:25). But the Egyptians embalmed Joseph with all the pomp and ceremony due an Egyptian leader, and his bones remained in Egypt. The exodus thus becomes inextricably intertwined with the return of Joseph’s bones… One again, Serach advises Moses, telling him that the Egyptians had put Joseph’s bones into a metal coffin, which they sank into the Nile. Knowledgeable and forthcoming, Serach solves the last riddle that might have forestalled the exodus.”
Wendy’s favorite Midrash
“According to another midrashic account, Rabbi Yohanan and his colleagues were one debating the form that the waters of the Red Sea took when they parted. At that moment, Serach Bat Asher looked in and interjected, ’I was there. The waters were not like you describe, but rather like lighted windows.'”
Perhaps, one day she will look down on our Torah Circle study and tell us what really happened in those days.
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