Parshat Vayigash: I am Yosef; is my Father Still Alive?

Yosef said to his brothers, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him” (Berashit 45,3).

Finally we have reached the climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers. At the end of last week’s parsha, Yosef informs the brothers that Binyamin will stay in Egypt as a captive, but the rest of them are free to return to Canaan. 

But Yehuda, who takes up the mantle of leadership, speaks up before Yosef, and offers himself as a slave in place of Binyamin. 

So touched is Yosef by Yehuda’s words, that he is no longer able to maintain his façade. Yosef clears the room except for him and his brothers, and says the following:  “I am Yosef; Is my father still alive?” 

But the statement is very strange. Why does Yosef ask about his father’s well-being immediately after revealing himself? He had already inquired about Yaakov when the brothers returned to Egypt with Binyamin. There is no new information to report.  

Maybe in this emotionally charged moment, Yosef asks the question that is on the tip of his tongue, even though it’s illogical.

But another, more profound possibility exists. True, Yosef had inquired about his father’s well-being beforehand. But now, at long last, he is able to use the possessive pronoun; as opposed to the general term father, Av, Yosef says Avi, my father.

At first glance, this small grammatical shift may not seem so significant. But when was the last time we heard Yosef call his father, Avi, my father?

After Yosef was promoted to viceroy, he was offered the hand of Osnat, the daughter of the high priest. He names their firstborn son Menashe, which means oblivion, “because God has made me forget completely my hardship and, kol beit Avi, my father’s home.”  

Yosef sees his ascension to viceroy as a rebirth. He has now put the trauma of his past behind him, and, as the naming of his second son Efraim teaches, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” The seed of the tragedy of his youth has sprouted into a fertile planting in the Land of Egypt. He is no longer Yosef, he is now Tzafnat Pane’ach, an Egyptian name that connotes life. 

Yosef’s garment, his identity, has been stripped from him several times, first by his brothers when they tore off his coat and threw him into the pit, and then by the lustful wife of his master in Egypt, who stripped him of his clothes as she tried to seduce him. But now clothed in his royal gowns, in his new identity as Tzafnat Pane’ach, the past is dead, and the future is alive with possibility.

And though Yosef decides to sever himself from his family after he is freed from prison, there is one person he still longs for: Binyamin. Binyamin played no role in his sale into slavery. Binyamin is his only  brother from both parents, from Rachel and Yaakov. So when the brothers descend to Egypt in order to buy grain, Yosef concocts a plan through which to extract Binyamin from the rest of the family. For all he knows, Binyamin has been subjected to a similar fate as his own; maybe he too is a hated by the rest of his brothers. Yosef has to save Binyamin before he too becomes cast off.

But as Yehuda approaches Yosef in our parsha, everything changes. Yosef expects that the brothers will return quietly to Canaan without Binyamin. But Yehuda’s presentation challenges every one of Yosef’s preconceived notions. 

First, Yosef learns that Yaakov is unaware that he was sold, and that Yaakov still hasn’t fully recovered emotionally from the loss. Second of all, Binyamin is not despised amongst his brothers; he is cherished, and Yehuda is even willing to give his life in place of Binyamin’s. 

Once Yosef realizes that his father never stopped longing for him, and that his brothers had made amends for their treatment of him, Yosef could not hold back. He once again donned the garment of his old self: I am Yosef. 

And now that he is again Yosef, he has a father who loves him, and whom he loves as well. Tell me about the well-being of my father. 

In the rest of the parasha, and really up to the end of the Book of Bereshit, we see Yosef struggle to integrate his dual identities, that of the Egyptian Ruler Tzafnat Pane’ach, with that of Yosef the Ivri, the son of Yaakov. 

But the implication of the words, “I am Yosef” are felt beyond the chilling effect they have on the brothers. For Yosef, the words “I am Yosef” are the beginning of a new life, a third life, one which includes his life in Egypt, but also includes his brothers, and his beloved father Yaakov as well.

This is a powerful lesson for all of us concerning our own identity. We must leave our parents’ home in order to find our place in the world, and our own spiritual path. And that may bring us far away from where we started. But ultimately, we want to find a sense of integration with where we came from and where we’re at today. We should strive to find a way to bring the past into the present, and not cut ourselves off from it. And It is Yosef’s ability to bring integration within himself between his past and his own journey that ultimately brings the greatest fixing to his family, and to himself.

What do you think? How do we integrate our past into our present lives in a healthy and holistic way?

In memory of Harav Yishayahu ben Shlomo Zalman

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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