Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And Joseph went up to greet Israel his father; he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck exceedingly” (Genesis 46:29)
In these few words, our Torah describes a dramatic meeting between an aged father and his beloved son who had been separated for twenty-two years. Indeed, the father, who had given the coat of many colors to this favored son as a sign that he would bear the mantle of the Abrahamic legacy, had been led to believe that his beloved Joseph had been torn apart by a wild beast, in consequence of which he had been engulfed by inconsolable mourning for more than two decades. The son, who had basked in the glory of paternal favoritism, had been consumed with the agonizing possibility that his father had been so angered by his dreams that he had sent him on a suicide mission “to seek after the welfare of his brothers….”
And so they stand together now, father and son, each still with unanswered questions, but nevertheless each with unfathomable joy at their reunion.
But which one of the two wept on the other’s neck? Our most classical commentary, Rashi, maintains that it was Joseph who wept on his father Jacob’s neck but Jacob did not fall on Joseph’s neck. Our Sages say that Jacob was reciting the Shema prayer at that time. The Shema? Was it then early in the morning or late evening that, specifically at that emotionally poignant moment, father Jacob had to recite the Shema? Moreover, Ramban (Nahmanides) maintains that if indeed only one of them was weeping, logic dictates that it most likely was the aged Jacob who wept, rather than the much younger and more calculating Joseph.
And if indeed Ramban is correct and not Rashi, then it was Joseph who was reciting the Shema, while father Jacob was weeping. But this interpretation still begs the question, why the Shema at this particular moment? Let us return to Joseph’s initial dreams (Gen. 37:5-11), which ignited jealous hatred unto death against the “dreamer.” How can we justify the sons of Jacob, progenitors of the tribal children of Israel, being overwhelmed with such base emotions? First he dreams that he and his brothers are binding sheaves of grain, and that the brothers’ sheaves are all bowing down to his sheaves. What upsets the brothers is not merely Joseph’s vision of his economic and political superiority over them; it is rather Joseph’s hankering after the fleshpots of Egypt in all of Egypt’s cultural ramifications. Remember that the Abrahamic traditional profession was shepherding, a nurturing pursuit which left much time for spiritual meditation and which was especially conducive to Israel’s climatic condition and terrain. Egypt, “the gift of the Nile,” specialized in back-breaking agriculture and the slave labor and dissolute lifestyle of the overlords which went with it.
Joseph then dreamt of the sun, the moon and the stars bowing down to him. From the brothers’ perspective, this was nothing short of megalomania.
How different were those dreams from that of grandfather Jacob’s dream of uniting heaven and earth with God at the center stage (not Joseph), promising to bring Jacob home to Israel (not to Egypt). They felt that they had to prevent this recipient of the coat of many colors from ever receiving the firstborn’s legacy. He was a “turncoat” to the Abrahamic tradition.
The Bible, however, concludes Joseph’s dream sequence with “his brothers were jealous of him, but Jacob observed the matter and anxiously anticipated its coming to pass.” Jacob as well as Joseph understood that Abraham’s mandate was a universal one, to spread “compassionate righteousness and moral justice to all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3, 18:18-19), allegorically speaking to the sun, the moon and the stars.
To be sure, Joseph was still an arrogant youth, who identified the Abrahamic legacy with his own eventual leadership; when a more mature Joseph stands before Pharaoh, ready to interpret his dreams, he declares, “This has nothing to do with me; God will answer in accordance with the welfare of Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:16).
And at the end of his life, with his very last breath, Joseph makes his brothers take an oath that when the Hebrews leave Egypt, they will take Joseph’s remains to be buried in Israel. Egypt is merely a way-station on the road to world redemption; the great powers must learn the importance of vanquishing terror and depravity if divine peace and morality are to reign supreme.
Ultimately, all the nations will come to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to learn the word of God from Zion; but along the way, unless there is an America to act as the world’s policeman on behalf of democracy and freedom, the dark forces of suicide bombers will control the global village.
Hence, when Joseph meets his father—who twenty-two years before seemed to have been vexed at him for the arrogance of his dreams—he responds to his father’s tears with the fundamental purpose of Jewish being; “Hear, Israel my father, the God who is now our God, the God of love and peace who is now accepted by the family of Israel, will one day be the one God of the entire universe.” In effect, his recitation of the Shma is telling his father that Egypt was a necessary way-station in bringing our God of redemption to the world.