Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

Joseph, The Zaddik: Parshat VaYigash

Of our iconic founders, only Joseph is graced with the aggrandized moniker: “Sainted” or “Righteous.”. Moses is “merely” the teacher; David is the King; Abraham, Issac and Jacob are our forefathers, not even the “founders”; their wives are our foremothers.

  1. Why is Joseph Called a Tzadik?

Supposedly, Joseph’s resistance to the overtures of Mrs. Suleika Potiphar earned him the accolade of Tzadik.[1] And while Joseph’s appellation is surely well-deserved, this commonly proffered reason is suspect. Per the Mishna in Avot (chap 4 v,1, one who conquers his passions (a very big deal for a 17-year-old in Joseph’s circumstances), is called a “Gibor” (Mighty): Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions. Notwithstanding, Proverbs 16:32 tells us: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty.” Perhaps “mighty’ is too weak a tribute to afford Joseph for whatever achievement he is due reward is — although it surely must be more than resisting a temptress. We need another reason.

  1. What Is a Tzadik? Let’s Define.

One approach is to reverse-engineer the problem. To divine the rationale for Yosef’s honorific we need to delve into the word Tzadik.  We need to know what exactly is a Tzadik before we can assess whether someone would qualify.

Our tradition teaches that a Tzadik, a saint, is someone who administers Tzedek, justice, with Tzadakah, charity, with all words deriving from a common root.

To arrive at cohesive answers for the various questions and oddities presented in this chapter and resolve them holistically – we should ask how all the textual oddities relate to each other. To do so, we look at this chapter through the lens of Remez- hints: Here are some textual mysteries requiring, not just explanation, which the sages provide, but unification into a holistic matrix and message:

  1. The text refers to Joseph’s chariots, when actually Pharaoh sent them. How can we reconcile this? What does it hint to?
  2. On journeying to Egypt, Jacob builds an altar to his father, not, as he usually does, to his forefathers. This is also a mystery – and a hint.
  3. The statement Jacob utters when realizing Joseph is alive is full of hints.

What do they signify and how do they relate to each other?

  1. What Could Qualify Yosef for Tzadik-dom?
  2. What Tikun Could He Effectuate For Himself? For others?

At this point in our nascent history, one outstanding matter begs for repair and cries for justice: retribution for the sibling rivalry leading to Joseph’s kidnapping. To be sure, sibling rivalry existed since the creation of a family, from the time of Adam, manifesting through the lineages of history in the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Joseph, of course, has, at least, partially, brought about his tzores on himself by his arrogance and vaingloriousness, such that the brothers were not only (insanely) jealous, but found him hateful.  However, as opposed to Abraham, Isaac, and Adam, Jacob foments Jospeh’s fractious relationship with his brothers. Jacob does this multiple times and in multiple ways, not only favoring Joseph with a pricey, bespoke trench-coat, but by sending Joseph to monitor his brothers as his personal representative as they go off to the town of Dotan, stoking the seeds of hate sowed by Joseph’s own bragging. What was Jacob thinking?

Throughout the drama that Joseph orchestrates to bring his family to Egypt, we see the brothers doing Teshuva. They cry, they repent, they try. Joseph bawls repeatedly.  The one actor in this drama who has not repented, nor even acknowledged his involvement, blinded perhaps by his wallowing in the sorrow of losing Joseph, and the incipient tragedy of losing “Baby Boy Benjamin” (who at this time is 30 years old, with 10 children of his own) is Jacob.

  1. Crafting a Challenge Deserving of the Title “Tzadik”:

To address the issue of why Joseph is called a Tzadik we must identify a challenge only a saint is capable of redressing.

Let us postulate that Joseph’s challenge is to bring his father to justice, Tzedek, by having him teshuva and acknowledge his role in the family dynamic and the debacle of Joseph’s kidnapping, but to do so with Tzedakah, charitably.  Joseph could of course confront his father directly for failing to take responsibility. If Joseph did, however, he would risk Jacob’s denial — and surely, he would be shaming Jacob publicly, which is sinful. So that route is out. Joseph must find another way to induce his father’s teshuva. Should he be able to do this, Joseph would bring a holistic repair – a family -reconciliation. Should he be able to accomplish this, Joseph surely be worthy of the appellation “Tzadik.”

Let us give him a further charge: To truly unify and unite the fractious Jewish pre-people as one, completely undoing the discord his own attributes sowed. Should Joseph accomplish this, surely he would be a “Groisser Tzadik”.

  1. Per Rashi, Joseph sends his father a clue. Does this have any connection to Joseph’s bringing Jacob to Teshuva?

Concerned about Jacob’s mental state, the brothers try to prepare him for the shocking news that Joseph is alive. Asher’s daughter Search recounts the news via song, the brothers rehearse what they will say- all to no avail. Only when Jacob sees the chariots “that Joseph sent” does he revive.

וַיְדַבְּרוּ אֵלָיו, אֵת כָּל-דִּבְרֵי יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵהֶם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֲגָלוֹת, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ; וַתְּחִי, רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם.

But scrolling back some sentences (and scrolling ahead) the chariots were sent by Pharoah, not Joseph.

וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם יוֹסֵף עֲגָלוֹת עַל-פִּי פַרְעֹה; וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם צֵדָה, לַדָּרֶךְ.

Rashi tells us that Joseph somehow implanted a clue to call attention to some shared history between him and his father – a play on words about the chariots, AGALA, suggesting this would remind Jacob of the last chapter they studied together before Yosef’s kidnapping – an oblique reference to the parsha in Deuteronomy of EGLA Arufa, Devarim 21: 1-9. Some say the clue is to assure Jacob that it is in fact Joseph who sent the chariots – as who else would know about this shared history.

  1. What does the reference to Egla Arufa signify?

The Kli Yakar tells us that the portion of Egla Arufa as inserted here is to teach us about responsibility. He suggests this clue indicates Joseph is telling Jacob that he has assumed responsibility for his actions.

I suggest more is involved.

Egla Arufa talks about the finding of a dead man between two cities for whom the murderer cannot be found. In this case, the elders of the two adjoining cities are held responsible- not for causing the death, but for failing to prevent it. And who is responsible in this vignette- the elders!!!

These are precisely clues that apply to Yaakov, and only to Yaakov, who is guilty – not of causing Joseph’s kidnapping- but for failing to prevent it, for not keeping Joseph out of harm’s way, for sending him to Dothan to “spy” on his brothers, and not foreseeing what might happen The portion of Egla Arufa holds the ELDERS responsible, precisely the role assigned to Jacob, someone who is supposed to know better, someone who is charged with seeing ramifications and consequences of all actions.  For all Joseph’s failings, this is not a charge assignable to a 17-year-old lad.

I suggest that Joseph is – in a very tzniusdik, quiet, and modest way — is reminding Jacob of his role in precipitating the crisis, and now calling him to do Teshuva for his acts – and take responsibility.

The message is now out – is it received?

  1. Does Jacob Understand the Message Joseph is Sending?

 Upon seeing the chariots Jacob utters a wholly awkward statement:

כח  וַיֹּאמֶר, יִשְׂרָאֵל, רַב עוֹד-יוֹסֵף בְּנִי, חָי; אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ, בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.

The first clause in verse 28 adds the word: Rav- great or additional, suggesting something additional is to be found in Jacob’s words.

But the last clause is telling. Jacob acknowledges his son is alive, and before he dies, Jacobs commits to going to see him. Per the sages, Jacob agrees to go there, even though his intention was to stay in Israel till his death. (Terem Amut), – but Jacob uses the third person plural for his intent to see Yosef: Ve’ erehnu– the NU form, usually signifies US. He does not say Ereh-hu, or Ereh OTO, I will see him, but rather, I will see us.

Ibn Ezra, in his book Yesod HaMora, reminds us that dikduk, grammar, is to be taken seriously. He notes a few examples where the NU form (3rd person plural) is used to refer to singular, i.e., him or it. Most are found in Exodus. The word usage in each is curious. Here are two examples:

Exodus ch. 21 v. 29;

כט  וְאִם שׁוֹר נַגָּח הוּא מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם, וְהוּעַד בִּבְעָלָיו וְלֹא יִשְׁמְרֶנּוּ, וְהֵמִית אִישׁ, אוֹ אִשָּׁה–הַשּׁוֹר, יִסָּקֵל, וְגַם-בְּעָלָיו, יוּמָת.

The traditional translation enjoins the owner of an errant and hostile ox to guard IT (using the words the third person plural NO form. YismireNU) – but the injunction to guard the ox can also be read as a requirement to protect US- the community! In other words, the conjugation of NU has a double meaning. It or him and US.

 29 But if the ox was wont to gore in time past, and warning hath been given to its owner, and he hath not kept it in, but it hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death

The words can easily be translated “and the owner has not protected US.” The owner is put to death, then, not JUST for his ox killing a man or woman, but for failing to protect the community – US.

Similarly, in v. 36, regarding the owner having not guarded his errant ox, of which he had notice, was a hostile animal  – the text uses the word YismereNU, which again can be read as the ower’s failure to protect US, the community.

 לו  אוֹ נוֹדַע, כִּי שׁוֹר נַגָּח הוּא מִתְּמוֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְרֶנּוּ, בְּעָלָיו–שַׁלֵּם יְשַׁלֵּם שׁוֹר תַּחַת הַשּׁוֹר, וְהַמֵּת יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ.  {ס}

36 Or if it be known that the ox was wont to gore in time past, and its owner hath not kept it in; he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his own

Indeed, the Rashbam translates the phrase that Jacob uses as “I will see US- suggesting a unification,” or a reconciliation.  Us, as in “us together”  to repair the separation that Yosef sought in naming his son Menashe.

Arbarbanel goes further: He says he is going not to see Yosef’s greatness or glory, or economic perspicacity, but to SHOW US – L’Harot, not L’rot: or to show something to Yosef before Yaakov dies.

So what could be so important that Yaakov needs to convey it personally?

I suggest it is to SHOW – lHarot = that the two are united, to see US – to show US – together.  Yaakov realizes what he had done was to divide, and now he wants to show cohesion. He knows Yosef called his son Menashe because he wanted to forget his family, to separate himself from his family. Now it is time for togetherness.

  1. Does Yaakov Do Teshuva?

The IKAR of Teshuva involves a deep internal rectification, or tikun, as well as an external commitment to change or undo past harm. What evidence is there that Yaakov internalized the message?

On other episodes when Yaakov acknowledges his forebears  – he includes Avraham as his father –( singular ) Thus, when Yaakov blesses the children of Yosef he says:

הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים,
וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי,
וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק, וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

“The angel who redeems me from all evil will bless the boys and will call them my name and the name of my father Abraham and Isaac …”

And yet en route to Egypt, on arriving in Beer Sheva (the site of the contested wells), Yaakov constructs an altar and raises a sacrifice. Curiously, the text notes he sacrificed to his father, Isaac. Conspicuous by its absence is the inclusion of Abraham.

Ch 46:

א  וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָּׁבַע; וַיִּזְבַּח זְבָחִים, לֵאלֹהֵי אָבִיו יִצְחָק.

The sages are perplexed. I suggest that the answer is simple: Yaakov, having realized he needs to forgive Yosef for not communicating with him when he is freed from prison and that he needs to do Teshuva for contributing to Yosef’s misfortune and pain, now realizes the contribution of his own father’s parenting to his own circumstances. He realizes he must also forgive his own father to heal the family. This was a personal communication between Yaakov and Yitzchak, not a matter involving Abraham at all.

Indeed, the Teshuva appears complete.

  1. Has Yosef completed his mission?

Joseph’s assigned mission is the pre-founder of the Jewish people (NB his position on the Kabbalistic tree).

  • Joseph’s precise mission was to bring his family to Egypt. Had the entry into Egypt not happened, there would be no possibility for Yetzyat Mezaim. Kabbalistic sources tell us that had Joseph failed in his charge, G-d would have designated an angel to carry Jacob and his family physically to the country.
  • Surely, Joseph has accomplished this mission. In spades. Not only does he bring his family into Egypt- but he unifies them.
  • And so it says: וַיְהִי, כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ יֹצְאֵי יֶרֶךְ-יַעֲקֹב–שִׁבְעִים נָפֶשׁ; וְיוֹסֵף, הָיָה בְמִצְרָיִם

And it says all the descendants of Jacob were 70 souls. The Hebrew word used, however, is Nefesh- singular. They were united as one.

By comparison, when referring to descendants of Yishmael the plural is used.

וַיִּקַּח עֵשָׂו אֶת-נָשָׁיו וְאֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בְּנֹתָיו, וְאֶת-כָּל-נַפְשׁוֹת בֵּיתch 36

So is Yosef deserving of the appellation Tzadik?

He brings family UNITED into Egypt 70 souls as one;  Shivim NEFESH

And He brings his father to Justice, Tzedek, with Tzedachaka, so carefully does he care for his father’s honor that we don’t even see how he does it at first glance, his message is cloaked, we have to peel away layers and layers to see it.

He performs Tzekek with Tzedaka – to create a United Bnei Yisroel.

He heals the sibling rivalry that existed since the beginning of time.

And he unites Bnei Yisroel.

For one brief shining moment, entering and leaving Egypt we were all united. That is Ziddkus- and that is why I suggest Yosef is called Yosef HaTzadik-

[1] First name courtesy of the midrash.

About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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