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Parashat Vayigash

December 20, 2012

By Rabbi Bob Freedman

Torah can be read as a treatise on exile. Its stories about being driven out from life’s comfort zone, from family, from community, or from the presence of God, repeat again and again, each time with a different slant. Not all end in return! Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden, and a rotating fiery sword guaranteed that they could not find their way back. Cain, for his sin, was banished from his home and branded so that he could never again have a normal relationship with humanity. Abraham was led out from his birthplace, his land, and his father’s house, and God established him in a new home. Jacob fled the wrath of his brother Esau and never saw his mother again. The family of Yisrael went into exile in Egypt. They came back to their land, as God had promised, but only after years of slavery, wandering in the wilderness, and war. No wonder scholars say that perhaps the present version of Torah was composed by exiles returning from Babylon. Is it a textbook on dealing with going out and coming back?

In Parashat Vayigash, Joseph, the paradigm of personal exile, has been in Egypt for several years and has risen high in the land. In the time of plenty before the famine, his wife had born him two sons. The names Joseph gave them offers us an insight into how he is regarding his inner life. The first son he named Menasheh, saying, “God has made me completely forget my hardship and my family home.” With the second son’s name, Ephraim, he confirmed his status as a successful ex-pat, saying, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” (Genesis 42:50-52) Listen to the complexity of his emotional and spiritual predicament. On one hand, he welcomes the balm of forgetfulness that has (almost) banished the pain of being rejected by his father and brothers. On the other hand, he acknowledges the pain of being a stranger in the place where he lives.

The comfort and pain of exile are hard for him to bear. Yet on his own he cannot return. Perhaps he is not even aware of his longing to do so. Only after Judah approaches him, reaches out, and pleads for Joseph’s mercy does his yearning for family arise so strong within him that he is able to make the turning to his brothers. His outburst of tears as he reveals himself tells us how wrenching the turn was, and how great was his relief.

So many of us feel that we live in exile. We go through life seeking our center, our place of connection, never being sure whether we belong or where, knowing only that here is not it. Like Joseph, reacting to our inner separation, we push away people to whom we want to be close. It takes two events to bring us back, to turn us. First, someone else, a Judah figure, needs to reach out to us, showing us that the distance is not impossible to span. Then we must make our own decision to reach out in turn to those from whom we have been in exile: family, community, even ourselves.

At times we are also called on to be Judah. Our outreach may be the catalyst that brings victims of alienation back to themselves, their community, and a sense of belonging.

Despite his physical beauty, his resilience, his intelligence, his faith, and divine help, Joseph never could completely return. He was pushed too hard and too far. In the end, the story of his reunion with his family is bittersweet, a reminder of how careful we must be not to alienate others.


Rabbi Bob Freedman was ordained at AJR in 2000. He presently serves as cantor of Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.