Great Expectations

Vayigash, as the name of this week’s portion implies, is about showing up, showing who you really are. It is a deeply emotional climax of revelations. As the spotlight moves from Reuven, Judah, Joseph and Benjamin, the anticipation is immense as we re-encounter Jacob. How is he going to show up? 

The narrative is lengthy perhaps as a way to develop the drama and foster the tension and suspense. Having received the news that his son Joseph is in fact alive, Jacob in the guise of Yisrael and all of his family begin the journey south to Egypt, stopping in Beer Sheva. Almost like his children in the back of the car, or wagon, we want to get there already! We cannot wait for the reunion, the embrace, the relief and the momentary, at least, happy ending. Yet we stop on the way, prompting us to call and wonder are we there yet? Jacob offers sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac, (not Abraham?) and then God appears 46:2;

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמַרְאֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֣ב ׀ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

God called to Israel in a vision by night and said  “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here I am.”

There are countless questions on this enigmatic appearance. Why not appear earlier to relieve the pain of a grieving father? Why not apprise him that his son is alive? Yes he is fearful of going down to Egypt and addressing this concern is understandable, but till now he has not only been fearful but also, devastated. More curious still, is the manner in which God addresses him, Yisrael and then Jacob, Jacob, twice, lest there be any misunderstanding as to who is being called on? 

After receiving the assurances from God, the family resumes their journey to Egypt, they almost arrive, the reunion is but a few fleeting moments away, and rather than finally behold this long awaited scene, we take another detour, nineteen verses no less, outlining the names of the children of Israel, described also as Jacob’s children who went down to Egypt 46:8;

וְאֵ֨לֶּה שְׁמ֧וֹת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הַבָּאִ֥ים מִצְרַ֖יְמָה יַעֲקֹ֣ב וּבָנָ֑יו בְּכֹ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב רְאוּבֵֽן׃

These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt.Jacob’s first-born Reuben… 

Almost identical to the opening verse of the book of Shemot, so why the need to interrupt our journey?  And again the identity of Jacob, Yisrael is perplexing. Why are we continually and seemingly teased to the point that Oscar Wilde, succinctly captures; “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

Finally the long anticipated moment arrives 46:29;

וַיֶּאְסֹ֤ר יוֹסֵף֙ מֶרְכַּבְתּ֔וֹ וַיַּ֛עַל לִקְרַֽאת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אָבִ֖יו גֹּ֑שְׁנָה וַיֵּרָ֣א אֵלָ֗יו וַיִּפֹּל֙ עַל־צַוָּארָ֔יו וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו עֽוֹד׃

Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while.

The reunion occurs in Goshen, perhaps a play on the word and theme of Vayigash and so named to capture this moment of revelation.You may recall that the word appears in this form in the earlier meeting /reunion between Jacob and his brother Esau, where 33:6

וַתִּגַּ֧שְׁןָ הַשְּׁפָח֛וֹת הֵ֥נָּה וְיַלְדֵיהֶ֖ן וַתִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶֽיןָ׃

Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low;

The encounter is exasperating. According to Rashi commenting on the final and perhaps superfluous word in the verse, “od”, more or again, and trying to capture and illuminate more details from this ambiguous description, posits that ; “ Jacob, however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck nor did he kiss him. Our Rabbis say: the reason was that he was reciting the Shema” 

Where and when will Jacob finally have his moment of Vayigash? Tragically the enigma of who he is, seems to haunt him till his final days or as the suggestion of reciting the Shema, possibly his final moments, as he immediately declares “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.” And in that Shema I wonder whether he proclaims Shema Yisrael or Shema Jacob?

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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