Parsha Vayigash begins in the middle of the drama. Fearing the worst, the 11 sons of Jacob are all gathered before the vice regent of Egypt, who unbeknownst to them is their own brother Joseph. Innocent Benjamin, the youngest brother, who never speaks, and who some identify as a child with special needs, has been framed for a crime he did not commit. Judah pleads not to take Benjamin as a slave, but instead to take himself, Judah, else it would break the heart of their aging father. Now comes the climactic moment, one of the most dramatic scenes in literature, Behitvahdah Yosef el Echav, when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. Joseph weeps, so loud that all Egypt hears, and he says: “I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?” Seeing his brothers still afraid, Joseph provides a reassuring interpretation, and says: “It was not you who sent me to Egypt, ki le’michya shlachani Elohim Liffnaichem. It was to save life that G-d sent me here ahead of you.” Joseph crying, and his interpretive speech of self-revelation to his brothers, is the climax of the Joseph story and, I would argue, the climax of the entire Book of Beresheet, for three reasons: First, the great drama of the story itself; second, it marks the completion of the main arc of narrative of the Book of Genesis; and third, by using interpretation of prophecy to give meaning to his brother’s human actions, Joseph provides a central motif in the structure of Jewish identity: and with that interpretation of prophecy the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob come into history, as the children of Jacob become Bnai Yisrael, the Israelites.
Shakespearean DramaPart of the power of this climax is the drama of the story itself, which is like a scene from Shakespeare, or a Homeric epic. The tale is full of hidden disguises and dramatic irony: Joseph understands his brothers’ language, but they don’t know that he does. There are parallels – Reuven was taken prisoner, just as Joseph was taken prisoner; parallels in changes of clothing; parallels of being thrown in pits and being raised up high; and the drama of a prophecy that comes true. The climax comes, when years after a hidden family crime, the hero reveals himself to his astounded brothers.
Arc of Narrative But this moment also marks the conclusion of the essential arc of narrative of the Book of Genesis. That narrative begins when God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises: I will make of thee a great nation. How does a single private individual become a great nation? To fulfill that covenant, Abraham and his descendants must overcome two challenges: to pass on this blessing to the next generation – the challenge of parenthood; and to build a family, in which all members are a part of a greater whole – the challenge of brotherhood. In the first two generations there is tremendous strife dealing with both of those challenges. Abraham cannot pass the blessing on to his first-born son Ishmael, because his wife Sarah compels him to banish Ishmael in favour of Isaac, her son, whom she favours. Isaac and Ishmael are alienated from each other, and there is no brotherhood between them. Isaac, traumatized by his own mother urging the death of his half-brother, and by his own near death experience at the hands of his faith-driven father, re-digs the wells of his father, and faces similar challenges. Isaac favours first-born Esau, but his powerful wife Rebecca uses guile and deceit to make sure that the blessing is passed on to the second-born son, her favourite, Jacob. Jacob, fearing his cheated brother will murder him, flees. 20 years of alienation between the twin brothers ends in Jacob’s lavish offering, but the brothers do not carry on in history together. After their reconciliation, each goes his separate way, and they only meet again at their father’s funeral. The same old same old?The drama of passing on the blessing, and building a unified family, then shifts to Jacob and his 12 sons. It seems that here, too, there will be the same tragic inability to build a cohesive family, because of favouritism and choseness, this time in favour of Joseph, once again not the first born, but the son of the favourite wife, Rachel. Here again there is rivalry; jealousy; murderous intent; betrayal of the brother; and deceit of the father. It seems the same challenge of parenthood, and the same challenge of brotherhood, will also confound the Children of Jacob, and deny them the ability to build a family in which all members are part of a greater whole, that can carry on the covenantal blessing into the future and allow them to emerge into history. Now in the key scene in Vayigash, it all comes down to Joseph.And what does Joseph do? For the 3rd time (but not the last), Joseph weeps.Why does Joseph weep? Joseph did not weep when he was thrown in the pit; and he did not weep when he was framed by Potiphar’s wife. He wept when he was reminded of his father, he wept when confronted by the fact that he and his brothers share a common father. On an earthy level, it is understandable why Joseph would weep at such a moment. “When he left his home and family, he was no more than a boy, in the company of strangers” - cut off from his parents, his country, his language. Even before being thrown in the pit, he was isolated from his brothers. He bore the burden of being favoured, of being [like the Jews] chosen. To be Joseph means, through no fault of his own, to be born to a long complex family narrative; in Joseph’s case, to be born of Rachel, the favourite wife, who was long barren; the wife for whom Jacob worked for 7 years, and then another 7 years. The woman whose intended wedding night was Jacob’s rebuke for having deceitfully taken the blessing of his twin brother, from their own blind father. But Jacob’s favouring Joseph, rather than conferring a blessing, isolates Joseph among his brothers. Joseph’s special talents – the telling of stories, and the interpretation of dreams and prophecy – are not the object of admiration, but of jealousy. Joseph had to make his way, friendless in the world, and even when his fortunes reverse, and just as he predicted, he rises to great heights of power, there was nobody there to witness his success. Like the joke of the Rabbi who sneaks out on Yom Kippur to play golf, and hits a hole-in-one, and the angels complain to G-d, how could the Rabbi be rewarded with a hole-in-one? G-d responds: “Who can he tell?” The sadness for Joseph was that his great power, his great success, all as he had prophesized, were without meaningful witnesses. Who from the old crowd could even say, “Wow, remember Joseph, that obnoxious showoff, that insecure boaster, ‘one day I’m going to rule over all of you’? Yes, well he is the vice regent of Egypt, he lives in a palace, he married the daughter of the High Priest, he is all powerful, his prophecy came true.” And now, just as he prophesied, his 11 brothers stand before him, witness to the truth of his prophesy.No wonder he cries.But now; now that Joseph’s prophecy has come true, what will he do? Will he carry on the tradition of his broken family, or can he do some act to allow fulfillment of prophecy to lead to reconciliation? Joseph is helped because at least one of his brothers shows evidence of change. Judah’s final speech to Joseph before the revelation puts the interests of Benjamin, the brother, and Jacob, the father, ahead of Judah’s own interest. Perhaps - in part at the hands of Tamar, his daughter-in-law, who forced him to do the right thing - Judah has learned about responsibility. So we come to the revelation, a hinge of history: The arc of narrative rests on the shoulders of Joseph. Will Joseph, like his grandfather Isaac, completely cut himself off from his brothers? Will Joseph, like his father Jacob, placate his brother with gifts, but let each one go his own separate way? Or will he now do some special, definitive act that will allow the family to be a cohesive unit? You can only change yourselfBehitvadeh Yosef. Joseph made himself known. Behitvadeh is a reflexive verb. It is a truism of therapy that you cannot change the other – you can only change yourself. Joseph cannot reverse the fact that his brothers wanted to kill him, that his brothers sold him into slavery and that his brothers lied about his death to his father. He cannot even reverse the fact that, just as he had prophesized years earlier, all 11 brothers now bow down before him. But when the climactic moment of revelation comes, Joseph does the essential act that closes the long arc of the Genesis narrative. He uses interpretation of the fulfillment of the prophecy. He says: Ki le’michya shlachani Elohim Lifnaichem: It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. He tied the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to history and to the destiny of the Children of Israel. Lo atem shalachtem oti henna, ki ha elohim: it was not you who sent me here, but God. This act of interpretation, giving transcendent historical meaning to human action, not only forgives the brothers, but enables all of them to carry on into history as a house of twelve brothers.
Joseph indeed has great power, not only, le’michya physically, to provide food to the family, but a metaphysical power, to transform the children of Jacob into the Children of Israel, and bring them as a great nation into history. No wonder Joseph’s cry of Hitvadaut was so great that all of Egypt and all of Pharaoh’s house knew.
Behitva’ada Yosef. Joseph made himself known. There is a final sense in which Joseph made himself known: he provided a central modality for what Bnei Yisrael is about. Joseph’s special gift was the interpretation of dreams and prophecy, and this is indeed what the Children of Israel would become known for, to this day – interpretation. The entire Talmud is interpretation of prophecy. The entire Torah tradition is one of prophecy interpreted by the Children of Israel.
It was that climactic moment of reconciliation and that act of interpretation, which allows a subtle shift in Parshat VaYigash. When in chapter 46, verse 8, the narrator says: “v’elah shmot Bnei Yisroel ”, “These are the names of B’nai Yisrael,” the arc of narrative is complete. The shift has been made from the “Sons of Jacob” to the Israelites. The Israelites, the people who move through history, and who use interpretation to give transcendent meaning to human action. Parshat VaYigash - Yahrzeit Dvar Torah – Dec. 11, 2010 – Narayever Congregation, Toronto