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Vayigash: Reconciliation of a Family - and a Nation

About The Author

Rabbi Miri Gold

Rabbi Miri Gold is the Rabbi of Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer, Israel. In a landmark ruling for religious pluralism in Israel, in 2012 she became the first non-Orthodox Rabbi in Israel to receive a salary from the Israeli government.

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וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּאמֶר֮

Then Judah came near to [Joseph] and said… (Genesis 44:18)

This week’s Torah portion, which features the climactic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, highlights both physical reunion and spiritual and national reconciliation.

In the Torah portion, we find the use of the word וַיִּגַּשׁ/vayigash creating opportunities for new communication, closeness and healing. It’s a tricky word for translators.

In the opening verse, the eponymous Torah portion name and first word sets the stage for the bravery of Judah to plea before Joseph on behalf of his youngest brother Benjamin:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי, יְדַבֶּר-נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי, וְאַל-יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ:

Then Judah came near to him (Joseph) and said: O my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord,
and do not be impatient with your servant…”  (Genesis 44:18)

With these words, Judah begins a passionate speech to the viceroy of Egypt, whom he doesn’t yet realize is in fact his estranged brother Joseph. Thus begins the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Rabbi Tzvi Hertz in the Soncino Press Torah commentary quotes Sir Walter Scott who called it “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language. When we read this generous speech, we forgive Judah all the past, and cannot refuse to say ‘Thou art he whom your brothers shall praise.’”

His courage to approach Joseph was followed by strong words and arguments to show the innocence of the brothers’ situation.  Judah was not cowed by the status of the “Egyptian” who stood before him; so says Rashi in his commentary. Furthermore, a fanciful midrash from  Midrash Tanhuma describes a verbal duel between Judah and Joseph before the moment that Joseph puts his cards on the table.

After this heartfelt plea full of pathos, Joseph could no longer contain himself, and revealed himself to his brothers. Here, too, the Hebrew root נגש is used when Joseph, after asking about his father’s well-being, says to his brothers:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֧ף אֶל־אֶחָ֛יו גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַיִּגָּ֑שׁוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.”
And when they came forward he said, “I am your brother Joseph,
he whom you sold into Egypt. (Gen. 45:4)

If Judah was brave in approaching Joseph, it is just as remarkable that Joseph, in revealing his identity, immediately asks that they draw close to him. Instead of a speech of revenge and threats, he embraces them and creates an atmosphere of closeness and trust.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz in his book Notes to the Weekly Torah Reading[1] understands Judah’s approach to create a meeting and a dialogue with Joseph. This is more than the saga of a family: it has political implications as well. Ironically, as we see in the Haftarah, in biblical times there was a long-standing rift between the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel (which is referred to as the kingdom of Ephraim, the son of Joseph). Perhaps we—who call ourselves  “Yehudim”, after Judah, yet live in a State called “Israel”—can embrace the prophet’s vision of union and solidarity.

The Haftarah for Vayigash, from Ezekiel 37:15-28 is set during the exile in Babylon, where the prophet Ezekiel was a spiritual counselor who promoted individual responsibility. He imagined the reunion of the Kingdom of Judah with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In his prophecy, he illustrated this reunion through an image of two separate sticks— representing the two tribes of Judah with the ten tribes of Joseph—becoming one again. God promises an everlasting covenant, cemented and inspired by the memory of the ancestors of the previous kings Saul, David and Solomon.

The people shall dwell in the land in peace and in unity:

…and the shall all have one shepherd; they shall also walk in Mine ordinances, and observe My states, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob My servant, wherein your fathers dwelled; and they shall dwell there, they, and their children, and their children’s children, forever; and David My servant shall be their prince forever.

Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them—it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will establish them, and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in the midst of them forever. My dwelling place also shall be over them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord that sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary shall be in the midst of them forever. (Ezekiel 37:24-28)

As we see from the Haftarah, which fortifies the messages of the Torah portion, one must work to create the proper conditions to bring people closer through נגישות. The messages are timely, for today alienation, despair and hopelessness reign strong. Through our decision to observe the commandment “to choose life” on a daily basis, we can take adopt the language and the actions of our ancestors who were brave enough to step forward and create the conditions for openness, accessibility, and approachability.

Sources for Further Study

 (1)

ויגש אליו וגו, דבר באזני אדני, יכנסו דברי באזניך. ואל יחר אפך, מארן אתה למד שדבר אליו קשות.

Then Judah went up to him… “May your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears.” That is to say, may my words enter your ears. 

And do not be angry.  From here you learn that Judah spoke to Joseph harshly.

RaSHI (Troyes, France, 1040-1105)

 

(2)

“My lord asked his servants…” (Gen.44:19). From the moment you saw us, you came upon us with a pretext. People came down to Egypt to buy food from many countries, and you did not question any of them. [But as for us…] Perhaps you thought we came plotting to marry your daughter, or you had in mind to marry our sister?! In spite of all that, we hid nothing from you!...

               Midrash Tanchuma, Vayigash

 

(3)

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann is a work of historical fiction. Mann, who escaped the Nazis and settled in California, wrote in the forward to the book:

Is it asking too much of posterity—assuming that we may look forward to any sort of intellectually active posterity—is it asking too much to expect of bit of puzzled surprise that this narrative of 70,000 calmly flowing lines telling of the primitive occurrences of human life, of love and hate, blessing and curse, fraternal strife and paternal grief, pride and penance, fall and rise, a humourous song of mankind, if one is allowed to call things by name—that his narrative could have come into being in the turbulent circumstances of these years 1926-1942, when every day hurled the wildest demands at the heart and brain? As for me, I yield not to surprise but to gratitude.  I am grateful to this work which was my stay on a path that often led through dark valleys.  It was my refuge, my comfort, my home, my symbol of steadfastness, the guarantee of my perseverance in the tempestuous change of things….The song of Joseph is good, solid work, done out of that fellow feeling for which mankind has always been sensitively receptive.  A measure of durability is, I think, inherent in it.”

The story of the dramatic plea and reunion begins on page 1111. Note the opening line:

Then Judah, the man of afflictions, to whom they had given the work, strode out of the group (of his brothers). He trod before the throne, close up to Joseph, took a long breath, and spoke:…

Joseph’s response, pages 1114 ff. reveals him as human, mischievous, and loving.

               Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948


[1] Published in English as Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, New York/Jerusalem Urim Publications, 2002.