21st Century P’shat: 1-2 minute divrai Torah for each aliyah

Vayigash

  1. Judah steps up and provides the assurance Joseph needs. He puts his neck out on the line for his brother – the opposite of what happened with Joseph. Why? What is the only thing that changed (aside from the famine) while Joseph was away? The story of Tamar. Judah grew as a man by taking on not just truth, but responsibility. And he demonstrates it here and changes the future of the family.
    1. If we think of Avraham as connecting to others, Yitzchak as connecting across generations, Yaacov as fighting Fate, Yosef as planning and purpose then Judah can be thought of as taking responsibility.
  2. Joseph immediately tells the brothers not to worry about selling him (which they didn’t actually do). Why shouldn’t they worry? Wouldn’t he seem to have been vengeful and cruel up to this point? In fact, he has been testing, but not cruel. He has been gathering data and making plans. Fundamentally, Joseph only looks forward. Potiphar doesn’t suffer, Potiphar’s wife doesn’t suffer, his brothers don’t suffer. Joseph has no hatchet, he is too focused on the future. The past exists only as a data point.
  3. For the second time, we have a reference to Joseph as the ‘father of Pharoah’. Earlier, they call out AvRech (father of the King) when he is promoted. It seems to be a standard position in Egypt. I’m reminded of the Toyoda clan, which adopts adult men into the family to carry on the family name. Why? Because the actual genetic stock might not be up to snuff. Egypt had tremendous dynasties. Perhaps this was enabled by having AvRech – a smart administrator who could guide the less than perfect Pharoah. A regent, like Bismark, answerable to the King. The post disappears with Joseph – by giving so much property and power to Pharoah, he changes the fundamental nature of Mitzraim.
    1. Jacob seems unable to believe that Joseph was alive. But we saw in the ealier gift to the man in Egypt, that he suspected this was true. The wagons convince him of what he already suspected. This highlights the difference between hope and reality. Normally Jacob must fight for a reality better than the image of the future. Now, his image matches his reality – it can be hard to accept. He is not fighting Fate, but realizing Hope.
  4. Hashem promises Yaacov that Joseph will ‘place his hand on your eyes.’ The image I have is of death – the hand closing the eyes. But the line between the personal and national is obscured in this passage: “I will make you into a great nation…” And this gives another image – of the Jewish people placing their hands on their eyes for Shemah Yisrael. The character of Yisrael (Yaacov’s name) is fundamentally one of fighting Fate. It is the arm of Joseph – which represents purpose and planning – that enables us to close off our apparent reality and focus  on the reality of Hashem and our greater purpose. The hand of Joseph covering the eyes enables Yisrael to shema – hear and live up to our Avot. Joseph may not be an Av, but he is an enabler and that is reassuring to Yaacov.
  5. The wives of the brother’s are not named. The emphasis is on all being the descendants of Yaacov. But there is one exception – Joseph’s wife is named, as is her father. The tradition is that Potephera is the same person as Potiphar. Joseph’s wife, the daughter of Potiphar, was assigned to him by Pharoah. In so doing, Pharoah shamed Potiphar (changing the second part of him name from multiply to commoner). But Joseph does not shame Potiphar – Joseph does not choose his wife and Potiphar remains the governor of On. Joseph also has two amazing children who are focused not on ego, but on the future. His wife doubtlessly played an important role in raising the children (he was busy travelling and running Egypt). By seeing past the shame and the ego and by playing a key role in instilling those forward-looking values in her children, Asnath becomes a member of the Bnei Yisrael. And her father, by remaining an effective governor of On, earns the same honor.
    1. Why name every member of the family now? When Hashem redeems the people  from Egypt, he pulls slaves from another society. Slaves tend to be a hodgepodge of peoples all mixed for the purpose of hard labor. One might argue that Hashem simply rescues slaves because they are slaves. With the entire family being named, it is clear at the beginning of their transformation they were all descendants of Yisrael – and the Canaanite blood in them is irrelevant. The Jewish people are not rescued because they are slaves, they are rescued because they are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov and every one who leaves is connected to those who came.
  6. Pharoah asks ‘how many are the days of your life?’ Yaacov gives a long response. He identifies two lengths – the length of sojourning and the length of life. He has soujourned – a ger or stranger, fundamentally unsettled – for many years. But the years of his life are short and bad. How can we square these? They key is in this distinction. Life is first ascribed to animals – and one gets a sense of life being undomesticated or free. Jacob has always been constrained – yes, he’s fought the constraints – but his life is defined by battle.  When he says his days of freedom/life haven’t ‘achieved’ what his forefather’s days of freedom achieved, he is saying that his days of freedom have been neither numerous nor productive. But his days of struggle are many indeed – and they have been productive.
  7. Joseph buys the land of Egypt and thus the people. He transfers them to cities and he sets them to work as tenant farmers – like blacks after the civil war. Joseph enslaves Egypt. Just as the baker is imprisoned, so too is Egypt. His changing of Pharoah deprives Egypt of a respect for what came before and his changing of Egyptians deprives  them of the experience of productivity. The become neither Good nor Holy – they become a people Hashem can punish because they have lost all redeeming qualities.
    1. Joseph tries to set the Jewish people up so they can live well in Egypt. But it doesn’t work. Their very wealth and success become the reasons the Egyptians can’t afford to let them go. Joseph ends up playing a key role in enslaving the Jews while also demonstrating the limits of plans. Fate can be defied, but Hashem’s edicts are greater than any Fate.

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