Parashat Vayigash: The tears for what might have been

Image by Yael Shahar

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else there when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

He lifted his voice in weeping such that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.

וְלֹֽא־יָכֹ֨ל יוֹסֵ֜ף לְהִתְאַפֵּ֗ק לְכֹ֤ל הַנִּצָּבִים֙ עָלָ֔יו וַיִּקְרָ֕א הוֹצִ֥יאוּ כָל־אִ֖ישׁ מֵעָלָ֑י וְלֹא־עָ֤מַד אִישׁ֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּ֥ע יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶל־אֶחָֽיו׃

וַיִּתֵּ֥ן אֶת־קֹל֖וֹ בִּבְכִ֑י וַיִּשְׁמְע֣וּ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃

This dramatic scene comes after Yehuda’s impassioned plea that Benyamin, who has been framed by Yosef’s machinations, be allowed to go home to his father. Yehuda’s speech is a marvel of subtle diplomacy, playing as it does on filial piety and the responsibility of brothers to look out for each other. Yosef could easily have taken it the wrong way. “Where was all this brotherly love,” he might have asked “when you threw me in a pit to die of thirst?” But he doesn’t. His response is to lose control completely, and to order his interpreters and courtiers to leave the room.

And his first question, after revealing his identity to his startled brothers is: “Is my father alive?”

But had he not already been told that his father was not only alive, but worried sick about Yosef’s sole remaining full brother, Benyamin? Had Yehuda not related a whole conversation between the brothers and Yaakov, their father? And had the brothers not already told him about their aged father waiting at home? Why would Yosef ask: “Is my father alive” after all this?

Does my father love me?

I think the answer lies in the fact that Yosef has been living under a false assumption for all of his adult life. Growing up as his father’s favorite, he must have known—at least in hindsight—how precarious his position really was. After all, his grandfather and his great-grandfather had both ended up splitting their families over the inheritance: Avraham was forced to exile his firstborn, Yishmael, in favor of his younger son, Yitzhak. And Yitzhak’s favorite, Esav had left the covenant of Avraham and gone off to found a tribe of his own. Not a particularly good track record of family unity!

And so what was Yosef to think after his father sent him off to check up on his brothers? And this after he told his father and brothers of his dream of dominion and saw the alarm on his father’s face? What was he to think when his brothers ambushed him and left him to die in a dry well, from which—at least as far as he knew—only the serendipitous arrival of a merchant caravan saved him? Knowing his family history, might he have thought: “My father has abandoned me; despite everything, he chose the sons of Leah over me, and allowed them to put me out of the way.”

In light of this, we are not shocked to learn the name Yosef chooses for his firstborn: Menashe—”for God has made me forget my trouble and my father’s house”. From the moment he was rushed from the prison to stand before Pharaoh, he has become the consummate Egyptian. Yosef, whose his first act as a free man was to shave off his beard and dress in Egyptian clothes, has every reason to forget his life before Egypt. From being the favored son of the beloved wife, he was abandoned to death or slavery without a backward glance. Who would not want to forget?

Identity crisis

And now, he learns from Yehuda the truth: Yaakov did not send Yosef off to die. All this time, his father has been mourning him—so much so, in fact, that he cannot bear the possibility of losing Benyamin as well. All this time, Yaakov has believed his beloved Yosef to be dead, devoured by a wild beast.[1] Yosef’s entire life is overturned (again). Imagine the thoughts that might have gone through his mind: my father still loves me! My brothers are united now in protecting Benyamin. They are better sons than I am, for all this time, I never sent word that I’m alive to spare my father’s grief. My father still loves me…!

Is it any wonder that his first words in his native tongue were “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” I am not Tsefanat-Paneah the Egyptian; I’m Yosef. Is my father still alive, still my father?

Often what we say when we are taken completely unawares shows our deepest longings. Yosef’s outburst is that of a son whose most grievous hurt has been the seeming abandonment by his father, and whose greatest longing is to have his father restored to him. Despite all the trials that Yosef has borne—fraternal rivalry, slavery, false accusation, and betrayal by those upon whom he set his hope of freedom—it is his apparent betrayal by his father that has ruled his life and his choices.

Divided loyalties

It is too late now for Yosef to become once more his father’s son. He is now in charge of Egypt’s emergency management, which he has overseen up to now skilfully and efficiently. But might this moment mark a turning point? It does seem that from here on, Yosef’s loyalties become torn between his care for his adopted people and his birth family. While he settles his father and his extended family in “the best land in Egypt”, his treatment of his Egyptian countrymen, for whose welfare he is responsible, seems more and more harsh.

We have to wonder how Yosef might have acted toward his adoptive homeland had he not been reunited with his father’s house; might he have managed the Egyptian crisis more gently? Had his loyalties not been divided, might he have found a solution that did not involve enslaving the population, nationalization of all private land, and massive population transfer?

We can’t know the answer. All we know is that Yosef—perhaps motivated more than a little by guilt for having misjudged and neglected his father all these years—does everything he can to set his family up to weather the famine. He can’t know that he is also setting in motion sweeping political and economic changes that will make the future of the budding nation of Israel far from certain.

Perhaps Yosef is unaware of the tradition passed down from his great-grandfather Avraham, who was told “Know that your descendants will be enslaved in a land not their own”. But we, reading the story, have not forgotten. Even now, we forget only at our own peril.

  1. Might Yaakov have wondered whether the “wild beast” was one or more of his living sons? We don’t know, though the doubt may well explain his prolonged grief.
About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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