Posted by: Subway Conductor | December 23, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Vayigash

I want to begin by again mentioning the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) and to offer a comment on this week’s portion based on his writing. Rabbi Sacks pointed out that Freud saw the rivalry between father and son as the root of all human conflict. But, the Book of Genesis sees the rivalry between brothers as the central human conflict. Sibling rivalry is one of the major themes of the first book of the Torah and Rabbi Sacks extends his analysis of sibling rivalry to include the contentious and often violent rivalry between the three religions derived from Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Instances of sibling rivalry occur repeatedly in Genesis. The first murder is of one brother by another, Cain kills his brother Abel. In each of the generations of the patriarchs there is a conflict between brothers. Abraham has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael is expelled from the family. Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau. The rivalry between these two brothers starts in utero. Jacob emerges from his mother clutching Esau’s heel as if trying to overtake his older brother. Jacob manages to buy the first-born status with a bowl of soup. Later, Jacob tricks his father into giving him the blessing that was intended for Esau. To do so, Jacob actually pretends to be Esau. As a result of this treachery, Esau threatens to kill his brother and forces Jacob to flee his home. It should be noted that Jacob marries Leah and Rachel and we see an example of sibling rivalry between two sisters.

Perhaps the most striking case of sibling rivalry in Genesis is the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. Jacob makes no attempt to conceal his preference for Joseph who was, after all, the child of his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob gave Joseph the coat of many colors as a blatant symbol of his love for him. Joseph has two dreams which he is eager to tell his brothers. The dreams forecast his dominance over them. This rivalry reaches a climax with the brothers plotting to kill Joseph, but instead they throw him into a pit planning to sell him. When they grab him, they tear off his special garment which was the emblem of their father’s love and dip it into blood, using it to trick Jacob into believing that his son had been attacked by a wild beast.

Joseph is taken down to Egypt where he rises to be second in command. This moves the stage of the story of sibling rivalry to Egypt, where, when the brothers show up looking to buy food, Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. This situation presents the opportunity for Joseph to do what he chooses in dealing with his brothers. He is in charge in Egypt. He puts them through a series of harrowing experiences, taking advantage of his position of power. But ultimately, what Joseph really accomplishes is to test the brothers to see how they will deal this time with another  of their brothers. This is the paradigmatic example of teshuva in the Torah.

Maimonides states that perfect teshuva is evidenced by being put in the same situation where one had sinned, but this time acting differently. Joseph creates the scenario to watch this play out. He forces the brothers to bring their younger sibling Benjamin to Egypt where Joseph shows him the same preference that he had received from his father. Benjamin is Joseph’s full brother, the other son of Rachel. He showers him with gifts. Eventually, Joseph connives to have Benjamin accused of stealing his chalice. With Benjamin in prison, he tells the brothers they are free to go home. It is at this point, at the very beginning of this week’s portion, that the test of whether the brothers have done teshuva or not is brought to a head. Will they abandon Benjamin, who has been favored by Joseph, leaving him in prison while they make their escape, or will they risk their own safety to extricate their younger sibling? Will they leave him in the pit as they had done to Joseph?

The first word of our parsha shows already that a change has taken place. Vayigash means “came near.” “And Judah came near to him (Joseph).”  Perhaps for the first time in their lives, Judah became close to his brother. It is ironic, of course, that he does not know yet that it is his brother. Joseph is now unable to control himself and weeping out loud, he discloses himself to his brothers, “I am Joseph!”

The Torah continues, “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither. It was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you.’” (Gen. 45:4-5) Joseph sees all of the events that had occurred, including his sale by his brothers, as part of a divine plan. G-d had sent Joseph ahead of his brothers to Egypt in order to ensure the survival of the Jewish People. They were living in the grips of a famine from which they would have perished. As a result of Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, he was in a position to rescue his brothers, the progenitors of the Jewish People, and bring them to settle in Egypt. His sale by the brothers was an unwitting part of this divine plan.

The Book of Genesis nears its conclusion with this story of the reconciliation of the brothers. Finally, there is a resolution to an instance of sibling rivalry. The Book of Genesis leaves us with a sense of hope that human conflict can be resolved.

 Good Shabbos!


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