DVAR on VAYIGASH
First Year of Triennial Cycle: Bereshit / Genesis 44.18 to 45.27
(Plaut Chumash 280; Hertz Chumash 169; Eitz Haim 274)
Adath Shalom Congregation – Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – 15 Dec 2007
Today’s Parashah is the climax of the Joseph story, the longest family saga in the Hebrew Bible. In good story-telling fashion, the previous Parashah (in the annual cycle) left us sitting on the edge of our seats. As we learned last week, Joseph is now vizier, effectively prime minister, in Pharaoh’s government. He recognizes his brothers when they come on their first visit to Egypt to buy food, but they do not recognize him. This proto-Shakespearian situation sets the stage for what Rabbi Plaut describes as a cat-and-mouse game but that might better be called a nasty trick or even revenge. Given that Joseph is a Biblical hero, most rabbinic commentators give him the benefit of doubt and conclude that he is testing his brothers to see if they have learned their lesson. Most likely, Joseph starts with the idea of revenge and, part way along, repents and changes his scheme to a test, albeit a harsh test.
The events in the play begin to take shape: Joseph accuses the 10 brothers who came to Egypt of being spies, of trying to figure out how to attack Egypt while it was weak because of the drought. The brothers defend themselves by telling him about Jacob and his family. They also speak among themselves, never thinking that Joseph could understand, and say that they are being punished for what they did to Joseph. When Joseph asks for more information about the family, the brothers admit that there is one more brother, Benjamin, the youngest of Joseph’s 13 children. Joseph insists that, on their next visit, they must bring Benjamin with them or risk returning to Canaan empty handed. He also insists that one brother must be left behind – in effect, as a hostage – and for some reason, perhaps because, along with Reuben, he was one of the perpetrators of the original plot to murder Joseph.
The brothers return to Jacob laden with a year’s supplies and tell him what happened. Jacob is adamant that Benjamin will not leave his side, no matter what. However, as the famine deepens in Canaan, they have little choice. Judah speaks to Jacob and breaks the impasse by saying that he will take personal responsibility for Benjamin. So Jacob agrees, and again 10 brothers go down to Egypt – 10 because Shimon is still there. At first, all goes well. Gifts are exchanged, Shimon is released, money is paid, grain is loaded onto the animals, and 11 brothers depart. This is when Joseph ups the ante. He hides a valuable cup in the sack of grain given to Benjamin. When the cup is discovered, all the brothers are brought back in disgrace. Joseph tells them that all except Benjamin can all go free; only the apparent thief will be punished. That is where the last Parashah ended. We know how the story works out, but for a week we have had to pretend that we do not.
This week’s Parashah begins with Judah making a truly eloquent plea to Joseph and offering himself as a slave in place of Benjamin. Sometimes he speaks, he speaks in the first person, but mainly he uses “we” to indicate the agreement or acquiescence of the rest of his brothers. By emphasizing the impact that leaving Benjamin behind would have on their father, the brothers show that they have indeed learned a hard lesson. Judah even takes responsibility for revealing the sad news to Jacob about Joseph’s purported mauling by an animal, when in fact he had done nothing of the kind (Ber 37:32-33). At this point, Joseph sends everyone but the brothers out of the room, starts talking to them in Hebrew, and admits who he is. He goes on to invite them to bring their father Jacob and the rest of the extended family to Canaan where they can live under his protection. With all the weeping and joyful noise, word quickly gets out and Pharaoh proves himself equally generous. Perhaps, as several commentators have noted, Pharaoh and his courtiers were relieved to find out that their slave-become-vizier did indeed have some yichus. No matter, it is great drama, and the climax of the Joseph story has a truly happy ending. Jacob’s line is saved from starvation and Israelite history can continue. End of play!
But wait a minute. Maybe this is not an ending but a beginning. If we put the dramatics of Joseph’s return to Jacob’s family to one side, what we have in this morning’s Parashah is the first significant step toward passing the political leadership of Bnei Ysrael to Judah – initially to Judah the man but later to Judah the tribe. Judah, the man, had taken some role in events to now. He had proven himself to be a mentsch by admitting his failings in the story with Tamar. More recently, he was the one who spoke up to offer to offer himself as surety for Benjamin, which is what convinced Jacob to let Benjamin go to Egypt. However, his leadership qualities really emerge in his speech to Joseph. Bereshit Rabah (an early midrash) notes that Judah vayigash (שגיו), went up, a verb which “occurs as an introduction to three different kinds of action: to do battle, . . to conciliate . . ., to pray. . .”, and comments that Judah was prepared for all three (Plaut Chumash, 285). Eitz Hayim notes that Judah politely but forcefully suggests to Joseph that he had implicitly promised that no harm would come to Benjamin, and that it was in Joseph’s power to keep or to violate his word. And Judah keeps his word to Jacob by offering to be a slave in place of Benjamin – an ironic twist because, years earlier, it had been Judah who had proposed selling Joseph into slavery.
Thus, in this Parashah the leadership role is firmly taken by Judah – apparently with no opposition by the other brothers. He might be the fourth son, but once again the Hebrew Bible informs us that order of birth may create a presumption of hereditary standing, but it is only a default position. Demonstrated merit always trumps heredity. By the time of the visit to Egypt, Reuben seems resigned to second or third place.
More carefully stated, there will be future rivalry, but it will not be between the brothers Reuben and Judah, but between the tribes Ephraim (one of Joseph’s two sons) and Judah. (Manasseh, Joseph’s other son, opted out of Israelite politics when half of the tribe decided to settle east of the Jordan.) After the united monarchy collapses, Ephraim becomes leader of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and Judah of the southern Kingdom of Judah. This rivalry is telegraphed in this third of the Parashah. Almost immediately upon revealing himself, Joseph shows special favour to Benjamin. He singles out Benjamin from the other brothers in his comments, and he embraces him first (45:12-15) A few days later he showers him with more gifts than he gives his other brothers (45:22). One explanation is that Benjamin was the only brother free of guilt for what they did to Joseph. However, the real key is that they are full brothers, the only children of Rachel and Jacob. Rachel was always Jacob’s favoured wife. He calls her “ishti,” as if she were his only wife. Poor Leah! Ignored as always. Sad as this must have been in Leah’s lifetime, in another of those great Biblical ironies, it is her progeny, not Rachel’s, who will become the political leaders of Israel.
Still, for the time being, it is Rachel who has top billing, and that is the significance of Reuben’s sexual transgression. A few chapters earlier, Reuben, Jacob’s first-born son and therefore heir-apparent, had made a premature attempt to claim his birthright by supplanting Jacob in the bed of Bilhah (Ber. 35:22), Rachel’s maid and Joseph’s concubine. Rachel was already dead so Reuben chose to bed her maid Bilhah as the way to demonstrate, ineffectively as it turned out, his right to be head of the family.
Later the tribe of Benjamin is allotted land just north of that given to Judah and just south of that given to Ephraim. Benjamin’s land included Jerusalem (Judges 1:21), and, as that city began to play a political role for David, Benjamin was forced or induced to shift loyalty from Ephraim to Judah. In effect, the selection of Saul, who was from Benjamin, as Israel’s first king was the tribe’s last hurrah. It plays almost no role in later Israelite history except for one deplorable incident related in the Book of Judges. As for Shimon, that tribe had land entirely within the southern (and driest) part of the territory allotted to Judah, and it too was incorporated into the tribe of Judah. Perhaps Shimon’s imprisonment in Egypt presaged the tribe’s later disappearance into Judah. Of course, those events all took place much later, so perhaps I am pushing the point.
But perhaps not. Jumping ahead 1500 years, the Kingdom of Israel has disappeared, and much of Judah is exiled and living in Babylon. Ezekiel is exiled with them and preaching to them. In today’s Haftarah, Ezekiel prophecies that a time will come when the two kingdoms will be reunited and that they will live together under God’s protection. His repeats God’s words as referring to Israel in two parts: a) “Judah and the Israelites associated with him,” and b) “Joseph – the stick of Ephraim – and all the House of Israel associated with him” (Ezk: 37:15). The former is generally taken to mean the southern kingdom; the latter, the northern kingdom (Plaut, Haftarah Commentaries, 108). As an aside, I have never understood the future reference to ten lost tribes. It seems to me that it had to be three tribes (Benjamin, Shimon and Judah) incorporated into Judah, which means only nine, not ten, lost tribes. No matter. By Ezekiel’s time, prophets merely assumed Judah’s leadership of a united Israel, with the line of David, who is a scion of Judah, on the throne.
And it all started when in the Parashah we read this morning.