Torah Readings for Saturday, December 7, 2013
Vayigash (“And he approached”)44:18-47:27 Bereshit (Genesis)
Vayigash is the eleventh sedrah in the Book of Bereshit (Genesis). The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading. “And Judah approached him and said.…” This sedrah is the third in the Joseph/Jacob cycle. It is ironic that a sedrah that begins “Then Judah came near unto him and said…” is important not just for what is said but what is left unsaid. For some students, that which is left unspoken is the most intriguing part of the sedrah. Vayigash is another action packed sedrah that begins with the deliverance of Benjamin and ends with the Israelites settled in the Goshen.
Judah Steps Up to the Plate (44:18-44-24)Vayigash picks up where Miketz left off with Judah pleading for Benjamin’s freedom. In one of the most eloquent speeches in the Bible, Judah pulls out all of the stops as he attempts to save Benjamin from slavery and Jacob from the certain death that will take place if Benjamin does not return home. Unbeknownst to Judah, Joseph is not moved so much by Judah’s words as he is by the fact that Judah is willing to risk all to save his brother. Unlike the time when Joseph was faced with possible death and certain enslavement, here Judah is willing to become a slave in order to spare his brother and his father. Judah has promised Jacob that he would protect Benjamin and he proves himself to be a man of his word. This alliance of Judah and Benjamin is a foreshadowing of Jewish history. The Southern Kingdom will be composed of the large tribe of Judah and the small tribe of Benjamin. They will stand in opposition to the Northern Kingdom composed of the ten tribes referred to by some as the Joseph tribes.
The Revelation of Joseph and the Reuniting with Jacob (45:1-46:30)Joseph cannot contain himself any longer. He is so moved by Judah’s words that he dismisses his servants and, weeping, announces to his brothers, “I am Joseph... I am Joseph your brother - it is me, whom you sold into Egypt.” Knowing that his brothers might be frightened by this revelation, Joseph reassures them that he bears them no ill will since what they did was part of God’s plan. “Be not distressed nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you…it was not you who sent me here but God….”
After further reassurances and entreaties from Joseph and Pharaoh, the gift-laden brothers return to Canaan. Their mission is to bring Jacob and all of the Israelites back to settle in Egypt. “They went up from Egypt and came …to Jacob their father. And they told him…Joseph is still alive and…he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.” At first Jacob cannot believe his ears, but when he sees the laden wagons from Pharaoh his disbelief disappears and he declares “My son Joseph still lives! I shall go and see him before I die.” He then packs up the family and heads south. This is one of those moments of puzzling silence. Why didn’t Jacob ask about the “death of Joseph?” Why didn’t Jacob express any words of anger or recrimination over the fact that his sons let him mourn for over twenty years? Why didn’t the brothers apologize to Jacob for their deception? After all, according to Jewish law, in order to gain forgiveness, one must apologize to the injured party. The silence is deafening and mystifying, but it is only one of many silences in this sedrah.
As Jacob prepares to leave Canaan, he hears from God directly (46:1-4). At Beer-sheba, God tells Jacob not to fear going to Egypt; that He, God, will go down with His children and He will redeem them. At a personal level, Jacob will be taken care of even unto death with Joseph there to close his eyes. This revelation takes place at night, which reinforces the connection between Jacob and the Evening Service. The Torah provides a detailed listing of the Israelites going into Egypt. The tally comes to seventy. But just as there is some “confusion” as to who is included when the term the Twelve Tribes is used, so is there some question as to who constitutes the seventy souls. Dinah is named in the genealogy, but we are not sure in what capacity. Also listed is Serah, the daughter of Asher. She is the only granddaughter mentioned in the tally. While there are commentaries giving reasons for this, the text is silent as to this oddity (46:8-27). This section of the sedrah ends with Joseph and Jacob reuniting in tearful embrace. Jacob utters the classic line “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.” And then there is silence. No question about why Joseph had not sent word to his father that he was alive. There are no questions about anything from either of them. There is just the sound of silence; a silence which can prove deafening for the modern reader.
Pharaoh and the Israelites (46:31-47:12)As his family, including his father, figuratively bow down to him, the second of Joseph’s dreams comes true. Joseph organizes the settling of the clan in Egypt. He instructs his brothers in how to speak to Pharaoh and he orchestrates Jacob’s meeting with the Egyptian ruler. Three things of note occur in these conversations. First Joseph tells his brothers to describe themselves as breeders of livestock and not as shepherds. Yet the brothers tell Pharaoh that they are indeed shepherds. Was Joseph trying to create a better family history with which to impress the Egyptians? Why did the brothers defy their powerful brother? Did they not realize in what low esteem Egyptians held shepherds? Or are we seeing an echo of that same defiance to Joseph’s pretensions to power that we saw in the opening verses of Va-yayshev? Commentators may speculate, but once again, the text is silent. Secondly, when Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is Jacob responds by saying, “Few and hard have been the years of my life.” This is a strange answer for a man who has lived to see the sons of his sons grow to manhood, who has lived to see one of his sons become Viceroy of Egypt and who has spoken with God. Is this more of the same self-pitying whine that we heard when the sons avenged Dinah or when they returned without Simeon or is there a deeper meaning? We can explore this further next week when Jacob closes his eyes for the last time. Thirdly, Joseph is determined to see to it that his family will maintain its own identity. He secures Pharaoh’s approval to settle them in Goshen, a distinct area where they will not intermingle with the Egyptians. Joseph may have taken an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife but for whatever reason, he is determined to see to it that the Israelites do not lose their identity. Of course, at one level, this has to be done as part of the God’s plan. The Israelites must maintain their group identity so that the Exodus can take place.
The Famine Continues (47:13-27)The famine continues unabated just as the dreams had said it would. The people are reduced to a status similar to sharecroppers in the post- Civil War southern part of the United States. Only the priests get to keep their holdings. At the same time, there appear to be transfers of population reminiscent of Stalinist Russia. We should compare the response to famine, poverty and land tenure in Egypt with the laws we have already read in Devarim on this same topic. The contrast is startling. The last sentence in the sedrah provides a startling contrast between the plight of the Egyptians and that of the Israelites. While the Egyptians were tottering on the brink of starvation and surrendering their land for bread the Israelites “were acquiring holdings…and were fertile and increased greatly.”
The Seventy - Who are the seventy who went down to Egypt? According to the Torah the tally is made up of the following elements. First, there are the twelve sons and one daughter of Jacob. Then there are all of their living off-spring including the two sons born to Joseph in Egypt. Next there are two grandsons of Judah who in effect replace his two sons who died (see the story of Tamar). This adds up to only sixty-nine souls. There are three views as to who makes up the seventieth. Some say it was Jacob. Some say it was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi. Supposedly she was conceived in Canaan but born as they crossed into Egypt. Those who count Jochebed believe that this is the same Jochebed who will be the mother of Moshe. Finally, some say the seventieth was the “Divine Presence” which accompanied the Israelites into what would ultimately be the Egyptian Bondage.
Family - No matter how you cut it, the chaotic and sometimes hostile family life we saw in the time of Abraham and Isaac continues through the family of Jacob. At the obvious level, Rueben has been supplanted by both Joseph and Judah. At the unspoken level, one cannot help but wonder about what was going on in the minds of Jacob and Joseph when the father learned that the son was alive.
Egypt versus Israel - The laws of the Torah stand in stark contrast to the life of the Egyptians. Some might say that Egypt was an abhorrent place and the Torah was designed to keep us from being like the Egyptians. The response to the famine at the end of the sedrah provides one example. In Egypt, the Priests keep their lands. In the Torah, the Levites are landless and the Israelites are commanded to support them and the Cohanim. In Egypt, the people become landless. In the Torah, the Israelites are commanded to observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. As we read more Torah, look for more of these contrasts to see if this hypothesis has any validity.
Names - The descendants of Abraham are no longer called Hebrews. Now they are Israelites. They are the Sons of Israel. In the Hebrew text the term “Sons of Israel” appears not just as two separate words; it now begins to appear in a hyphenated form.
Appearances of God - When Jacob left for Laban’s home, God appeared to Jacob. When it was time for Jacob to leave Laban’s home and return to Canaan, God appeared to Jacob. And now God appears to Jacob when it is time to travel one last time; only this time it is to Egypt, a place from which he will not return alive. There are several possible messages in this last encounter with the Lord. God appears to Jacob at night, which is unusual. According to some, this nocturnal appearance is God’s way of assuring Jacob that he will be with the Israelites during the long night of the bondage that is to come. Remember that Jacob is Israel and we are the children of Israel. For the Israelites, for the Jews, the message is that no matter where we travel, God is always with us.
Dreams - Jacob has three dreams. The first is “Jacob’s ladder.” The second is Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. The third is found in this sedrah when God calls out to Jacob and the Patriarch accepts the fact that he must go down to Egypt. There is a midrash that tells of Jacob refusing to climb the ladder because he is afraid. This is symbolic of Jacob’s fear of taking responsibility, of entering into history. Now, he lets God comfort him. He lets God allay his fear and he is able to enter into history, to play the role that needs to be played.
Customs and Ceremonies - We know from our studies that the Jew prays three times a day and that each of the services is rooted in the ritual of Temple. According to tradition, each service is also connected with one of the Patriarchs. Ma’ariv, the evening service, is connected to Jacob in general and to the episode of his last nocturnal encounter with God before going into Egypt. The evening service actually marks the start of the next day even though it is recited before the start of the long night of darkness. This matches God’s last appearance to Jacob, which serves a reminder that the evening is the prelude to a long night of darkness that will end in the daylight of freedom.
Forgiveness - How do we know we have been forgiven for a sin? When confronted with same situation, we do not behave in that manner again. This is the message of Judah. The first time, he betrays his brother and allows him to be sold into slavery. The second time, he offers himself up rather than allow his brother to become a slave. Interestingly enough, Judah continues to lie about the fate of Joseph. He continues to portray Joseph as being dead and never does own up to what he did. Since some commentators consider this episode with Judah to be the epitome of Teshuvah, how does this fit in with the Jewish conception of seeking forgiveness from those whom we have wronged before we can seek God’s forgiveness (see Yom Kippur)?
Peace in the House - Avoiding conflict is an important Jewish value. When sending his brothers back to Jacob, Joseph says, “Do not fight on the way.” In other words do not quarrel among yourself over who was responsible for selling me into slavery. Other commentators say Joseph was telling them, “Do not worry on the way.” They contend that Joseph is telling the brothers not to worry about facing recriminations for selling him into slavery. Also, they need not worry about the future as long as they follow his instructions.
Goshen - Some commentators erroneously refer to Goshen as the first ghetto. A ghetto is place of involuntary confinement. Goshen was a district at the edge of Egypt. It enabled our ancestors to live in Egypt without losing their identity. The so-called Jewish neighborhood was a common phenomenon in many major American metropolitan areas, which served a similar purpose as that of ancient Goshen.
More About Shepherds - The Israelites are supposed to identify themselves as breeders of livestock to ensure that the Egyptians will assign them a separate place to live i.e., Goshen. The text continues with the words “For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians” (46:34). This hatred of shepherds has produced a great deal of commentary; little of it very satisfying. Why did the Egyptians hate shepherds and what impact would that have on the future fate of the Jewish people? Consider the following. Egypt had become a sedentary, feudal society. All of its citizens were bound to the land. Shepherds were outsiders at best; synonymous with rebels at worst. Shepherds could come and go as they pleased. Shepherds were nomadic. Since they were not tied to the land, they had no place in society. The very free-wheeling nature of their existence posed a threat to the Pharaoh’s authoritarian rule since they were a constant reminder that men could and did exist in a world beyond Pharaoh’s control. To the extent that the Israelites would become synonymous with Shepherds in the Egyptian mind, they would be seen as a threat to the established order. They were free people living in an authoritarian world and this would set them up for the interplay that is found in the opening chapters of Shemot, the Book of Exodus.
On the other hand, there may be no rational explanation for the Egyptians’ abhorrence of Shepherds. The lesson here may be one about the simple evil of bigotry. First the Egyptians abhorred Shepherds. Then they invented rationalizations for their hate to justify their behavior. Is this not the truth of anti-Semitism? First people hate Jews. Then they find excuses for their hate.
Of course for those who remember the range wars of 19th century American West, this could be nothing more than an ancient version of the cowman versus the sheep herder. Maybe there is something “genetic” about the competition of those who chase cows and those who herd sheep.
Apologies and Commentaries - At the end of the story of the Rape of Dinah, I said she disappeared from the Torah. Since she is mentioned in the listing of the names in this sedrah, I was wrong. In 45:8, Joseph refers to himself as “the father to Pharaoh.” The commentary in Etz Hayim assures us that no such title existed in ancient Egypt. The commentary in Plaut assures us that this is a translation of an official Egyptian title. Somebody has it right and somebody has it wrong; or so it would appear.
Jewish Identity - Who is a Jew? What does it mean to be Jewish? How do Jews define themselves? These questions have taken a special urgency with the growth of various Jewish renewal movements and as individual Jews work to deepen their connection with their faith and heritage. As we will continue to see, these are not new questions and as with all good questions, there are no simplistic answers. In his commentary on this portion entitled “Member of the Clan,” Professor Avigdor Shinana from Hebrew University offers some interesting insights. He contends that this portion reveals three ways of identifying and deepening Jewish identity. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with three different statements. First he tells them “I am Joseph” (45:3) followed by a narrative of how his brothers sold him into slavery. Note before actually beginning this narrative he says to the brothers, “Come close to me if you please” (45:4) Sensing that they do not believe him, Joseph finishes the narrative saying “…it is my mouth that is speaking to you” (45:12) or “It is I who am speaking to you.” When he tells his brothers I am Joseph and then relates the family history, they do not believe him. After all they last saw him as callow youth of 17 and the person before them is a bearded viceroy of the Pharaohs - a man whom they have no reason to trust given their experience with him. For all they know, this man might have heard these stories from somebody else and is using them for his own devious ends. But when Joseph says, “it is my mouth that is speaking to you,” Shinana says that Joseph is really saying, I am speaking to you in our language - Hebrew. Remember up until this moment, Joseph had always talked to the brothers through interpreters. It is only just before the revelation of his identity that Joseph sends everybody out of the room and speaks directly to the brothers. The reasons that he asks the brothers to “come close to me” is so that he can show them something hidden that nobody else has seen - his circumcision which marks him as being a member of their family.
The rabbis who developed these interpretations lived in the Graeco-Roman world which abhorred circumcision and had no use or knowledge of Hebrew. Hebrew and circumcision are two sources of Jewish identity. The third is the plainly stated one - knowing the family and its history. “Hebrew, circumcision and knowledge of a shared past were among a Jew’s identity badges in the ancient world…Anyone who wants to fade into his surroundings could conceal his circumcision, avoid Hebrew, and not mention his people’s past. But the signs are available when it comes time (as with Joseph) to identify oneself to other Jews.” The modern interpretation goes deeper. After all circumcision was a masculine rite and in today’s world we are concerned about the Jewish identity of both Joseph and Josephine. Circumcision becomes an example of all the religious commandments. Hebrew stands not just for the language but for the shared Jewish culture. The family story that Joseph told is emblematic of the whole history of the Jewish people. Just as Joseph used these “three strands of shared identity” to re-unite with his family, so can those seeking a deeper connection with their Judaism use them in their quest.
Names 2 - “God spoke to Israel in night visions and He said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” We have seen name changes in the Torah. For example Abraham and Sarah both had their names changed. But once the change took place, their old names were never used again. The name change for the third patriarch is unique. He begins life as Jacob and then becomes Israel. But we keep seeing references to him using both names. In this final encounter, even God cannot seem to make up His mind as to the name of the patriarch. Is this a case that even though he had come to embody the changes brought on by maturity he could not shake off the behaviors of his early “Jacob” years? In truth, I have not found a commentary that explains this and hope that one of you will be able to provide one.
Judah and Ephraim - The reading opens with Judah playing the role of family leader when he heroically stands up to the second most powerful person in Egypt - a person with the power to kill him with the flick of a finger. Later when the tally is given of the 70 people who comprise the core of the Israelite community, Ephraim is not even mentioned by name. But we are reminded that he is the grandson of Jacob, not the son of the Patriarch and we are reminded that his mother is one of the Egyptians whose descendants would enslave the Israelites. “And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two in number.” (46:27) Judah will become synonymous with the Southern Kingdom, the remnant of which survived the Babylonian Exile and provided us with the term Jew by which we are known today. Ephraim became synonymous with the Northern Kingdom; the Kingdom of Israel that turned to idolatry, lost its connection with Ha-Shem and disappeared into the lands of the victorious Assyrian Empire. Does this week’s reading foretell the fate of the two kingdoms? Or was this reference in Vayigash a way of explaining the fate that befell the two kingdoms? Here are a couple of more Kiddush or Cholent Questions for your consideration.
Reunions: Vayishlach versus Vayigash - In Bereshit we read of two famous brotherly reunions. First, in Vayhishlach we read of the reunion Esau and Jacob: Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (33: 3 & 4) This we week in Vayigash we read of the reunion of Joseph with the only sibling who was not a half-brother - Benjamin: “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.” (45:14 & 15) Note the similarity in language - embrace, weeping, falling on the neck. While the language is similar the interpretation and outcome is different. For some reason the sages have decided that when Esau fell on Jacob’s neck it was meant to harm the Patriarch. Although the language is virtually the same, no such motive is imputed to Joseph’s behavior with Benjamin. Regardless of interpretation, the re-union between Esau and Jacob is a temporary one. Despite Esau’s offers of help, Jacob begs off and the text tells us that the two never dwelt together. But in the case of Joseph and Benjamin, the hugging, weeping and kissing is the prelude to a permanent reunion that will bring the whole family together in Egypt. Why the different outcomes following the same initial behaviors? Possibly, in the case of Jacob, the Patriarch never wanted to really reconcile with his brother because he could not believe that he was truly forgiven. All he wanted to do was avoid conflict. In the case of Joseph, he really did want to be with his family. Despite what had happened, they were family and being with them trumped any desire for revenge or settling of scores. Reconciliation like any other human behavior is not a one shot deal. It takes effort and work if it is to succeed.
The Book/The Man: Ezekiel is one of the Three Major Prophets. The other two are Isaiah and Jeremiah. This grouping comes from the size of their books, not just the quality of their teachings and preachings. Ezekiel lived at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.). He is a younger contemporary of Jeremiah. He was born about 620 B.C.E. and died about 570 B.C.E. We know little about his personal life from the text. He is described as the son of Buzi and is a member of the priestly family of Zadok. He was married and his wife died suddenly. He was carried into captivity by the Babylonians and lived in a place called Tel-abib (Hill of Corn Ears) on the banks of the Chebar River. Apparently this was one of the sections set aside for the exiles. According to legend, Ezekiel died of unknown causes during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar and was buried in a town lying between the Euphrates and the Chebar rivers. A synagogue was built on that site and as late as the twelfth century pilgrims came there to read from a Sefer Torah supposedly written by Ezekiel’s own hand.
The Message: Ezekiel is unique in many ways. He was a seer, an inspired speaker and a member of the priestly class with knowledge of Temple ritual. In his preachings Ezekiel “was unable to distinguish between the ritual and moral elements in religion, since he coupled high social morality with ritualistic demands.” He was the first prophet to preach after the destruction of the Temple. His audience consisted of the exiles, the remnant that has survived the destruction of both kingdoms. According to one historian, the nation had gone from a population of four million in David’s time to approximately one hundred thousand at the time of the Babylonian Exile. These dwindling numbers coupled with the reality of exile could have meant the end of the Jewish people. The challenge for Ezekiel was to explain the plight of the nation in terms of its moral shortcomings while offering a vision of future redemption. In the realm of personal morality, he assured the people that they would be rewarded and punished according to their own behavior. They would not be punished for the sins of those who came before. Nor could they rely on the merit of others for their own forgiveness. Two of his most famous visions are the Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones and the Vision of the Sticks, the prophetic portion coupled with this week’s sedrah. But Ezekiel was given to other visions as well - for example, the famed Merkavah or Divine Throne-Chariot. This vision gave rise to a whole school of mysticism called the Masseh Merkavah or Work of the Chariot. For once I do not feel the need to apologize for my lack of knowledge since the study of this is “reserved for men of the highest degree of mental and moral perfection.” Fortunately there are other Haftarot taken from Ezekiel. This will provide us with an opportunity to discuss his message and teachings in greater detail.
Theme- Link: The sedrah and haftarah both describe reunifications of the Children of Israel. In the sedrah, the reunification takes the form of the brothers meeting with Joseph and the family of Jacob all moving to Egypt. In the haftarah, Ezekiel describes a future reunification when the Ten Lost Tribes, the Joseph Tribes, will be reunited with the Judah (and Benjamin) tribes of the Southern Kingdom. The two kingdoms will become one united under a single king descended from the house of David. The haftarah comes from the second half of Chapter 37. The first half of Chapter 37 is the Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones. The two visions are companions. One describes a spiritual reunification. The other describes a political reunification. In both visions, the prophet uses the term Ben-Adam, Son of Man. This majestic phrase is a signature line for Ezekiel, appearing over one hundred times throughout his writings. In referring to the prophet in this manner, we are reminded that although a person might gain great spiritual insight, he is not divine; he is always Ben-Adam, Son of Man.
Copyright December, 2013, Mitchell A. Levin