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Vayigash 2014

Dvar Torah

Ex-Chief Rabbi Sacks cites the American Rabbi Saul Berman, who in turn cites Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah, a medieval commentator,  as follows:

The word Vayigash appears three times in the Tenach in connection with prayer.  The first is when Abraham hears of God's intention to destroy Sodom and Gemorah and the cities of the plain. “Abraham approached [vayigash] and said: Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked? . . . Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18: 23-25).  The second occurs in today's Sedra: "  “Then Judah drew near [vayigash] to him and said: Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord” (Gen. 44: 18).  And the third appears in the confrontation at Mount Carmel between the prophet Elijah and the 450 false prophets of Baal, where the text states that “Elijah stepped forward [vayigash] and prayed: O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.” (1 Kings, 18: 36)

In summary, Abraham prays for justice, Judah prays for mercy, and Elijah prays for God to reveal himself.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah went on to draw an analogy between these three events and the first three paragraphs of the Amidah: 

The first is about the patriarchs. God “remembers the good deeds of the fathers.” This reminds us of Abraham’s prayer.

The second is about Gevurah, God’s governance of the universe, “supporting the fallen, healing the sick, setting free the bound and keeping faith with those who lie in the dust.” When we recite it, we are like Judah standing before Joseph, a servant/subject in the presence of sovereignty and power.

The third is about Kedushat Hashem, “the holiness of God’s name,” meaning the acknowledgement of God by human beings. When an act makes people conscious of God’s existence, it is called a Kiddush Hashem. That is precisely what Elijah sought to do, and succeeded in doing, on Mount Carmel.

And he says that as we take three steps forward at the start of the Amidah, they represent the ascent we have just described.

Having quickly read through the entire Tenach,  I have unearthed at least two more uses of the verb Vayigash in it, though admittedly one is in the plural.  Actually, I made a bit of that up -- I found them through the internet.

In the second book of Samuel, 10: 13, it is said: "And Joab drew nigh (vayigash), and the people that were with him, unto the battle against the Syrians; and they fled before him."   Rabbi Judah  said that, therefore,  Vayigash implies an approach to battle.  Whilst in Joshua, 14: 6, it is stated: "Then the children of Judah came (vayigshu)  unto Joshua in Gilgal".  Rabbi Nechamiah said that this implies a coming near for conciliation.

And taking the Elijah example already cited by Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah, the Sages said that Vayigash therefore implies coming near for prayer.

Rabbi Eleazar (who may or may not be the same person)  combined all these views: in today's Sedra, Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: If it be war, I approach for war; if it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation; if it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat.

Anyway, enough already on the first word of the Sedra!  What about all the rest?  Well, I can't treat them all with the same individual attention, you'll be relieved to hear.  But taken together they provide what is by far the most moving story in the whole of the Torah, and one which ranks well up in the whole of world literature.  Indeed, Thomas Mann wrote a 1200-page novel about it called "Joseph and his Brothers", and you may even have encountered a musical  on the same theme.  The twists and turns of Joseph's life in the three Sedrot in which he figures would make a fantastic Hollywood movie if the screenplay were properly written and the director were up to the mark -- it will be interesting to see what Ridley Scott has made of the Exodus story, which was released yesterday.

As for the plot of the Joseph story, the question is often asked as to why Joseph did not reveal himself to his brothers much earlier: why make them suffer?  One compelling response is that Joseph wanted to afford his brothers the full opportunity for teshuvah.  This is only fully achieved when a person is put in the same position as an earlier situation in which he sinned, and this time makes the right choice.  Given the opportunity to betray Benjamin as they had Joseph, the other brothers this time opted to save him and spare their father further heartbreak.

An alternative contention is that Joseph wanted to ensure that the prophecies in the dreams were fulfilled, which required his father and all his brothers, including Benjamin,  to pay obeisance to him.  And there is a third possible explanation --  which I shall come to later.

Before doing so, I want to draw attention to a couple of interesting parallels between events in this Sedra and what has gone before in the Torah.

First, the brothers did not recognise Joseph.  Think back:  Isaac did not recognise Jacob disguised as Esau when he gave his paternal blessing; and Jacob himself did not recognise Leah on his wedding night, thinking her to be Rachel.

Second, Jacob faced the possibility in his mind of losing the two sons of Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin.  Think back:  Abraham feared losing two sons, Ishmael having been sent away with Hagar and then the prospect of the sacrifice of Isaac; Judah, the main protagonist along with Joseph among the brothers in this week's Sedra, lost two sons, Er and Onan; and last week Reuben offered to sacrifice his own two sons if he did not bring Benjamin back alive to Jacob.

There is a third parallel to earlier events which comes in next week's Sedra, namely the preference of Jacob for the younger of Joseph's two sons when delivering his blessing (Ephraim rather than Menasseh), exactly paralleling his own unwitting treatment by Isaac,  as well as echoing several other examples of younger siblings being preferred -- Joseph himself above all.  And by the terms of that blessing, Jacob effectively adopted his two grandchildren as his own, thus doubling Joseph's portion, a privilege normally reserved for the firstborn (though Joseph was of course the firstborn of Rachel).

Yet despite that, it was Judah rather than Joseph who became the progenitor of the Kings of Israel.  I dwelt on that last year in my D'var on Vayeishev.  I concluded as follows:

"Just a simple comparison of their behaviour in our Sedra is instructive: whilst Judah immediately succumbed to Tamar, Joseph refused to succumb to Potiphar’s wife.  Jacob’s blessing of Joseph is, in Hertz’s words, in his “softest and most loving accents”, and Jacob concludes by calling him a “prince among his brethren”.  And yet Judah got the monarchy.  Go figure!"

Well I've done a bit of figuring this time, and it leads me, as promised, to a third explanation of Joseph's behaviour, one which you may not like.  It is that he is a narcissist who does not really care about the effect of his actions on others. The nature of his early dreams and his eagerness to relay them would be consistent with that interpretation.   Moreover, we are told in Vayeishev that "Joseph was of beautiful form and fair to look upon" (Gen. 39:6)  The exact Hebrew words are used only one other time, to describe his mother, Rachel.  There are Midrashic texts about his preening himself after being promoted by Potiphar.  And even Rashi suggests that, when Joseph went into Potiphar's house with no other men present, he was not wholly innocent in intent, even though he did not follow through.  And Joseph showed no compunction when enslaving the Egyptian people on Pharaoh's behalf, despite his own experience of being sold into slavery.  The inference from all this is that Joseph did not let his brothers and father know earlier about his survival because he enjoyed wielding power over them.  And that would be a good reason for preferring Judah, despite his well-known flaws, to be the ancestor of the Kings of Israel.

There is lots more that could be said about the climax of the Joseph story.  It is suggested in the Midrash, for example, that Judah had already worked out that it was Joseph with whom he was pleading.  Thomas Mann imagines that Judah admits the truth of how the brothers disposed of Joseph in the course of his speech; maybe that is consistent with Judah knowing that it was Joseph to whom he was speaking , and that full confession was appropriate -- as indeed it would be if full teshuvah were to be achieved.

For the true story, you will have to wait until my screenplay is translated to the silver screen.  And you are the first to hear that my follow-up blockbuster will be the Book of Esther, which has everything -- sex, a villain, a hero, love-interest, plots and counter-plots, unexpected twists and turns, and a happy ending.  But I think it's about time that I said "Cut!" and wished you Shabbat Shalom.

Stephen Collins

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