Parashat Va-yiggash

Genesis 44:18–47:27

December 31, 2011 / 5 Tevet 5772

This week's commentary was written by Dr. David Marcus, professor of Bible, JTS

Parashat Va-yiggash continues the longest narrative in the Torah, that of Joseph and his brothers.

In the preceding two parashiyot, Joseph aroused the jealousy of his brothers with his dreams of grandeur and by being blatantly favored by his father, Jacob, who made for him a special ornamented tunic, traditionally known as a "coat of many colors." The brothers contrived to kidnap Joseph and sell him to caravan traders on their way to Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph was sold into slavery, but managed with God's help to rise to prominence in the house of one of Pharaoh's courtiers. There he resisted the advances of his master's wife, and, because she falsely maligned him, he was summarily imprisoned. However, once again with God's help, Joseph rose to a position of trust in prison and was able to interpret the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh's butler and Pharaoh's baker.

At about the time of the servants' dreams, Pharaoh also dreamed two dreams that bothered him enormously. None of his magicians or astrologers was able to interpret them, but then his butler, now released, informed Pharaoh of Joseph's interpretive abilities. Pharaoh had Joseph brought to him, and Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dreams as the harbingers of seven good years and seven years of famine. Joseph also gave Pharaoh wise economic advice: to store up food during the seven good years in preparation for the lean years to come. Pharaoh then elevated Joseph to one of the highest positions in the land, and Joseph became the one in charge of distributing food during the years of famine.

It is during these famine years that Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to buy corn. Joseph recognized them, but they did not recognize him. Joseph tested them, first by returning their money surreptitiously and then by demanding that they bring his brother Benjamin to Egypt. When Benjamin arrived in Egypt, Joseph contrived to have him arrested for theft but allowed the other brothers to go home.

All this has been told breathlessly without any breaks. In the original Hebrew, as in our Torah scrolls, remarkably there have been no paragraph markers since the beginning of last week's Parashat Mi-ketz. There is no other narrative in the Hebrew Bible that has such a continuous section of text without any breaks. This may sound surprising to those of us in shul who use humashim such as Etz Hayim, since these printed editions divide the story into chapters. But these chapter divisions arose much later than the rabbinic divisions of the text, and, although they are widely used today by Jews for convenience of reference, they were originally adopted by non-Jewish clerics in the 13th century.

Clearly the Rabbis, who did not put in any breaks, regarded the narrative we have just related above as one major act, and a new act starts with the beginning of this week's parashah, Parashat Va-yiggash, with a dramatic appeal by Judah for Benjamin's freedom. The impact of the rabbinic division is quite significant, for nowhere in Scripture is there a scene of such wrenching drama as Judah's appeal to Joseph for Benjamin's freedom. It is a scene full of ironies and revelations. It is ironic that Judah does not know that the person to whom he is appealing is his own brother. He sees only that he is pleading with one of the highest officials in the land, "akin to Pharaoh." It is also ironic that Judah, the very one who was responsible for selling Joseph into slavery, is now offering to become Joseph's slave. For his part, Joseph now learns for the very first time how his disappearance was reported to his father: that he had supposedly been killed by a wild animal. He also learns that his alleged death had caused his father such great grief that Jacob is now overprotective of Joseph's younger brother, Benjamin.

But, most importantly, Joseph realizes now that his brothers are not the same brothers who sold him into slavery. They have changed perceptibly; they are now ready to protect their younger brother Benjamin, and are now anxious that their father, Jacob, should not be caused further grief. It is no wonder that Joseph is overcome by emotion: "he could not restrain himself," and he asks everyone to leave him alone with his brothers, who can hardly believe their ears when Joseph reveals himself to them.

The Rabbis, aware of the power of this scene, made it the highlight of the parashah by making it stand as its opening scene, thereby giving it special prominence because it is this beginning portion that is read three times in the course of our liturgical week: we read it last Shabbat during the Minhah service; we have been reading it during morning services this Thursday; and, of course, we will read it this coming Shabbat in our Torah service.

So by placing this scene of the reconciliation of Joseph's brothers at the beginning of the parashah, the Rabbis impress upon us the fact that in Jacob's household, bitter family enmity has finally been eroded. There is now an end to the previously unending family strife. Judah's appeal has touched the heart of Joseph, who no longer bears enmity to his brothers. A family that was alienated by dysfunction has now been reconciled.

The message of the parashah for us is that alienated family members can indeed be harmonized, recriminations among close relatives can come to an end, and, as in the case of Joseph and his brothers, fraternal reconciliation is indeed a possibility.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.