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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYIGASH
December 30, 2006 – 9 Tevet 5767

Annual: Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 46:28-47:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 283; Hertz p. 174)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15 – 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 291; Hertz p. 178)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Benjamin has been framed, and he appears destined to be a slave to the viceroy of Egypt. Judah knows that such a development will be utterly devastating to Jacob, his father, so he approaches the viceroy and retells the tale of Jacob’s personal losses and of his own personal guarantee to Jacob of Benjamin’s safety. The viceroy – Joseph – is deeply moved by Judah’s words, and he blurts out that he is indeed their brother Joseph.

Joseph takes the sting out of this surprise by explaining that he views his own presence in Egypt as part of a divine plan to preserve life during the famine. He then urges the brothers to bring Jacob to Egypt without delay. Joseph plans to take care of the whole extended family.

Upon hearing that Joseph is alive and in control of affairs in Egypt, Jacob’s heart skips a beat. He is eager to see Joseph again, although he is somewhat reluctant to leave Canaan. God reassures him that traveling to Egypt is the right course of action.

Once they get settled in Egypt, Joseph arranges to introduce some of his brothers, as well as his father, to the Pharaoh in a favorable context.

Meanwhile Joseph, as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, arranges to buy vast farmlands in Egypt on behalf of the monarchy, in exchange for food and seed. Many Egyptian farmers become sharecroppers as a result.

Meanwhile, the Israelites seem to be off to a good start in Egypt.

Issue #1: Hesitation About Leaving the Promised Land

In Israel, Beersheva has always been the gateway to the south. As Chapter 46 opens, Jacob has begun his journey to Egypt by traveling to Beersheva. He pauses, perhaps reluctant to leave the Promised Land again. His father, Isaac, had never left it. God reassures Jacob:

Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes [when you die].

Where else had Jacob lived, besides the land of Canaan? Had life been pleasant for him outside the Promised Land?

In what ways might God’s words have been comforting or encouraging to Jacob?

Issue #2: Judah's New Task

[Jacob] had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to point the way before him to Goshen. (Genesis 46:28)

This verse is puzzling for two reasons. First of all, it seems to arise in a vacuum. The story line was interrupted in Genesis 46:8 by Jacob’s genealogy; the text lists the 70 members of his family. Sending Judah to Joseph must be understood as the resumption of the narrative.

Secondly, we wonder why Judah – or for that matter anyone else – might have to point the way to Goshen. After all, we know that all of Joseph’s brothers already have made the trip successfully. In fact, nine of the brothers have done it twice. (Benjamin and Simon have each completed one round trip.) There seems to be little need for a navigator.

Two views of Judah’s task are worthy of mention. The first is that Judah was the family’s advance man, coordinating logistical arrangements to allow them all to settle smoothly in the assigned district of Goshen. The second view, drawn from the midrash, is concerned with preparations for their spiritual life:

Rabbi Nehemiah said: [“to point the way” means] to establish a house of study, which will teach Torah there, so that the tribes shall read the Torah therein. (B’reisheit Rabbah 95:3)

Note: The Hebrew word that has been translated “to point the way” is l’horot, which comes from the same root as moreh (teacher), horim (parents), and Torah. In modern Hebrew, a tour guide is called a moreh-derekh.

We may wonder about the content of the “Torah” that was available to the tribes to study then. But this comment arguably tells us more about the times and perceptions of Rabbi Nehemiah than it does about the plain meaning of this particular verse. Rabbi Nehemiah, who lived in the second century C.E., was one of the few students of Rabbi Akiva to survive the Hadrianic persecutions. He devoted his life to reestablishing venues for the study of Judaism and to restoring the vitality of Jewish life in Israel under radically changed circumstances.

We can well imagine the heartfelt commitment that Rabbi Nehemiah was expressing to the Jews of his time through that midrashic comment. In what ways might this comment speak to us, given that we live free of persecution? What would Rabbi Nehemiah tell us today about communal and institutional priorities?


 
 
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