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J.J Gross

Vayigash: Yehudah’s subtle hints to Yosef

In my essay on Parshat Miketz, I left unanswered the question: How could it be that Yosef recognized his brothers, yet not one of his brothers recognized him?

The answer is obvious if we read carefully the opening of Parshat Vayigash.

Indeed, I believe the brothers recognized Yosef instantly. How could they not? He still looked very much like he did as a boy, with his clean-shaven face.  He spoke with a Canaanite accent. And he was the very incarnation of his childhood dreams.   Plus his new name Zafenat Pa’aneah, and the reputation that preceded it, just about spelled out the fact that his could be no one other than their brother Yosef.

Shocked to recognize their brother as the Egyptian Viceroy, the ten brothers are paralyzed in his presence, and hope against all odds that he does not recognize them. After what they had done to him, the best strategy would be silence, especially if Yosef chooses not to voice his recognition. Indeed, if Yosef had any desire to connect to, at least, his father, he certainly could have done so already.Hence it is even likely that Yosef – with few fond memories of his youth – preferr to revel totally in his Egyptian glory and will not deign to acknowledge any kinship with this Canaanite riff-raff.

And so, an elaborate charade ensues in which each side knows that the other side knows, yet neither side blinks.

Things change in Vayigash.  The opening verses feature Yehudah, the natural leader, the family lion, addressing Zafenat Pa’aneah.  In the first two verses alone he refers to Yosef as ‘my master” and himself as ‘your slave’ four times.

וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֮ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בי  אֲדֹנִ֔י וְאַל־יִ֥חַר אַפְּךָ֖ בְּעַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה:
Then קיוגשי went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.

אֲדֹנִ֣י שָׁאַ֔ל אֶת־עֲבָדָ֖יו לֵאמֹ֑ר הֲיֵשׁ־לָכֶ֥ם אָ֖ב אוֹ־אָֽח׃
My lord asked his servants, ‘Have you a father or another brother?’ (44:18-19)

This obsequiousness is totally out of character for Yehudah. And then in the tenth verse of the parsha (Bereishit 44:27) he ratchets the sycophancy up a quantum notch; וַיֹּ֛אמֶר עַבְדְּךָ֥ אָבִ֖י אֵלֵ֑ינוּ “And your slave our father said to us …”

It’s one thing for Yehudah, perched on the hot seat, to abject himself before Egypt’s viceroy. It is quite another to needlessly degrade his absent father in the same language. Also noteworthy is the fact that here, and here only, Yosef is referred to as מת dead, and not as איננו missing.

What in fact is happening here is Yehudah is communicating in code to Yosef. By classifying himself (and his brothers) as well as their father as Yosef’s slaves, he is referencing Yosef’s childhood dreams, and declaring the validity and veracity of those dreams. Thus he is attempting to achieve two goals; first to signal that the brothers know who Yosef is (while still leaving him the option of passive denial); and second, that they have come full circle in accepting his congenital destiny to be lord and master over themselves and their father. As for referring to Yosef as ‘dead’ when he was very much standing there in living color, the intent may have been to jolt Yosef into giving up the facade and declaring, “excuse me boys, but here I am”.

Yehudah’s soliloquy is a strategic bulls-eye. It is at this moment that Yosef finally loses his composure and makes the decision to acknowledge his brothers after all.

Yosef behaves with consummate noblesse oblige as he begs his brothers to “not be angry with me for having sold me here…” וְעַתָּ֣ה ׀ אַל־תֵּעָ֣צְב֗וּ וְאַל־יִ֙חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה  (45:5). He then brings the reference to his dreams to its denouement (45:8) when he declares unequivocally:

וְעַתָּ֗ה לֹֽא־אַתֶּ֞ם שְׁלַחְתֶּ֤ם אֹתִי֙ הֵ֔נָּה כִּ֖י הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיְשִׂימֵ֨נִֽי לְאָ֜ב לְפַרְעֹ֗ה וּלְאָדוֹן֙ לְכל־בֵּית֔וֹ וּמֹשֵׁ֖ל בְּכל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
So, it was not you who sent me here, but God—who has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt

Pharaoh is delighted by the new developments, and presses for the entire clan to relocate to Egypt. Clearly – and perhaps rightly – he assumes that if one brother can be such a boon to Egyptian society, a fortiori the benefit of having eleven more.  This is a sad precursor of many instances in Jewish history in which the self-serving interests of a particular ruler opens the gates to Jewish migration. The Jews naively assume the golden era will last forever. It never does. And we never learn.

Pharaoh, whether by intelligence or instinct, taps into another weakness of the Jewish people – the inability to let go of possessions even when their own lives are in peril. Urging the brothers to make haste, he says;

וְעֵ֣ינְכֶ֔ם אַל־תָּחֹ֖ס עַל־כְּלֵיכֶ֑ם כִּי־ט֛וּב כל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לָכֶ֥ם הֽוּא׃And never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours.’” (45:20).

 How many Jews perished in the Shoah because they couldn’t part with their possessions? How often do we hear people spurning aliyah because “it isn’t the right time to sell the house”, or “the market conditions are not optimal for liquidating the business”?  Of course there never is a right time. And we never learn. As we will see later (46:6) Pharaoh’s suggestion falls on deaf ears, as it appears Yaakov’s family packs everything down to the chandeliers.

וַיִּקְח֣וּ אֶת־מִקְנֵיהֶ֗ם וְאֶת־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר רָֽכְשׁוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ מִצְרָ֑יְמָה יַעֲקֹ֖ב וְכל־זַרְע֥וֹ אִתּֽוֹ׃and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Yaakov and all his offspring with him came to Egypt:

Returning to their father, the brothers inform Yaakov that:

וַיַּגִּ֨דוּ ל֜וֹ לֵאמֹ֗ר ע֚וֹד יוֹסֵ֣ף חַ֔י וְכִֽי־ה֥וּא מֹשֵׁ֖ל בְּכל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַיָּ֣פג לִבּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י לֹא־הֶאֱמִ֖ין לָהֶֽם׃
And they told him, “Yosef is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”  His heart went numb, for he did not believe them. (45:26)

Yaakov refuses to believe them, coming around only when he sees the bounty they had brought with them.  Clearly Yaakov has been in a serious eclipse. Except for brief moments, he is not the Yisrael who left the house of Lavan. He has become toothless, weak of spirit, and easily manipulated. His next meal seems more important to him than destiny. One can sympathize in light of the loss of his beloved Rachel, and the lack of closure regarding his favorite son. He has reverted to being the Yaakov of his earliest incarnation, a dweller of tents.

In his depressed state, it is doubtful Yaakov would have responded to the name Yisrael. G-d’s repetition of the name Yaakov appears to emphasize the reality of his diminished state at this juncture. Indeed G-d has to remind Yaakov; וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָנֹכִ֥י הָאֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ “I am the G-d, the G-d of your father…” (46:3) – this to the man to whom He had appeared in arguably the most seminal dream in the entire Torah, the man who had once successfully wrestled G-d’s own messenger

Yosef manifests a certain ambivalence about the arrival of his extended clan.  Yes, he is pleased to be their leader and meal ticket. On the other hand he manipulates matters so that they should be close but not too close for comfort:

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יִקְרָ֥א לָכֶ֖ם פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְאָמַ֖ר מַה־מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶֽם׃
So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֗ם אַנְשֵׁ֨י מִקְנֶ֜ה הָי֤וּ עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ מִנְּעוּרֵ֣ינוּ וְעַד־עַ֔תָּה גַּם־אֲנַ֖חְנוּ גַּם־אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ בַּעֲב֗וּר תֵּשְׁבוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֔שֶׁן כִּֽי־תוֹעֲבַ֥ת מִצְרַ֖יִם כל־רֹ֥עֵה צֹֽאן׃
you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’—so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (46:33-34)

Pharaoh had been enthusiastic about the arrival of Yosef’s brethren. Clearly, Yosef could easily have retooled their skill sets and catapulted them into instant aristocracy.  Instead he sidelines his brothers and father into the unpopulated Goshen and manipulates them into remaining shepherds despite the raging famine and the paltry grazing opportunities.  Further, as we shall see,  Yosef reduces contact with his family – his father included – to a bare minimum, to the degree that his own sons Efraim and Menashe first meet their grandfather Yaakov  when he is on his deathbed.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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