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Torah Commentary Blog

Vayigash: Fathers and Sons
by Bettijane Eisenpreis

As Parashat Va-Yiggash opens, Judah pleads for Benjamin, telling Joseph, whom he does not recognize, that Benjamin is innocent and it would kill his old father if Benjamin did not return.  His plea is eloquent, and Joseph finally breaks down and reveals himself. “I am Joseph,” he says. “Is my father still well?” The Bible says that his brothers couldn’t answer him because they were “dumbfounded.”

Now hurry back to my father and say to him: This says your son Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me without delay.
Genesis 45:9
 
The story of Joseph is really a page-turner. In case you don’t remember it from Sunday School and never saw the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” let’s do a quick recap:
 
Joseph, his father’s favorite who sported a coat of many colors got in trouble with his brothers, who threw him into a pit and reported his “death” to their father. Rescued by Midianite tradesmen, he was taken to Egypt and ended up in a dungeon, from which he was rescued so that he could interpret Pharaoh’s dream.  He told Pharaoh that Egypt would enjoy seven prosperous years, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh, believing the prophecy, made Joseph his right-hand man. When the predicted famine reached Canaan, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to get food. Joseph put them through many tests, finally planting a golden cup in Benjamin’s bag and threatening to detain the boy in Egypt.
 
As Parashat Va-Yiggash opens, Judah pleads for Benjamin, telling Joseph, whom he does not recognize, that Benjamin is innocent and it would kill his old father if Benjamin did not return.  His plea is eloquent, and Joseph finally breaks down and reveals himself. “I am Joseph,” he says. “Is my father still well?” The Bible says that his brothers couldn’t answer him because they were “dumbfounded.”
 
“Dumbfounded?” That sounds like an understatement to me. When last seen, Joseph, a teenager, was stripped of his “technicolor dream coat,” thrown into and then pulled out of a pit, and sold to some itinerant tribesmen. Now he’s an Egyptian, second only to Pharaoh in his adopted country.
 
I can’t imagine what the brothers are going through – perhaps relief that Joseph didn’t die, guilt about what they did to him, and probably fear. This boy whom they abused (and who wasn’t very nice to them either) is now in a position of unlimited power. Even though he told them not to fear him and that “it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you,” I know if I were one of the brothers (or sisters), I’d be quaking in my boots.
 
If you look at the drama soberly, you have to wonder why Joseph didn’t get in touch with his father earlier. There were well-established trade routes from Egypt to Canaan, the very routes that the Midianite traders who took Joseph travelled. Jacob was a well-known, prosperous elder in his community. Of course, Joseph had every right to be angry with the brothers who had sold him into slavery. But what about the father who had doted on him and made him a coat of many colors? This is a mystery that many scholars have debated for centuries.
 
Furthermore, what about Jacob? As a parent, I know what my reaction would be if someone came to me with my son’s bloody coat (they had dipped it in animal blood) and told me, “Your son was killed by a wild beast. Sorry about that.” Yes, I would be devastated, as Jacob reportedly was, but would I simply be satisfied that they were telling me the whole story?
 
In Torah study class we have studied Abraham’s insistence on giving Sarah a proper burial. He purchased the Cave of Machpelah for the purpose, and it became the burial site of all the Patriarchs and most of the Matriarchs. Wouldn’t Jacob want a body to bury, if not in the Cave, somewhere else that he could visit and mourn his dead son? Neither father nor son is blameless in this story. They strike me as two intelligent people, but Jacob was too gullible and Joseph too proud. So for years they lived apart, and it took a famine to bring them together.
 
The balance of Genesis deals with the final chapters in the lives of Jacob and Joseph, but the real climax of the story has come in Va-Yiggash. Judah’s emotional plea to Joseph and Joseph’s revealing his true identity to his brothers provide the dramatic highlights to this saga of betrayal and reconciliation. Like all the characters in Genesis, Jacob, Joseph and the brothers are far from perfect. Yet their flaws are so human – vanity, jealously, and a desire for retribution – that they become believable characters to us. We see ourselves in them, and in their reconcilliation we see hope for ourselves.


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