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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYIGASH
January 7, 2006 - 7 Tevet 5766

Annual: Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 45:28-46:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 279; Hertz p. 172)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15 - 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

The saga of Joseph and his brothers comes to a climax this week. Judah steps forward to speak out to Joseph on behalf of Benjamin. Judah gives an impassioned speech on why Benjamin should not be taken into slavery, on how such an action will destroy their father, whose soul is bound with Benjamin's soul. Joseph, upon hearing the speech, can no longer control himself. He asks all his attendants to leave and reveals his identity to his brothers.

The brothers embrace and weep, and Joseph gives gifts to each of them. He describes how there will be five more years of famine, and invites them all to live in Egypt. He asks them to bring their father Jacob down to Egypt. The brothers return to Canaan and reveal to Jacob that Joseph is still alive. Jacob says, "My son Joseph is alive. I must go see him before I die."

God appears to Jacob, repeats the blessing, and tells him not to fear going down to Egypt. The Torah then lists the names of the Israelites who go down to Egypt. Joseph goes to meet his father. (Usually a visitor would come to the palace of the second most powerful man in Egypt. But to honor to his father, Joseph goes to meet him.) Joseph tells the Israelites to say they are shepherds, because the Egyptians abhor shepherds. They therefore will be able to live a separate existence in the land of Goshen.

The portion ends with Joseph gathering wealth for Pharaoh's household. He arranges that the peasants can work the land and keep four fifths of what they grow. One fifth is taken to Pharaoh's household. The people Israel settle in Goshen, their holdings increase, and they are fertile and multiply greatly.

Issue #1 - True Repentance

"For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father" (Genesis 44:34)

Discussion

  1. Can we justify Joseph's behavior, which seems cruel and vengeful throughout this saga? He accuses his brothers of beings spies, arrests Simeon, tells them to return with the younger brother Benjamin, hides his cup in Benjamin's sack, accuses him of being a thief, and seeks to make him a slave. In tradition, Joseph is called Yosef HaTzadik, Joseph the righteous. Is this righteous behavior?
  2. One possible answer - Joseph was trying to set up the situation to test his brothers. Would they sell Benjamin into slavery, just as they sold Joseph into slavery? Or had the brothers changed, and would they step forward to rescue Benjamin? Is this really a story about repentance?
  3. Maimonides wrote, "What is true repentance? Somebody has the same opportunity to sin as he did in the past, but he does not do so because of repentance. His new behavior is neither from fear nor a lack of strength. How so? A man had come upon a woman in a forbidden way, and after a time he is alone with her, still loves her, and has the strength, is in the same place. But he holds back and does not transgress. This is complete repentance" (Hilchot Teshuva 2:1). The proof of true repentance is when a person is confronted with the same opportunity to sin, but shows real change by reacting differently. Did Joseph's brothers change?
  4. A fundamental Jewish teaching is that people can change. We often say, "You cannot teach a dog new tricks" and "A leopard cannot change its spots." These proverbs refer to animals. Is the ability to change who we are part of what separates us humans from the animal world? How can we change who we are?

Issue #2 - Taxes

"And when the harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children" (Genesis 47:24)

Discussion

  1. One of the major issues that separate various political parties is the rate of taxation. In general, liberals will support higher tax rates to provide more government money for the social weal, to overcome poverty, homelessness, and health problems. Europe and Israel have high rates of taxation and many social programs for the poor. In general, conservatives favor lower tax rates and more limited government. They believe that government programs prevent people from taking responsibility for their own welfare. Who is right?
  2. In the beginning, Joseph confiscated all property for the government in exchange for feeding the people. It created a sense of hopelessness. Does too high a tax rate create a sense of hopelessness, that people have nothing for themselves?
  3. Does society have a responsibility to care for people, and does too low a tax rate remove the social safety net that a just society ought to erect for its citizens?
  4. In the end, Joseph agrees to tax at a rate of 20 percent. Some conservative commentators have suggested that this should be the maximum tax rate. For example, Rabbi Daniel Lapin has written, "Not only were Pharaoh's subjects relieved, but the thought of being able to retain 80 percent of the fruits of their labors threw them into their work with renewed enthusiasm and energy" ("A Higher Authority on Taxes," Wall Street Journal, Aug. 31, 1993). Is Lapin correct, or is 20 percent too little in a society that seeks to remove poverty?

 
 
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