Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
“Va’yigash Aylav Yehuda” (“Then Yehuda Went up to [i.e., approached] him”) …
Yosef’s Internal Struggle
“And When He Saw the Wagons that Yosef Had Sent to Transport Him…the Spirit of Their Father Revived.”
Yosef and Yaakov meet and embrace in Goshen (northeast border)
Yosef saves Egypt from famine
“Ma’ase avos simon l’banim” [The tales of the Patriarchs and their families are predictive of what will happen to the nation in the future.]
Yehuda confronts Yosef
Yosef reveals his identity
Yosef the economist and the psychotherapist
Gifts sent to Yaakov from Pharaoh and Yosef
Yaakov and family travel to Egypt
Yaakov detours to Beer-Sheva to offer korbanot
God assures Yaakov that his offspring will become a great nation when in Egypt
God assures Yaakov that He will be with him and will emancipate His nation from Egypt
List of the 70 Israelites who descend to Egypt
Yaakov and Yosef are reunited
Pharaoh meets Yaakov and family
Yosef copes with the years of famine in Egypt and…
Yosef acquires the land of Egypt for Pharaoh
“Va’yigash Aylav Yehuda” (“Then Yehuda Went up to [i.e., approached] him”) …
This opening verse introduces what Rabbi Gunther Plaut describes as a “superbly persuasive plea— ‘the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence’ as Sir Walter Scott called it.”
When he approached (“va’yigash”) Pharaoh’s second-in-command and looked him in the eye up close, I think that Yehuda realized that this powerful ruler resembled his long-lost brother Yosef. At that moment, it was as if a light bulb went on and Yehuda realized that it was Yosef that he was addressing. Suddenly, previous puzzling events sense:
• Why Pharaoh’s second-in-command was so inquisitive about the family background
• Why he accused them of being spies
• How he was able to seat the brothers in order of age when they shared a meal together
• Why it was that the stolen goblet happened to turn up in the possession of Binyamin, the very brother in whom he was so interested
There are hints to this view in, among other things, the Torah’s use of certain words that may have a double meaning:
When Yosef confronts the brothers about his missing goblet that is found in Benyamin’s sack (in the closing verses of last week’s parsha) he reminds them of the importance of the goblet because he uses it for divination. The Hebrew phrase he uses is “Nachesh y’Nachesh”. These words are related to the Hebrew word for snake (nachash) and perhaps allude to the pit that Yehuda and brothers threw Yosef into many years earlier that had no water in it but was filled with snakes.
Yehuda’s response that “God has uncovered the crime of your servants” -- which does not seem a logical statement here-- may be revealing the guilt he had been suffering through all these years for the crime of mistreating Yosef (Stu Zellner)
The text makes no mention of there being an interpreter, as there had been in earlier conversations. Presumably, Yehuda spoke directly to him in Hebrew (which Yosef understood)
Or perhaps the text means that Yehuda was approaching Him (God) after having done complete t’shuva. Yehuda is a changed person. When he had the opportunity to protect his young brother (Yosef) years earlier he elected instead to sell him into slavery. But now he is resolute in his commitment to free his youngest brother. He offers that he be enslaved instead of Benyamin. He boldly confronts Yosef and has the audacity to offer this all-powerful Egyptian leader an unsolicited counter-proposal. By his assertiveness, Yehuda regains his role as leader of the family.
Yehuda maintains a humble attitude before Yosef by repeating thirteen times that he is a mere slave. He strategically chooses to…
Not directly counter Yosef’s evidence
Subtly communicates that it was Yosef’s decisions that precipitated this crisis
Concentrate on gaining sympathy for their aged father
Keep emphasizing that Yosef is the master and he the slave
Chasidic thought understands the phrase to mean that Yehuda “drew near to himself”: It was only after he recognized who he was that he could muster his inner strength to…
Not be intimidated by the all-powerful second-in-command of Egypt
Approach him without permission
Speak up in an aggressive manner
Find the key words to say to achieve his goal
The address, the longest in Sefer Bereshit…
Begins with a summary of what has happened
Continues with an outline of the terrible consequences of not allowing Binyamin to be returned to his father
Concludes with a plea and proposal that he be substituted for Binyamin
Following are some of the techniques employed by Yehuda to make his case (mostly cited by Nechama Leibowitz):
• To shift some of the blame to Yosef he revises history by stating how it was Yosef who “asked his servants saying, do you have a father or brother” when, in fact, it was the brothers who volunteered this information after being accused of being spies
• To arouse compassion, he repeats the pain of his father’s parental love and refers to his aged father fourteen times
• In reporting Yosef’s conversation, he adds words that were not stated earlier in the drama
• His reminder that it was Yosef who demanded Binyamin be brought down so that “I may set my eyes upon him” implicitly challenges Yosef with “We thought you were a king who stood by his word” per Midrash Lekach Tov.
• Yehuda reports a conversation with his father that includes words not recorded in the Torah--“You know that my [one] wife (even though he had four wives) bore me two sons” -- to arouse compassion by emphasizing that Yosef would be keeping the only son left by the woman whom his father loved so deeply and exclusively that he considered her his only true wife.
• Yehuda refers to his youngest brother as na’ar [young lad] which echoes the very name that Yosef was referred to as a youngster, “v’hu na’ar”
Baruch Cohen notes that in Kabbalistic terminology, Yosef represents Goodness and Yehuda represents Kingship. Yosef was Good because he learned to control his passions and because he provided food to Egypt and all the surrounding nations during the years of famine. To qualify to be a King or a leader who can approach (i.e., become) Goodness, one must be like Yehuda—not out to only satisfy his own desires but also to be deeply concerned about the welfare of others.
Yosef’s Internal Struggle
He was a ruler in Egypt who was given an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife. By naming his first son Menashe (“for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house”) he seems to be proclaiming himself an Egyptian who wants to forget his father’s house. Yet by naming his second son Efraim (“because God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction”) he communicates the idea that he isn’t at peace as an Egyptian living in the land of Egypt.
Yosef appears to be experiencing an identity crisis: not knowing whether he was an assimilated Egyptian or if he remained connected with his ancestral home. After revealing his identity to them, Yosef says to his brothers “I am Yosef. Does my father still live?” This is a rhetorical question since Yosef already knew his father was alive.
Therefore, reasons Rabbi Marc Angel, the question is best understood as Yosef speaking to himself as he struggles to be an assimilated Egyptian, yet yearns for his roots, trying to decide whether “my father [is] still alive [within me]!” Once he realizes the intensity of his family connection he can reconcile with his brothers. He then identifies himself as the Yosef who is reclaiming the ideas, ideals and ethics of his father’s house. The Yosef story, concludes Rabbi Angel, foretells the historic experience of many Jews who after having become assimilated, search for their roots, possibly in response to an event or experience that catalyzes them to consider their origins.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees in Yosef’s behavior a living-out of the words in the Tanya that “if we change the way we think we will change the way we feel”. Rabbi Sacks cites the conclusion of psychologist Viktor Frankel who observed and discovered that even in the death and despair of the concentration camps when everything is taken away the last of the human freedoms remains i.e., “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. Those who lost hope could be saved if they realized that they had a purpose in life…and, therefore, a future.
Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that involves identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions in a positive light, enabling one “to change the way we see things and this itself changes the way we feel.” Yosef, having been sold into slavery by his brothers and having lost his freedom for thirteen years and his connection to his family for twenty-two years surely was filled with rage, resentment and an urge for revenge.
Yosef may have been the first cognitive therapist. Instead of being hostile and vindictive towards his brothers, he rises above these feelings by reframing these past events, now seeing them in a new light. He insists that the brothers not be distressed or angry with themselves for their behavior because what happened was a part of God’s master plan. It was not they who exiled him to Egypt but God who sent him to preserve life. “Though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
Rabbi Sacks summarizes that “the single act of reframing allowed Joseph to live without a burning sense of anger and injustice…it transformed the negative energies of feelings about the past into focused attention to the future”. He concludes that although we cannot change the past, “by changing the way we think about the past we can change the future.”
Like Yehuda, Yosef becomes a better human being. He had never reached out to his aged father in Canaan because (according to Rav Yoel Bin Nun, a contemporary Bible scholar) he assumed that his father would demand that the brothers find him, the missing son, and bring him home. Or that the brothers would ‘fess up to what they’d done. But as time passed, Yosef’s hopes were replaced with feelings of dejection and rejection. He could only assume that his family had abandoned him and did not want to contact him because of some divine decision that excluded him from the bechira [selection] process of building the nation of Israel. So, he forgets his childhood dreams and gets on with his life. All this time Yosef felt unloved.
Yosef also may have been very angry at his father for having sent him (many years earlier) to check on his brothers, knowing full-well that they hated him, thereby endangering Yosef.
But now, having heard Yehuda’s words, he realizes how wrong he was and that his father did miss him all those years and was in deep pain over his disappearance. His father did still love him and still considered him and his brother Binyamin his favorites— both children of Yaakov’s favored wife, Rivka. The recognition of this truth released the long-suppressed emotion of love for his family and “he raised his voice in weeping” that was heard by the house of Pharaoh and by the Egyptians.
When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he urges them not to be distressed and angry with themselves for selling him into slavery because their actions were part of a Divine master plan designed to save the family from starvation. Rabbi Sacks stresses that “this is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another”. Forgiveness is possible (and desirable) in life. We have the freedom to learn from our mistakes, to change and prevent their recurrence.
Forgiveness does not necessarily exist in every culture. A study by American classicist David Konstan (cited by Rabbi Sacks) finds no concept of forgiveness in ancient Greek literature. There is appeasement of anger but no forgiveness. There exists absolution from the victim when the perpetrator’s begging and pleading communicates that he is no longer a threat. The victim does not forgive; he only acknowledges that he now understands why the perpetrator did what he did. There is no need for revenge because his dignity has been restored.
Peacemaking and appeasement are methods of conflict management that exist in non-humans. Members of social animal groups compete for dominance. They also have intrinsic mechanisms for restoring harmony, without which the species could not survive. But these have no moral dimension.
Forgiveness in its earliest form first appears in the Torah in this Yosef saga. Rabbi Sacks’ insight is that the morality of Judaism is built primarily on guilt while most other systems are “ethics of shame”. In “shame cultures” the person himself who does a wrongful act is marked or stained. But the “guilt culture” focuses on the sin, not the sinner whose fundamental worth remains untainted. “It is the act [not the sinner] that somehow has to be put right.” Forgiveness exists where the process of repentance exists. It presumes that one is capable of change, particularly when one recognizes and takes responsibility for his/her mistaken behavior and decides to never do it again. Yosef can forgive his brothers because they have done complete repentance by first admitting their guilt; then confessing their collective responsibility; and then starting to change their behavior.
Revenge is a reflexive emotion that involves inflicting hurt or harm on another for being wronged or harmed by them. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, condoning or excusing offenses. It is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward the one(s) who harmed us (regardless of whether they deserve our forgiveness) that can bring us peace of mind and that frees us from corrosive anger.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that “humanity changed the day Yosef forgave his brothers. When we forgive, and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past…Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge”.
“An”d When He Saw the Wagons that Yosef Had Sent to Transport Him…the Spirit of Their Father Revived.
Once Yosef’s identity is revealed, Pharaoh directs him to send wagons to his family in Canaan to transport them to Egypt. Rashi comments (based on a Midrash) that when seeing the wagons, Yaakov is reminded that the last topic that he and Yosef studied together was the egla arufa ceremony. The association is based on the similar pronunciation of the Hebrew words for wagon (agalah) and calf (egla).
If a chalal (corpse) is found in an open field when the murderer is unknown, elders and judges (including members of the High Court in Jerusalem) are called upon to measure its distance to the closest city. The elders of that city are required to bring an egla (female calf less than two years old) that has never been worked (and never pulled a load while wearing a yoke) to a nearby nachal aysan (swiftly flowing stream or wadi) where they decapitate the calf by striking the back of its neck (arufa). The priests (whose responsibilities include resolving litigation and determining leprous signs) step forward. The elders wash their hands over the decapitated calf and say, “our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not witnessed it”.
Because it is unimaginable that these respected leaders committed the murder, the Talmud interprets the elders’ requirement to speak up and declare “our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not witnessed it” in a broader sense to mean that they were not even indirectly responsible for the death: “no one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food and whom we did not see and whom we left without providing him an escort”. Malbim adds that lack of food may have driven the commission of the murder and the lack of an escort would have placed the victim in danger.
We no longer have the ceremony-- “When the number of murderers increased the egla arufa rite was abolished” -- but we do have the broader takeaway message. Every human life is unique and important. A violent death should shatter our complacency. A society is responsible for assuring a safe environment for its citizens. Laws must be enforced. There must be adequate lighting and police presence on our roads. We must encourage efforts to provide food, shelter and safety for the needy. We are obligated to identify and remove evil, violence and oppression in all forms.
Yaakov realized that what Yosef was really communicating was that he had been living his life according to the ethics of the egla arufa ritual. He anticipated the needs of others by providing food and shelter; guaranteed the safety of the roads; and enforced laws. The last time Yaakov saw him, Yosef was an egotistical self-centered teenager concerned mainly with his good looks and a son who tattled on his brothers. Yaakov was happy to learn not only that Yosef was alive but that he also had matured into a responsible, caring, giving adult.
Yosef and Yaakov Meet and Embrace in Goshen (northeast border)
“Yosef fell on his [Yaakov’s] neck and wept on his neck a good while. Israel said to Yosef ‘Now let me die since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive’.”
The text describes how during this intense and joyful moment Yosef is overwhelmed with emotion. Yaakov appears not to return the embrace because, according to the Midrash cited by Rashi, he was reciting the Shema. How is this to be understood, since Shema had not yet been given? According to the Midrash, Shema was first said by Yaakov’s sons on his deathbed, an event that took place years later.
Rabbi Angel explains that the idea embedded in recitation of Shema is a reassurance of the child’s following in the parents’ teachings and faith. It is a very personal and direct connection between parent and child, linking generations in a profound spiritual bond of faith. When Yaakov meets his Egyptian-looking son after so many years, his initial doubt about his son’s commitment fades. He does not literally say Shema; he feels the connection and unity of faith with his son. Concludes Rabbi Angel: “We, their modern-day descendants must also strive to say the Shema together.”
In Shema, [Listen O Yisrael, God our Lord, God is One], the phrase “God is One” means that God is singular, unique alone in the universe. But, as was pointed out to me by Rabbi Boruch Chazanow of Manalapan, New Jersey, it can also mean that God is one with the universe—part and parcel of the universe, influencing and directing its human inhabitants.
What the Midrash means by its statement that Yaakov was saying Shema is that at that moment he realized that Yosef’s disappearance was not merely a random family tragedy but was part of a broader master plan by the Master of the universe. It bought to mind God’s assurances that Yaakov’s offspring will become a great nation when in Egypt and that He will be with him and will emancipate His nation from Egypt.
Yosef Saves Egypt
What is the purpose of the Torah’s detailed description of agrarian conditions in Egypt during the famine and how Yosef saved the country from destruction from famine? Why the details about issues that relate to Egyptian society and not those focusing on the lives of our patriarchs and their offspring? This very section has prompted the anti-Semites of the world to malign Yosef as a despot who allegedly used a national calamity to exploit and enslave a nation!
As the predicted famine unfolded, Egyptians bought back the stored grain (for which they had been paid during the seven years of plenty). When the funds are exhausted, Yosef agrees to barter cattle for grain. When they have no more belongings to exchange, the people plead with Yosef to “buy us and our land for food and we and our lands will be slaves to Pharaoh”. But Yosef, the former slave, refuses to enslave the Egyptian people; instead he only “…bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh”. Moreover, as Benno Jacob points out, he avoids using the word “slaves” in his reply.
Yosef engineers a population exchange in groups so as not to disturb the individual city’s social cohesion. Furthermore, he provides the populace with seed to grow food. He imposes only a 20% tax on the produce, a rate that is significantly lower than in other societies. [Rabbi B.S. Jacobson notes that during the time of the crusades, the serf had to pay one third of the crop, half the vintage, three quarters of the olives… in addition to providing half the seed and manure. The Israelites in the time of the Maccabees paid the Syrian government one third.]
The grateful Egyptians responded, “you have saved our lives…”
Only the Priests were exempt. They retained their land and received a fixed allowance from Pharaoh to live on.
It is clear from the reading of the text that Yosef behaved in an extraordinarily statesman-like, ethical manner:
He never proposed that the Egyptians sell themselves into slavery; they did
He avoided any reference to slavery
He compensated the farmers more-than-fairly
He transferred them “according to cities”. Instead of dispersing them singly to various places, he relocated whole cities so as not to disturb their existing social structures and clans
He played no favorites; even his family received only the bare minimum of food
He did not use his position for personal gain
Benno Jacob thinks that it was important for the Torah to document Egyptian behavior as an introduction and background to the events to be experienced by the Israelites in Egypt, the subject of Sefer Shmos. Egypt became a “house of slaves” during Yosef’s administration when the people offered themselves up as slaves, demonstrating “the servile attitude of this people for whom bread is more important than liberty”.
Subsequent Torah commandments are designed to combat this Egyptian culture. Some examples are:
• Land returns to its original owner during Yovaayl
• Slaves are freed during Yovaayl
• Priests have spiritual privileges but cannot own land
• Kings are permitted, but only grudgingly
• Passover ceremonies and restrictions
American political economist Henry George (1839-1897) noted that there exists an essential difference between Egyptian and Hebrew cultures in that the former’s tendency is to subordination and oppression while the Hebrews’ is toward individual freedom: “…the trumpets of the Exodus throb with the defiant proclamation of the rights of man.”
“Ma’ase avos simon l’banim” [The Tales of the Patriarchs and Their Families are Predictive of What Would Happen to Their Offspring in the Future.]
Concludes Rabbi Jacobson: “Joseph was the first in the long series of Jewish men who have rendered outstanding service to foreign governments and people in the lands of the Diaspora …have given of their greatness loyally and unreservedly. Almost all follow the pattern of Joseph’s destiny to the end— ‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph’.”