Frederick L. Klein

VaYiGash: Redeeming a Family and Mending the Rifts

What is most brilliant about the book of Genesis is the way in which the narratives open themselves up to multiple interpretations.  The characters are multidimensional, as are human beings, and for this reason the stories endure.  No story is more illustrative of this than the story of Joseph and his brothers.  As you know, at the end of every fairy tale we read, “And they lived happy ever after.”  After all turmoil, did the Joseph and his brother’s live ‘happily ever after’? It depends upon how you tell a story.

Parashat VaYigash begins with the touching reunification of the brothers.  Judah and his siblings finally display true responsibility in standing up for the other child of Rachel, Benjamin.  It is at this moment, that Joseph cannot restrain himself and reveals himself.  He yearns to reconnect with them.  Seeing his brothers shock and fear, he assures them that God has brought him to this position of power to take care of the family during the famine. Benjamin and Joseph finally embrace one another and weep for all the lost years.  Joseph instructs their father to come down to Egypt, and he procures the land of Goshen for the family, a place where they may be safe, supported and continue their traditions.  Finally, Jacob goes down to Egypt and the family again is unified.  Genesis ends with seventy souls descending into Egypt, and their progeny will become the Jewish people.  Told this way, the story of Joseph and his brothers is one about Joseph orchestrating events in such a way that his brothers become self-aware of their past mistakes, make amends, and heal the family.  While Joseph sometimes cries in silence, we see a man who has a future vision for the family, visions he saw in his dreams and works to ensure these dreams will materialize.  The level of self-control and magnanimity of Joseph is truly astounding, as he could have easily lashed out in anger at the brothers that betrayed him all those years earlier.

However, do we need to read the narrative this way?  Remember, we know the end of the story, but the story did not need to end that way.  Perhaps Joseph did not know either how his life story would end.  Perhaps Joseph’s sense of purpose at this moment emerged over time, as he needed to overcome his own trauma to begin to see his brethren in a new light.  In essence, Joseph- the one who was wronged- also grows.  When we initially see him elevated to Egyptian royalty, we see a man who is given an Egyptian wife, a new name, and a completely new life; upon reaching the throne he seems to try to disassociate himself with his traumatic past.  He names his children Menashe, ‘for God caused me to forget the pain of my father’s house’, and Ephraim, ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my sorrow’.   He wants nothing to do with that past. The first time he sees his siblings he acts like a total stranger to them, even throwing them into a prison for three days, which ironically is referred to in the Torah as the bor, the pit, indicating that Joseph wanted them to feel the dread he did when they threw him into a pit.   He then sends his brothers back home sans one (Shimon), but they return not only with food, but with the money they brought down to Egypt!  Ten brothers went down, but nine return with sacks of silver; the message the disguised Joseph sends is not unnoticed, as they see the connection between this event and the sale of Joseph, when they also returned without a brother but with sacks of silver.  We might hear the implied condemnation of Joseph.  “You sold me for a sack of silver! Now you take this ill-begotten wealth and try to use it to purchase food?!  I do not need your money and I do not need you.”

Joseph demands that they can return only with Benjamin, his full brother, the only brother not implicated in this terrible ordeal.  When the brothers do return with Benjamin, the two weep; perhaps Joseph suspects that his full brother, the other son of Rachel, was abused as well.  At that moment perhaps Joseph will take him away from all of that, provide him the love that his brothers could or will not.  At the height of the narrative, Benjamin is framed with the theft of a goblet, and Joseph orders that Benjamin be seized.  Again, at this point the brothers could have been forcibly sent away, but Judah stands up to Joseph, telling him that he has personally assured the safety of the child, and that his father would not live without the return of Benjamin, because their ‘souls are intertwined’.

It is as this point that Joseph cannot restrain himself, and exclaims, “I am Joseph.  Is my father still alive?”   This is the turning point in the entire narrative, yet how are we to read these words?  Are they words of incredulity and excitement of a man who will finally have his family again after all these years?   Are these words of a man who finally sees the regret of his brothers, and overwhelmed, wants to reunite with them and provide for them? Or are these bitter words of rebuke from a man who experiences Judah’s protestations as the ultimate in hypocrisy.  ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?  When you sold me, were you thinking about the feelings of your dear father?!’”  The truth is that both readings are plausible, and perhaps the very ambiguity of Joseph’s words reflect the conflicting conscious and subconscious feelings brewing just underneath the surface.

It is not only the reader who is unsure as to how to interpret Joseph.  Joseph’s brothers are unsure as well. Until the end of Joseph’s life the brothers doubt Joseph’s motives.   Following the death of Jacob, the brothers fear retaliation, and make up a story that their father commanded them that Joseph should not act with malice towards them. Joseph weeps as he realizes that even now, there is an emotional abyss that cannot be traversed; perhaps in reading these words we weep with him (Gen. 50:15-17).  Similarly, on his own death bed, he enjoins his brothers, making them swear that they will raise his bones from this land and bring him to Canaan (Gen. 50:25).   Even on his death bed, he fears his brothers might desert him once again.   In the voice of a 110-year-old Joseph we might still hear the young child sent to find the ‘peace of his brothers’.

Where was Jacob emotionally in all of this?  Jacob sent his son on a mission to seek out his brothers in the first place, a mission that ended in tragedy.  We are told that Jacob never was able to cope with the loss of Joseph; according to many the reason is that he never truly believed he was dead, and a person does not mourn for the living. Nonetheless, Jacob knew enough to know that the story told to him, tarof toraf Yosef, that Joseph was ‘torn apart by animals’ was not the truth.   For Jacob to directly confront his sons about his darkest fears, that perhaps they killed him, was too painful. To accept this truth would be so devastating that Jacob did not see any way the family could ever mend after such a violation. Nonetheless, Jacob never accepted the attempts to be comforted.  One does not accept comfort from the perpetrator of the crime!  Indeed, there are events in the lives of some which are so difficult, so destructive, that real reconciliation seems impossible.

For all the years Joseph was gone, Jacob existed, but spiritually was dead. When Jacob hears the news that Joseph is indeed alive initially, he was in shock, not believing him.  But suddenly he sees the wagons sent by Joseph to bring him, and the Torah tells us “The spirit of Jacob their father was filled with new life” (Gen. 45:27).  What about the wagons caused him to suddenly believe? Rashi cites an ancient midrash that the sending of the wagons, agalot, was a coded message to Jacob.  Citing the etymological link between wagon/ agalot and calf/eglah, Rashi states that Joseph is reminding his father that the last piece of Torah they were learning together was the eglah arufah, the calf whose neck is severed (Deut. 21:6).[1]

In this section, an unidentified dead body is found on a road.  The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, measures to find the nearest town, and approaches their leadership. The Torah tells us that the elders bring a calf, an egel, and slaughter it in a riverbed.   The Kohanim and Levi’im join them, and confess ‘we did not slaughter the person, nor did we see.’   The ritual is curious. Why would the leadership of the nearest town need to confess their innocence to an act they did not commit?  It implies even if they did not kill the man with their hands, they share some guilt. The very fact that within their environs one of their brethren is allowed to die, be unaccounted for, is an occasion for deep introspection about the nature of that town and its values.  The slaughter of the calf as a symbolic sin offering attests that some type of crime has been committed, but the responsibility of the town is not one of commission but of omission. However, this elaborate ceremony reflects a positive change in that the leadership signals in their confession the assumption of responsibility.  Any change of any real meaning requires an assumption of responsibility, owning one’s role- in this case the leaderships’ role in allowing a person in their midst to end up dead on the side of the road with no one knowing why.

Now it is evidently apparent that the section of Torah studied by Jacob and Joseph was not merely an academic exercise.  It is clear as day that Joseph is the person who is deserted, left for dead.[2]] He is like the egel/calf, that the elders need to slaughter to atone for their uncaring act of omission.  He is telling his father that his own brethren did not behave initially towards him as a brother, but a stranger.  However, in a coded way he is also disabusing Jacob of his darkest fears.  “We did not slaughter the person.”  The brothers spared his life.  He also tells his father that they have confessed and taken responsibility.  Joseph witnessed the brother’s remorse while in Egypt, and the heroic acts of the brothers in defending his brother Benjamin.  In these words, Joseph is offering a vision for the family moving forward.   Even if the family physically was relocated, what was needed was an emotional relocation as well.  In reminding Jacob of the section of eglah arufah, he is holding out before Jacob a vision of healing, moving forward from the trauma.  It is this that revives the spirit of Jacob, the promise that the family can be a family, that brothers can be brothers, that hatred and resentments do not need to define the future.

In essence, there are really two stories in parashat VaYigash. One is the salvation of the family of Jacob from starvation through the heroic intervention of Joseph.  Like his dreams, Joseph is the provider, giving the family what they need to survive.  However, then there is the second narrative, a quest to bring peace and healing among the family, a more elusive goal.  Not only the historical family of Jacob, but our larger collective Jewish family still seeks to mend our rifts, seeking the peace of our brothers.    It is interesting that there is an ancient tradition that links the entire drama of the High Priest on Yom Kippur to the sin of the sale of Joseph.  It is not so much that we are still paying for the sin of the past, but the hatred and animosity which led to the sale still haunts us and lives within us.[3]

The teachings of this week’s parashah are not only about our people, but our individual families and relationships. In our own lives, who are the people and what are the relationships that need healing?   What discrete healing actions are available to us- understanding that we can only take responsibility for our own actions- to help mend relationships.   Like Joseph and his brothers, we may never completely reach the goal we want- complete love, trust, and safety.  Yet, we can act in such a way in this world in which that is held out as a possibility.  To do that however, like Joseph, we must have a vision, and allow that vision to shape our actions, and not become mired in the pain and trauma which always threaten to unravel everything.   Indeed, there are some crimes so heinous, some relationships so toxic, that perhaps healing lays in severing the bonds of connection.  However, in most relationships, like jealousy between brothers, we have the capacity to build and rebuild again, even if it seems at times we are moving backwards.  Joseph, a neglected brother left for dead and then sold, challenges us to overcome pain.  To seek the peace of our brother.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] This midrash plays on the rabbinic tradition that the patriarchs knew the entire Torah before it was revealed at Sinai. The exploration of this theme is beyond the purview of this essay.

[2] Jacob in his blessings indicates he knows elements of what happened, if not the entire story.  In his blessing to Joseph, he speaks about those who assailed him with arrows, and yet his bow remained taught with his arm drawn back.  It takes amazing control not to release the arrow.  These words do seem to praise Joseph’s amazing control and his realization that if he had acted on his anger and pain, the family would have never survived. Conversely, he spares no restraint in his rebuke of Shimon and Levi, both exhibiting unrestrained violence. “For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen (shor).”  Joseph in other places is compared to an ox, and a calf (egel), is simply a baby ox.  In essence, Jacob is telling these two children he knows their character, and it led them to violence first against the city of Shechem, and then against their own brother, ‘the baby ox’.  However, Jacob then turns to Judah, comparing him to a regal lion that can pounce upon its pray at will.  In an ingenious play on words, miteref beni alita, ‘you [Judah] have risen from your pray’, the rabbis remark you have ‘raised’ my son from teref (being ripped apart).  This is the same word used by the brothers telling their father that Joseph was ‘torn apart by wild animals’ (tarof toraf).   In this ingenious read, Jacob is telling Judah that he knows his brothers were like wild animals, and because of Judah’s suggestion to sell him, while hardly praiseworthy, he saved his brother from certain death.

[3] The parallels are striking. For a good overview of some of these sources, see the article by Rabbanit Avigail Rock z’l.


About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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