Parshat Vayigash: Reconciliation and the Scars That Remain

Reconciliation and the Scars That Remain

Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes is the Director of OTS’s International Halakha Scholars Program

Rabbanit Dr. Hannah HashkesThe encounter between Yehuda and Yosef described in the beginning of our portion is perceived as the celebrated moment of reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers.  If this is so, why do the brothers express concern of possible retribution by Yosef after their father’s death (Bereishit 50, 15-21)?  It appears that the mutual suspicion has not dissipated, and despite the reconciliation, the scars are still there and many issues remain unresolved. 

And, indeed, when our Sages explain the word “vayigash” (“and he approached”), they go beyond the literal meaning of the word, which denotes a motion of coming closer.  They interpret Yehuda’s motion towards Yosef as an act of defiance, signaling a pending violent confrontation.  One midrash tells us that Yehuda responded with great anger (an anger well-known to his brothers) at Yosef’s threatening to take Binyamin as slave, and even tore off his clothing.  Yosef, for his part, kicked the stone chair upon which he was sitting, turning it to rubble.  It was nothing short of a miracle that prevented further escalation, and induced Yehuda to resolve matters through words.  Another midrash suggests that Yehuda threatened to destroy a quarter of all Egyptian markets, and that it was Yosef’s fear that Yehuda would ultimately destroy Egypt in its entirety that convinced him to reveal his true identity to his brothers (Bereishit Rabbah, 93, 7-8). 

The heads-on confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef, as described by our Sages, is not surprising if one takes into account all the conflicts that would transpire between the descendants of Yosef and the kingdom of Yehuda in the forthcoming generations.  Considering the sibling rivalry that had existed in the past, and the rift that would take place much later, maybe what should really surprise us are the times when unity did prevail between all the sons of Yaakov, rather than the omens of continued tension. 

When meeting his brothers, Yosef is described as “the ruler of all the land.”  By its very nature, his status does not permit a relationship of equal standing with his brothers, who are described as “the people of the land”.  Moreover, Yosef is “the provider of food”, the one who feeds the entire country, while the sons of Yaakov have lost the most basic of capabilities – providing for their families.  When Yaakov and his sons arrive in Egypt under the auspices of Yosef, the imbalance is further intensified.  Yosef becomes the only provider “for his father, his brethren and his father’s entire household, and sustained them with bread, according to the want of their little ones” (Bereshit 47, 12).  Yosef reassures his brothers, who are still wary he might avenge them after their father’s death, by telling them he will go on providing for them and their progeny. At this stage, Yaakov and his sons have already settled down in the Land of Goshen, herding their flocks, and presumably should be able to provide for themselves.  However, Yosef maintains his position of power.  It follows that the brothers remain subject to the mercy of the brother they had tried to get rid of, all because of his dreams pertaining to their being his subjects!

The chasm which exists between Yosef and his brothers is not merely an internal family affair; it is also an abyss that lies between contradicting lifestyles.  Egypt, as is described in the book of Bereishit, is a land of fixed and stable economic infrastructures.  Although Yosef introduced some reforms to Egypt’s economy and its social hierarchy in wake of the famine, Egypt had always had social statuses and clear divisions between the working farmers, the rulers and the ministers of religion.  It goes without saying that Egypt’s centralized ruling structure was reinforced when the farmers’ lands were sold to the ruler during the famine years, and annexed to the cities; however, Pharaoh’s dreams prior to this, and how these were interpreted by Yosef, attest to the fact that Pharaoh had already exercised a centralized economy and felt responsible for sustaining his people. 

Unlike the Egyptians, the Israelites in Egypt do not live under any form of centralized governing authority, and Yaakov’s family sees itself as an independent economic unit.  The sons of Yaakov are shepherds, and, as such, are easily able to take their families and move around from place to place whenever the need arises.  Egypt, despite its power and the numerous temptations it had to offer, did not change them.  The Israelites remain alienated foreigners, and later on become slaves.  The very redemption from Egypt was possible because of the nomadic nature of a shepherd’s life: when the time comes, the myriads of Israelites are easily able to pack up their things and leave Egypt, with their numerous offspring and livestock, and head for the land promised to their forefathers by God. 

Much has been written about Yosef as the Jewish archetype who provides for his brethren in the Diaspora.  But Yosef takes it a step further.  As a ruler with a grasp for Egypt’s social-economic infrastructure, Yosef is miles apart from his brothers, the sons of Israel, the nomadic shepherds.  In this regard, Yosef remained an Egyptian.  What is most astonishing is the fact that Yosef still insists on holding onto his identity as an Israelite.  Consequently, his own sons do not assimilate into the Egyptian people but become part and parcel of the People of Israel.  Perhaps it is this point that reflects the true power of the reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers, irrespective of the tension that continued to prevail. 

It is this nomadic nature, or “lightness of movement” if you will, that enabled the Jewish People to keep on surviving throughout time; however, this did come at the expense of recurring travels and voyages into the darkest of exiles.  Living in the Land of Israel and instituting an Israeli kingdom present a constant challenge for a nation that is, by nature, not “Egyptian”.  Shepherds, who are always dependent on the mercy of Heaven, know all too well that the power of the human ruler is limited and that any human is a slave only to his Father in Heaven.  Any stability which might be achieved in a place like Egypt is the result of an unwavering balance of power.  An unchallenged, centralized governing authority, stringent social structures and exploitation are crucial for the type of stability which Yosef himself promoted and exercised.  But these were unfeasible for the sons of Israel.  It seems that Yosef, in his wisdom, understood this discrepancy and operated on two separate planes: on the one hand, he ensured that his father’s family would not assimilate into the centralized Egyptian society, nor take any part in the governing powers at play.  On the other hand, as the continuation of the story proves, there was a high price to pay for this decision: by having Yosef as their sole provider, they did not have to contend with the real world, and this ultimately cost them their freedom.  When Yosef was no longer there, they became slaves. 

The nomadic life of both the Israelites and the Jews throughout the generations is not the ideal situation.  Rather, the aspiration is for the Jewish People to live its land in peace and prosperity.  However, for this to happen, there must be a true and robust reconciliation between “the providers” and “the people of the land”.  The power of the providers is contingent upon stability and peace, and in our times – upon an urban society that can boast high technological capabilities and free entrepreneurship.  Yet the forces at play are always at risk of losing the fine balance that must exist between the trust we place in people and that which we place in God.  Yehuda’s courage in confronting Yosef and standing up for his brother Binyamin illustrates that there is always potential for maintaining a healthy equilibrium between different parties.  Notwithstanding the above, the realization of such potential is contingent upon mutual trust between the parties, remembering there is a common goal, and placing one’s trust in God instead of in man. 

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