Humanity requires the encounter

Parashat Vayigash

Parashat VaYigash opens with the confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef. Yehuda articulates his sense of responsibility for all the misdeeds and cruelty the brothers perpetrated against Yosef. This parasha resolves the deepest tensions within the family. Kindness, love, compassion, and forgiveness triumph over jealousy, greed, mendacity and fear. Those negative emotions had surfaced and directed so many actions and generations of the family. Finally, Yehuda’s willingness to assume responsibility for Binyamin breaks Yosef’s heart. Yehuda does not confess his sin of selling Yosef in this moment, but he comes close. Ramban asserts that Yosef’s plan was designed to test his brothers to see if they had changed. Would they allow Binyamin to remain enslaved to save themselves, as they had sold Yosef himself in order to maintain their status in the family.

Indeed, Yehuda’s words to Yosef came close to offering a vidui, a confession, on behalf of the entire family. The encounter between Yosef and Yehuda composed a kind of dance that the rabbis expanded in their midrashic interpretations. There was an interplay between statement, thought and feeling that resulted in a revelation of love and closeness. When Yehuda recounted the history of their encounter with Yosef as the viceroy of Egypt, he quoted Yosef’s words when Yosef had asked his brothers: “…do you have a father or [another] brother?” and the Yehuda repeated their response: “We have an aged father, with a child of his old age, whose brother is dead….” (44:19-20). The rabbis explored this segment since this was the moment that began the movement towards breaking Yosef’s heart, enabling him ultimately to expose his true identity. The rabbis wondered, 

How could someone like Yehuda claim something as fact about which he could not be certain? [He could not have known that Yosef was in fact, dead.] In that moment, Yosef asked all of his brothers: “Did you see him dead?” They replied, “Yes.” Yosef then asked, “Did you stand by his grave?” They replied, “Yes.” Yosef asked, “Did you place soil on his mouth?” They answered, “No.” With this response, Yosef thought to himself, “My brothers are still trying to hide the truth. They abandoned me with nothing, turning me into a pauper, and a pauper is like a dead person. They threw me into a cistern and stood at its edge, which was like my grave.  Yosef turned to his brothers and declared: “You are lying when you say your brother is dead. You sold him. I will summon him and bring him to you.” (Torah Sh’lema, Vayigash 44:19-20, fn. 74, esp. Mss. Tanchuma)

Yosef saw that Yehuda was trying to revisit the brothers’ sordid past. Perhaps he understood that Yehuda was struggling against the emotional assumption that Yosef was, indeed, dead. How could he presume that Yosef would have survived the unspeakable travails he must have endured?  Yosef, after listening to Yehuda, leaped into the truth, exposing his identity. Both he and his brothers were hiding from each other and from themselves. The deepest, most painful form of imprisonment is hiding from one’s own true self, with no recourse to express that identity publicly, being oneself in a lived experience. When Yehuda concludes his speech and the Torah says that Yosef could no longer contain himself (45:1),

Rabbi Chiya explained that the entire exchange was designed for appeasement. He appeased Yosef by saying, “See how I will take responsibility for Rachel’s children?” He appeased the brothers by saying, “See how I will take responsibility for my brother?” He appeased Binyamin by saying, “See how I am devoted to you?”…Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani added, “Yosef responded well by saying to himself, “My brothers are still, at heart, righteous. They did not commit murder.” (Bereshit Rabba, 93:9)

Yehuda’s words spoke to Yosef’s heart. Yosef saw their pain, and that opened his heart. Once his heart opened, the truth flowed from him spontaneously, followed by an embrace of compassion, kindness and love.

Similarly, the tragedy of Yaakov’s loss is healed with the reunion of father and son. The rabbis teach in a midrash that although Yosef wept, Yaakov recited the Shema as they embraced. Yaakov, in that moment, was able to feel his love for Hashem by holding onto his long lost child. He is filled with gratitude, and joins his name, Yisrael, to God’s in an awareness that God has heard his life-long prayer, Shema, by protecting Yosef and bringing them back together to renew life in a different place. (Rashi, 46:29) Finally, after Yosef’s family is settled in Goshen, Yosef re-structures the Egyptian economy. In what might be one of the most tragic ironies in the Tanach, Yosef institutes a system of indentured servitude that a new Pharaoh turns cruelly against Benei Yisrael years later.

The word, vayigash, means, “encounter.” Each encounter has a slightly different valence, but all involve an approach, a coming close, an “engagement with.” One can read parashat vayigash as organized around four such encounters. First, Yehuda confronts Yosef. Yosef encounters his brothers. Yaakov and Yosef embrace. Finally, Yaakov encounters Pharaoh. In addition, each of these moments involves a character engaging himself, looking inwards, and bringing particular meaning to that moment. With these encounters, the narrative of our sacred history constructs a model for effecting a transition from family to nation. This is a story of the opportunities that emerge as a result of encounters. Each encounter, whether a confrontation, or an embrace, or a revelation holds deep meanings for Jewish life and identity. The Yosef narrative is a story that includes an encounter with one’s self, with one’s past, with a foreign culture, and ultimately, with a vision for how to navigate the challenges of life experiences. I might even suggest that one can read this parasha as teaching us that the Jewish people must be open to these encounters in order to build a Jewish society in our own homeland, a society that will reflect the commitments, values and vision that these encounters hold.

The word, vayigash, repeats throughout the parasha in one form or another. Yehuda encounters and confronts Yosef with this word. (44:18). Yosef tells his brothers to approach, to come close, and the verse then emphasizes that they approached him, again repeating the word, vayigash. (45:4) When the brothers return to Egypt with Yaakov, the Torah mentions several times that they traveled to Goshen, alliterating with vayigash. (46:28-29). When Yaakov and Yosef see each other, Yosef falls on his father’s neck in Goshen, literally, “the land of closeness.” Living in the land of Goshen appears continuously in anticipation of meeting Pharoah. (46:34; 47:1)

When Yehuda approached Yosef, the rabbis taught that he was approaching Yosef in several different ways simultaneously. When Yehuda approached Yosef he was prepared for aggression, for compromise, or for supplication. (Midrash Aggadah, Bereshit, 44:18:1; Midrash Lech Tov) This encounter was fraught with so many layers. At the same moment when Yosef was brought down to Egypt, Yehuda “descended” from his brothers and married the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. (cf. 38:1 and 39:1) Both Yehuda and Yosef, “descended” to a foreign place. It was Yehuda who conceived of the sale of Yosef. And now it was Yehuda who took responsibility for Yosef’s brother, Binyamin.

When Yosef told his brothers to come close, Midrash Lech Tov states that he revealed to them that he was circumcised. Such a gesture, revealing one’s identity in the most intimate way, counters generations of hidden identities, beginning with Avraham himself. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov all lied about their identities. Yosef was given a new identity in Egypt. Yosef embraced his new identity when he named his son Menashe. He said, God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home. (Bereshit 41:51) Rabbeynu Bachya clarifies that Yosef expressed gratitude for being able to forget all of the pain he suffered at home, enabling him to be blessed with new opportunities for life: “…God has enabled me to forget all my problems including those which I have suffered in my father’s house.” The entire narrative of Yosef in Egypt, however, reveals that Yosef simply buried his true self, his deepest yearnings, his desire for closeness with his family, for his father’s love, for his brothers’ love and support. Yosef kept his identity from his brothers, torturing them and, by extension, his aged father.

Hence, parashat vayigash is about our obligation to struggle with forces that have kept us apart, alienated, foreign to our true selves, estranged, overwhelmed by jealousy, fear, and avarice. It is about the challenge to wrestle not only as individuals but as a people, with those forces inside of us that keep us from encounters with others, from looking inwards and taking responsibility for harmful decisions we have made in light of their consequences and to repair those decisions in the name of compassion and righteousness and honesty. From this perspective, every encounter in this parasha points to the truth that spiritual health requires encounters with ourselves and with our past on communal and national levels.

The Kedushat Levi spiritualizes the encounter between Yehuda and Yosef in just this way:

Genesis 44,18. “Yehudah came forward and said: ‘please ‎my lord allow your servant to say something for your ears ‎only, and do not become angry at your servant, for you are ‎similar to Pharaoh himself.” When reading this ‎introduction of Yehudah’s plea we are reminded of a statement in ‎the Talmud Moed katan 16, when quoting Samuel II 23:3. David is speaking in his final address; ‎אמר אלוקי ישראל לי דבר ‏צור ישראל מושל באדם צדיק “Israel’s God said: ‎‎‘concerning Me, Israel’s Rock: “The God of Israel has spoken, The Rock of Israel said concerning me: “He who rules men justly, He who rules in awe of God is like the light of morning at sunrise, A morning without clouds— Through sunshine and rain [bringing] vegetation out of the earth.” The Talmud ‎understands that this is an answer to the unspoken rhetorical question: “Who ‎‎’rules God?” by answering that the righteous does so when he is ‎able to squash decrees issued by God. This also appears to be the meaning of the verse (Psalms 48,5) ‎כי הנה המלכים נועדו‎, “see the kings joined forces,” meaning, they struggled with each other. This verse in Psalms is quoted by the Zohar applying to our parasha. The “kings” in our ‎verse are understood as being Yosef and Yehuda respectively. Yosef is called there ‎קדוש ברוך‎, whereas Yehuda is called ‎כנסת ‏ישראל‎, “the collective soul of the Jewish people.” In our verse the ‎Torah describes the confrontation (i.e. “encounter”) on a spiritual level of the ‎collective soul of the Jewish people and the individual ruler ‎represented by Yosef. The collective soul of the Jewish people, ‎Yehuda, confronts God represented by Yosef. This collective ‎soul of the Jewish people seeks to overturn an evil decree issued ‎by God concerning the detention of Binyamin in Egypt ‎as a slave. When the tzaddikim, i.e. people normally ‎content to live by the stringent standards of the attribute of ‎Justice, resort to an appeal to the attribute of Mercy, they do so ‎when they plead on behalf of others. Hence Yehuda prefaces ‎his words with the word ‎בי‎, an appeal not to justice but to do ‎something beyond justice. …Tzaddikim ‎to whom such power of squashing God’s decrees is attributed are ‎the ones who relate to God from the perspective of ‎אין‎, ‎‎i.e. [the annihilation of one’s one ego in order to serve others.] This total ‎negation of self is rewarded by God when they intercede on behalf ‎of others in an effort to squash or soften a negative decree.‎‎ (Kedushat Levi, Bereshit, 44:18)

According to this reading, the encounter between Yehuda and Yosef is an encounter between the Jewish people and God, in which the Jewish people demand mercy and compassion. The stability of the world, therefore, depends upon our confronting pain and suffering and cruelty. That confrontation requires acknowledging that pain and suffering as authentic, taking responsibility for decisions made that contributed to those circumstances, and then demanding a response of compassion, kindness and love. That is the only salve to heal the anguish of estrangement and alienation that result from actions motivated by hatred, greed and fear. The Kedushat Levi’s interpretation of this encounter radicalizes the power and responsibility humanity has to insure that we live in a godly world. Humanity directs Heaven in this encounter, not the other way around. God and God’s creatures are in a relationship that requires people to recognize what we are doing to each other and to break those patterns of cruelty by forbidding God from allowing us to perpetuate them.

This interpretation repeats throughout the parasha. Yosef, i.e., God weeps in Yaakov’s embrace, and Yaakov finally feels the alignment between the human and the divine in the love and healing that has been granted to him after so many years of mourning. Ironically, it is Pharaoh in his encounter with Yaakov, who offers a profound lesson to Benei Yisrael in compassion and love. The best of Egypt lies before you, said Pharaoh to Yaakov and his children. The land is good; live in Goshen, from the best of the land. (47:5-6). Instead of accusing them of scouting the land’s vulnerabilities, Pharaoh proclaimed directly: this land is good and it remains open to all of you.

If the story of the Jewish people includes struggling between hiding and transparency, fear and trust, arrogance and humility, this parasha offers a pathway to resolution. There is no substitute for direct encounter. The goal is for people to come close to each other, to know each other, to build relationships together that make room for each other, that recognize differences, that nourish through compassion and kindness rather than feeding off of anger, hatred, and jealousy. Remember that this narrative occurs during a famine. There is a hunger in the world: literal and emotional and spiritual. Yehuda confronts Yosef as if to say: “This cannot continue! Our circumstances do not have to continue this way! We do not have to settle for the current state of affairs, because they breed too much pain and suffering.” Someone has to make that move, to step up and declare out loud: “The teachings of the Torah and the story of our people, and every experience through which we have lived, require us to demand justice tempered by mercy, righteousness infused with compassion, and the nullification of our own egos to enable us to join in the causes for a kinder, more dignified humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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