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Parsashat Vayigash

December 13, 2006

By Tamara Silberman

As Bereshit begins to draw to a close, the 11 sons of Jacob are reunited with their long lost brother. The leader of the brothers, Judah, the one who sets the moral code for his brothers, has to contend with the second most powerful man in Egypt, not realizing that this it is Joseph. Judah entreats Joseph to act justly concerning his younger brother Benjamin.

Parashat Vayigash offers Joseph that moment to manipulate his brothers and to be in charge of the nuclear family that sold him into slavery. In last week’s parashah, Joseph’s guards put the goblet in Benjamin’s sack. This puts the brothers completely at Joseph’s mercy, not just for the food they sought, but for their very lives. The brothers return to the palace silently. Knowing full well that the goblet was planted, not stolen, they do not know what fate has in store for them.

Vayigash begins with Judah entreating Joseph to spare Benjamin a lengthy term of slavery. In what is one of the longest speeches in the Torah, Judah argues persuasively that Joseph should keep him as a servant and allow Benjamin to return to his father. ‘For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.’ (44:33) Unlike Reuben, who had offered to kill his two sons lest anything befall Benjamin, Judah offers himself to stand in and to bear the responsibility himself.

Judah is the right candidate to speak up for Benjamin. He had a pivotal role in selling Joseph into slavery, and the burden of guilt is especially hard on his shoulders. Furthermore, he has lost two sons already ‘ Er and Onan – and is more aware of the intensity of the pain of losing a child than his brothers are. From his personal guilt involving Joseph and his heightened awareness of the pain of the loss of children, Judah is the man to take the leadership role protecting the life of Benjamin and through this, the emotional health of his father.

He tells Joseph how Jacob is forever saddened by the death of Benjamin’s brother, who was killed by wild beasts, the only other son from his most beloved wife. Furthermore, Judah recounts that he guaranteed Benjamin’s life with his own personal honor. ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever,’ (44:32) he tells Joseph that he promised Jacob before he left.

He is extremely convincing both to Jacob and Joseph. Jacob allows Benjamin to go to Egypt and Joseph cannot continue with his intricate ruse of punishing the brothers for a crime they did not commit. Like a house of cards that has grown too top-heavy, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself.

‘Joseph could no longer control himself.’ (45:10) When the brothers respond with stunned silence Joseph continues by reminding them that he is the brother they have sold into slavery. Only a few verses earlier Judah had reiterated the family myth that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. Perhaps by constantly retelling themselves this non-truth the brothers had convinced themselves that their long lost brother was dead. Or maybe if they keep repeating the falsehood in each other’s presence, they are complicit in their silence. Yet, here he is, he who is equal to Pharoah (44:18) telling them that he knows about their crime. The only person beside the brothers who could have known about this incident was Joseph.

Joseph is quick to reassure them that God sent him ahead of everyone to save everyone’s life (45:7) and that they should not feel guilty or reproach themselves. However, the shadow of guilt never leaves them. When the patriarch Jacob dies at the end of the parashah, the brothers, who must be old themselves by now, unite again to offer themselves as slaves to Joseph. (50:18) Joseph reminds that he is ‘under G-d’ and that G-d sent him to Egypt to save everyone’s lives. By their trying to dispense with Joseph as a youth, the brothers become closely gripped by his presence and greatness.

This parashah is the end of the patriarchal line. These sons, with the addition of Joseph’s sons, Efraim and Menasheh are the patriarchs for the 12 tribes, which form the basis for the political and social context for the remaining 4 books of the Torah. Vayigash ends with the death of Jacob, followed by the death of Joseph, in Vavehi. The final chapter of Bereshit seems to have a ‘happily ever after’ ending. All is well. The Israelites have the choicest land in Goshen and a solid place in Egyptian society. The first of many diasporas for the Jews, Egypt at first is a good place for the Israelites and they flourish there. The rest, as they say, is history.