In Parshat Vayigash, Judah pleads with Joseph for the release of Benjamin, offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place. Touched by his brother’s loyalty, Joseph reveals his true identity. It is then arranged that their father, Jacob, come to Egypt with all of the remaining family, 70 in all. Jacob is reunited with Joseph after 22 years. En route to Egypt, Jacob receives the divine promise that his people will later be brought back up from Egypt. Joseph prospers by selling food and seed during the famine. Pharaoh gives Jacob’s family the fertile area of Goshen to settle (an earlier Pharaoh had offered Goshen to Sarah), and the children of Israel prosper during the exile in Egypt.
One theme of this parsha is sibling rivalry. Cain vs. Abel, Abraham & Haran, Isaac vs. Ishmael, Jacob vs. Esau and in this case, Joseph vs. his brothers.
Here is a drama of reconciliation between brothers, and it is expressed in “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence,” (Sir Walter Scott) as mentioned in both the Rabbi Gunther Plaut and the Hertz chumashim.
Another theme is the meaning of Egypt in the development of the new nation of Israel.
Joseph was born around 1500 BCE. He is said to have the gift of charisma, personal magnetism. He is able to bewitch or wound, to influence and persuade people. He practiced divination, including dream interpretation to foretell the future, which is usually criticized by Torah.
The narrative begins when Joseph’s brothers have just completed a visit to Egypt and are leaving to return to their home in Canaan, probably Hebron. They did not recognize their brother, and Joseph, still angry with them for having sold him into slavery (he was purchased by Midianites who sold him to Ishmaelites who sold him to Potiphar, the Pharaoh’s officer), was interested in a little revenge. He plays a cat-and-mouse game with them, planting a silver goblet in his little brother Benjamin’s baggage. When it is discovered, the brothers return to the palace and are confronted by Joseph. Joseph declares that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as his slave but the others may return to Canaan.
He knows this would be unacceptable because Benjamin was Jacob’s favorite son and the loss of Benjamin, on top of the loss of Joseph years earlier, would certainly kill Jacob. Joseph knows that the brothers would never permit that to occur. In fact, Joseph is ready for reconciliation, but he wants to be sure that his brothers are ready to learn some humility.
“Va-yigash eilav yehuda” means “then Judah went up to him.” In Midrashic reading it evokes three modes for the encounter: war, appeasement and prayer. There is rage, there is acceptance and there is conciliation. Judah at first offers all the brothers to become slaves to Joseph, then offers himself, and never denies Benjamin’s guilt (even though Benjamin was not guilty) perhaps acknowledging all the brothers’ earlier guilt when they sold Joseph into slavery. The words of the text are powerful and moving.
Joseph sees the hint that his brothers recognized that it was a crime to sell him into slavery. Depending on our interpretation, Joseph shows his forgiveness to Judah, or eventually concedes defeat to Judah in this cat-and-mouse game, by revealing himself to his brothers and asking if his father, Jacob, is still alive.
There is an emotional reunion. The connections between brothers are vital to the health of all families and the Torah spends a lot of attention on this vital matter, often dwelling on the challenges to these relationships. I would say that the Torah recognizes that this concern was and is and will be vital and challenging to us all, maybe forever. It is something that cannot be taken for granted.
Afterwards he invites his brothers to come and settle in Egypt. Joseph specifically gives Benjamin special gifts of clothing, above and beyond that which he gave his other brothers. Is this a reference to Joseph’s coat of many colors, a way to indicate that the old quarrel is over?
The brothers return to Jacob to tell him that Joseph is still alive. We do not know how they dealt with their past lies to their father when they reported that Joseph had been torn apart by wild animals. Jacob is ecstatic.
Now for part two of this discussion.
Jacob is uncertain about going down to Egypt. When they all set off from Hebron, Jacob stops in Beer-Sheba to offer a sacrifice to God and God says: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.” This is an echo of what God told Abraham.
There was drought and famine in Canaan as well as in Egypt, but thanks to Joseph, grain had been gathered and stored in the granaries of Egypt. Jacob and his tribe could survive in Egypt.
What is the relationship of Egypt to the Jewish people?
- Abraham had encountered dangers in Egypt. God told Abraham: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed 400 years” (Gen 15:13).
- God had expressly forbidden Isaac to go to Egypt.
- The Rabbis pictured Jacob pondering whether to remain in Canaan, or to settle in Egypt.
- In Canaan lurked the dangers of intermingling and absorption.
- In Egypt there would be isolation and segregation. Later there would be oppression and slavery followed by Exodus
Is this the price of development of national characteristics? Is this all part of HaShem’s plan to develop His people into a cohesive nation? If we see the Bible as written by man, a document that attempts to make sense of our heritage, then is this the explanation of the formative years of the Israelite tribe that became a people?
The last words of the parsha are: “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they got them possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly.”
The number of Israelites who entered Egypt was 70. The number that left in the Exodus 400 years later was 600,000.
Since Egypt means “a narrow place,” sometimes considered to represent the narrowness of the birth canal, perhaps we might think of our sojourn in Egypt this way:
At first with gladness – perhaps that’s our conception;
Then we grow and develop – as our numbers multiplied exceedingly
Then there were the pains of slavery – perhaps that was our labor;Finally comes the Exodus – the birth of our nation.