Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vayigash

The known remaining son of Jacob and Rachel, Benjamin, is now threatened with imprisonment by Joseph who is second only to Egypt’s Pharaoh.  Benjamin has of course been framed by Joseph and is accused of stealing from the palace.  Judah approaches Joseph to plead for Benjamin’s life.  He cries, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.  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!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

Joseph is again unable to control his emotions.  He instructs his servants to leave him alone with his brothers.  He begins sobbing so loudly that even those standing outside of the room could hear his cries.  He declares, “I am Joseph!  Is my father still well?”  His brothers are dumfounded.  Joseph draws near and says, “’I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.  Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you….’  With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.  He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”  (Genesis 45:1-14)

Joseph then sent for his aged father Jacob.  Pharaoh gives them horses and carts to transport the family to Egypt and the entire family makes a home in Egypt.  Pharaoh assigns to them a portion of territory.  Thus did the children of Israel come to live in Egypt.  For generations Jacob’s descendants live comfortably among the Egyptians.

I wonder what made Joseph change course.  Why did he finally break down and cry?  Why did he now reveal himself to his brothers?  Was he as the rabbis suggest testing his brothers to see if they had changed?  Was he therefore waiting for Judah to stand up and protect his younger brother Benjamin?  The measure of true repentance is of course to be faced with the exact same temptation but to choose another course.  Here Judah chooses, rather than as he did before to throw his brother in a pit, to defend him and offer himself in his stead.  Others suggest that it was Judah’s repetition of the pain that would be caused to Jacob that finally found its way into Joseph’s heart.  In fact Judah repeats this mantra about Jacob 14 times in his plea to Joseph. 

Was Joseph seeking revenge for the years of pain and tribulation his brothers caused him?  Is this why he developed this elaborate plot to frame Benjamin and punish his brothers.  Perhaps his machinations started out that way, but in the opening of this portion they clearly change course.  The opening word of the portion offers a clue as to what might have caused this change of heart.  Vayigash means to draw near.  It is a refrain that is repeated throughout this exchange.  Judah draws near.  Joseph in turn draws close.  It is the same root that the Torah uses when detailing how to make war against a city.  When you draw near to attack a city…  Judah was prepared to fight for his brother Benjamin.  Joseph saw this in his eyes.  Then again standing so close to each other, staring into each other’s eyes, Egyptian and Jew are not seen but instead brothers.  And Joseph cried, “I am your brother Joseph!”  Perhaps this is what we should always see when looking into the eyes of another person.

A midrash suggests the following:  “’Like deep water is counsel in the heart of man, but a man of understanding will draw it out.’  (Proverbs 20:5)  The image is of a deep well, whose waters are cold and clear, but no one is able to reach it to drink from it.  Then a person comes and ties rope to rope, and cord to cord, and string to string, and draws forth the water and drinks from it, and then everyone comes and draws forth and drinks.  Thus did Judah refuse to budge and continued to press Joseph, answering him word for word, until he stood right at Joseph’s heart.”  In this way brothers were reunited, each forgiving the other, each embracing the other.

In this way must we remind each other that we all are brothers.  It is only a matter of drawing near.

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