Thoughts on Parshat Vayigash

The moment of recognition

Acknowledging Joseph’s juvenile dream

Packing everything down to the chandeliers

Noblesse oblige with a twist,

In my notes on Parshat Miketz I left unanswered the question: How could it be that Joseph recognized his brothers, yet not one of his brothers recognized him?

The answer is obvious if we read carefully the opening of Parshat Vayigash.

Indeed, I believe the brothers recognized Joseph instantly. How could they not? But they felt paralyzed in his presence, and perhaps hoped against all odds that he did not recognize them. After what they had done to him, the best strategy would be silence, especially if Joseph chose not to voice his recognition. Indeed, it was even likely that Joseph – with few fond memories of his youth – chose to revel totally in his Egyptian glory and would not deign to acknowledge any kinship with this Canaanite riff-raff.

And so, an elaborate charade ensues in which each side knows that the other side knows, yet neither side blinks.

Things change in Vayigash.  The opening verses feature Judah, the natural leader, the family lion, addressing Zaphenat Paneah.  In the opening verse alone he refers to Joseph as ‘my master” and himself as ‘your slave’ four times. This obsequiousness is totally out of character for Judah. And then in the tenth verse of the parsha (Genesis 44:27) he ratchets the sycophancy up a quantum notch; “And your slave our father said to us …” It is one thing for Judah, perched on the hot seat, to abject himself before Egypt’s viceroy. It is quite another to needlessly degrade his absent father in the same language.

What in fact is happening here is Judah communicating in code to Joseph. By classifying himself (and his brothers) as well as their father as Joseph’s slaves he is referencing Joseph’s childhood dreams and declaring the validity and veracity of those dreams. Thus he is attempting to achieve two goals; first to signal that the brothers know who Joseph is (while still leaving him the option of passive denial); and second, that they have come full circle in accepting his congenital destiny to be lord and master over themselves and their father.

Judah’s soliloquy is a strategic bulls-eye, and it is at this moment that Joseph loses his composure and makes the decision to acknowledge his brothers after all.

Joseph behaves with consummate noblesse oblige as he begs his brothers to “not be angry with me for having sold me here…” (45:5). He then brings the reference to his dreams to its denouement (45:8) when he declares unequivocally: “And now it is not you who sent me here, but G-d, who placed me as a father to Pharaoh and master of his household and governor of all the land of Egypt.”

Pharaoh is delighted by the new developments, and presses for the entire clan to relocate to Egypt. Clearly – and perhaps rightly – he assumes that if one brother can be such a boon to Egyptian society, a fortiori the benefit of having eleven more.  This is a sad precursor of many instances in Jewish history in which the self-serving interests of a particular ruler opens the gates to Jewish migration. The Jews naively assume the golden era will last forever.  It never does. And we never learn.

Pharaoh, whether by intelligence or instinct, taps into another weakness of the Jewish people – the inability to let go of possessions even when their own lives are in peril. Urging the brothers to make haste, he says; “Do not allow your eyes to take pity on your belongings…” (45:20). How many Jews perished in the Shoah because they couldn’t part with their possessions? How often do we hear people spurning aliyah because “it isn’t the right time to sell the house”, or “the market conditions are not optimal for liquidating the business”?  Of course there never is a right time.  And we never learn. (As we will see later (46:6) Pharaoh’s suggestion falls on deaf ears, as it appears Jacob’s family packs everything down to the chandeliers.)

Returning to their father, the brothers inform Jacob that “Joseph still lives and he is the governor of Egypt” (45:26). Jacob refuses to believe them, coming around only when he sees the bounty they had brought with them.  Clearly Jacob has been in a serious eclipse. He is not the Israel who left the house of Laban.  He has become toothless, weak of spirit, and easily manipulated. His next meal seems more important to him than destiny.  One can sympathize in light of the loss of his beloved Rachel, and the lack of closure regarding his favorite son.  He has reverted to being the Jacob of his earliest incarnation, a dweller of tents

 “And G-d said to Israel in a nocturnal vision, and He said; ‘Jacob, Jacob’, and he said ‘hineni’” (46:2.In his depressed state, it is doubtful Jacob would have responded to the name Israel. G-d’s repetition of the name Jacob appears to emphasize the reality of his diminished state at this juncture. Indeed G-d has to remind Jacob; “I am the G-d, the G-d of your father…” (46:3) – this to the man to whom He had appeared in arguably the most seminal dream in the entire Torah, the man who had once successfully wrestled G-d’s own messenger.

Joseph manifests a certain ambivalence about the arrival of his extended family.  Yes, he is pleased to be their leader and meal ticket. On the other hand he manipulates matters so that they should be close but not too close for comfort. “And when Pharaoh shall call you and ask what is your business. And you shall tell him your servants have been cattle herders since our youth until now, we and our forefathers, so that you may settle in the land of Goshen because every shepherd is an abomination to Egyptians” (46:33:34). Pharaoh had been enthusiastic about the arrival of Joseph’s brethren. Joseph could easily have retooled their skill sets and catapulted them into instant aristocracy.  Instead he sidelines his brothers and father into the unpopulated Goshen and manipulates them into remaining shepherds despite the raging famine and the paltry grazing opportunities.  Further, as we shall see,  Joseph reduces contact with his family – his father included – to a bare minimum, to the degree that his own sons Ephraim and Menashe first meet their grandfather when he is on his deathbed.

The remainder of the parsha describes Joseph’s management strategy, and how he masterminded the concentration of all of Egypt’s wealth into the hands of Pharaoh and his priests, thereby turning the entire nation effectively into slaves of the monarch.  More on at some other time.