Torah Talk on Vayigash 5779
This week’s Torah portion of Vayigash begins with the climax of the great Joseph story that fills the last sections of the book of Genesis. Joseph is the powerful ruler of Egypt, richest country in the ancient world. His miraculous ascent from slavery and then prison to the heights of political power is the stuff dreams are made of, and he is the master of all he surveys, subservient only to a Pharaoh who trusts him completely. He is handsome, rich, hugely powerful, well dressed, with a wife and two fine sons, completely assimilated into Egypt’s elegant culture, and still comparatively young. The world sits at his manicured feet.
But wait, there’s more! For into this idyllic scene blunder Joseph’s early tormentors, the very half-brothers who taunted him and beat him up. These are the conniving thugs who stripped him and tossed him into a pit in the earth and sat down to eat lunch, debating, in his hearing, whether to kill him or just abandon him to thirst and starvation--and then sold him into slavery in a foreign land instead.
Now, twenty years later or so he has the opportunity to return the favor, to exact at least a psychological vengeance on these half-brothers. After a sequence of twists and turns Joseph has manipulated these brothers into a state of confusion and terror, unmanned the arrogant unruly rural ruffians into fearful submission. He has had his dish of revenge served cold, and seems to have enjoyed it.
And then something changes in Joseph. Perhaps he simply tires of psychologically torturing his half-brothers. Perhaps it is that he has finally seen his full brother Benjamin again, the only living reminder of his dead mother Rachel. Perhaps it is that the fullest measure of revenge is magnanimity. Perhaps it is simply that Joseph’s exceptional ability to act pragmatically exerts itself and he must end the cat-and-mouse game one way or another. Or perhaps it is the stirring confessional speech his powerful half-brother Judah delivers that brings Joseph to a new place.
Whatever the reason, now, near the beginning of Vayigash in the dramatic high point of the story, Joseph chooses to reunite with his family. He sends his advisors, counselors, and courtiers from the room. Overcome by emotion, he cries out in a voice loud enough to be heard by all and tells the brothers that he is Joseph. Weeping, he embraces his brother Benjamin, and asks, “Is my father still alive?”
One can imagine the shock of that moment even now, 3600 years after the events. The brothers may have had an inkling that he was indeed Joseph; it’s implied in the text of the story. But the full revelation would have been stunning nonetheless. Their worst fears are realized. They have been, and are now, completely in the power of a despised half-brother they comprehensively wronged. What will happen?
Joseph moves immediately to reassure them and to relieve their fears, while he gently reminds them that he is the authority now. Everyone will move down to Egypt and live in land that he provides for them. Even his elderly father Jacob comes down to Egypt. The family is reassembled, but in a very different configuration, for the unquestioned new patriarch is Joseph, and the great story will continue in a new land and a new direction.
There is something about this story that compels us to examine our assumptions about just how the world works. Unpredictable things occur. What we expect is often not what occurs. Fate may play a role. The last can rise to first, and justice may ultimately be done.
And in the best of circumstances, and with God’s help, our own actions, like Joseph’s, can begin with base motivation and yet finally rise to a level of magnanimity and grace.