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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYIGASH
December 11, 2010 - 4 Tevet 5771

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

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

Judah delivers an impassioned appeal to Joseph on behalf of Benjamin, offering to submit to slavery personally in his youngest brother's stead. He does so, he says, to spare both Benjamin, for whom he has pledged personal responsibility, and his father. Joseph is moved to tears by his brother's selfless and eloquent appeal. Dismissing all but his brothers from his presence, Joseph finally reveals his identity, immediately inquiring about his father's wellbeing. He attributes his sale into slavery at his brothers' hands to Providence. Embracing his brothers, he instructs them to return to Canaan and then to come back, with Jacob, to settle in Egypt.

News of Joseph's reunion with his brothers spreads to Pharaoh and his court. The brothers, supplied with wagons and provisions, return home and tell Jacob that his beloved son is still alive and has risen to high office in Egypt. On the return trip to Egypt God appears to Jacob in a vision, assuring him that going back down to Egypt is the proper course, while not mentioning the enslavement that is his nation's destiny. The seventy Israelites taking up residence in Egypt are listed, and Joseph is tearfully reunited with Jacob. He reports his family's arrival to Pharaoh, to whom he introduces them. Jacob has a private audience with Pharaoh and details for him the personal adversity he has long endured.

Joseph's brothers, against his express instructions, inform Pharaoh that they are shepherds. Joseph settles his families in Goshen, setting the stage for future events. Despite his generous treatment of his family, Joseph is ruthless in his economic administration of Egypt. After depleting the financial resources of Pharaoh's subjects through the sale of the grain and food under his control, next he takes their livestock in exchange for supplies, and finally he usurps their only remaining material resource, their land. The only land Joseph allows to remain in private ownership belongs to the priests.

Once he has secured a royal monopoly on both Egypt's land and its livestock for Pharaoh, Joseph imposes further economic duties on the populace: they owe Pharaoh one fifth of each harvest. Deprived of private land and livestock, and impoverished through the sale of grain over which Joseph had exercised such visionary but shrewd control, the Egyptians nevertheless are thankful for surviving the famine: “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to our lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.”

The parshah concludes by contrasting the impoverished Egyptian populace under a despotic regime with Israel's growing prosperity: “They acquired holdings in [Goshen], and were fertile and increased greatly.” This description anticipates the opening of the Book of Exodus, and the ethnic tensions that led to the Israelites' enslavement.

Theme #1: “It's not about you”

“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you…. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival... It was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:4-5, 7-8)

Derash: Study

  1. “Joseph's speech is a luminous illustration of the Bible's double system of causation, human and divine. Commentators have tended to tilt the balance to one side, making Joseph a mouthpiece of piety here. His recognition of a providential plan may well be admirablefrom the viewpoint of monotheistic faith, but there is no reason to assume that Joseph has lost the sense of his own brilliant initiative in all that he has accomplished, and so when he says ‘God' he also means Joseph.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)
  2. “How could closeness be established between brothers, when one of them claims to be God's own instrument and appointed savior of the rest? Even when he tries to be brotherly, he cannot help but parade his superiority. A close reading of the motion of the speech makes this clear. Joseph begins by asserting equality: ‘I am your brother.' But you are morally beneath me, for you have acted unjustly and unbrotherly: ‘whom you sold into Egypt.' Yet, never mind, do not feel guilty; for you are not really morally beneath me, as we are both, in this matter, equally instruments of God: ‘God sent me before you.'” (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis)
  3. “Joseph finds himself in relation to his brothers: his story is balanced on the axis of ‘I - you' and ‘You - me' It is an honest but discriminating account of what they did and did not do to him, of the limits of their responsibility for his disappearance: ‘You sold me hither' but ‘it was not you who sent me here.' The nexus between their realities is God, who has choreographed their relationships, their absences and losses, in order to ‘save life.' He is the One who ‘sent' Joseph to Egypt. The word is used three times, to express God's purposeful perception. From God's perspective [Joseph] has been just where he was meant to be.” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire)

Questions for Discussion

Is Joseph a self-effacing mouthpiece of piety or does he suffer from a superiority complex, as suggested by both Professors Kass and Alter? Has Joseph grown and learned and changed? Or is he the same self-important, ambitious operator as in his youth, unable to relate to his brothers in a healthy manner?

In what ways does Joseph's view of his suffering as part of a greater plan of Providence provide a model for understanding Jewish history? Is it a useful personal model for processing the adversity we encounter as people or as families?

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg seems to say that Joseph's statement to his brothers is balanced and fair, and sensitive to God's role in the unfolding of Joseph's experience. What does it mean for God to be the “nexus” of a family dynamic, when the relationships within that family are flawed, manipulative, and ultimately unresolved? Does the assertion that Joseph was “just where he was meant to be” justify his actions or validate his self-perception? Can flawed or even morally corrupt people be instruments of God?

How would Joseph's reunion with his brothers have been different if it had occurred earlier - say, during the years of prosperity preceding the famine, when Joseph's life-saving role was still only a matter of his own predictions? At what point in his life did Joseph come to terms with his theology? With his view of Providence and of God's plans for him in particular?

Theme #2: “Going Out of Business Sale”

“With all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord's disposal save our persons and our farmland. Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for the bread, and we and our land will be serfs to Pharaoh… We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:18-19, 25)

Derash: Study

  1. “More than one modern writer has found in this report of the enslavement of the Egyptian peasant shocking proof of Joseph's inhumanity. But, as has been stressed repeatedly by more objective students, such censorious comments show little understanding of either history or literature. The Egyptian concept of state, whereby the king was viewed as a god, made the pharaoh an absolute ruler from the start, and hence the owner of all he surveyed….The agrarian changes that are here described may reflect actual socio-economic developments… That they should be credited in this narrative to Joseph is part and parcel of his idealized historical image.” (E. A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Commentary)
  2. “The insulting point of the story is that Joseph sells back the grain that he first confiscated. There is no justification for what Joseph did. Under the ‘Joseph Plan,' the civilians were doomed from the start. The ‘Joseph Plan' is nothing new. Calls for government action to save us from impending economic catastrophes and the supposed inborn self-destructive mechanisms in the private ownership society/capitalism abound everywhere. If Joseph had respected private property, they not only would have survived, they would have prospered. Joseph effectively sent Egypt back to the Stone Age. A once advanced civilization was reduced to slavery in the space of a few years.” (Scott Wallace Brians, The Joseph Plan and the Road to Serfdom)
  3. “Joseph averted overwhelming famine and death, but at a price. In some respects, the sociological consequences - landless economic serfdom - are reminiscent of the changes that took place in Britain at the time of the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in modern Mexico among the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples. The net results of Joseph's actions were not only the avoidance of terrible famine but the centralization of power in a country where it had previously been dispersed, as well as the loss of liberty for most of its inhabitants. Paradoxically, he also set the stage for the creation of a powerful regime which eventually enslaved his own descendants.” (David Ehrenfeld, The Joseph Strategy)

Questions for Discussion

Speiser simultaneously says that Joseph's economic measures reflect his “idealized” image and that they are based on an idolatrous political system with a god-king at its center! Is it possible to justify Joseph's totalitarianism as simply consonant with his historical and cultural reality? Is this the act of “more objective students” of Bible and history or is it merely an act of moral relativism?

What way - if any - is Joseph's economic leadership relevant to this contemporary discussion? Does the biblical text offer solutions? Is it a cautionary tale? How does someone's political loyalties and biases impact his or her reading of our parshah? How might it shape Brians' analysis of the text?

Ehrenfeld's assertion that Joseph's actions set the stage for Israel's enslavement in Egypt is a harsh indictment. If he is correct, is that enslavement a punishment for Joseph's despotism or for his brother's sale of him into Egyptian bondage? What role might Joseph's harsh economic policies (and - in Ehrenfeld's scheme - the resultant national suffering) be intended to play in the national development and education of the Jewish people?

Two explanations of the name Joseph are provided in Genesis 30:23-24… “God has taken away (asaf) my disgrace”… and “May the Lord add (yosef) another son.” How might these etymologies affect our reading of the narrative describing Joseph's national and economic leadership?

Halachah L'Maaseh

God's promise to Jacob that He personally will “bring you back” to the Land of Israel is fulfilled both personally (Jacob's burial) and nationally (possession of the Promised Land). Arranging for burial in Israel still is considered an act of piety and affection for the Land. Rabbi Isaac Klein even permits exhumation for this purpose. Placing earth from the land of Israel into a grave in the diaspora at the time of burial is a gesture of the same affection for the Holy Land and a recognition of its unique sanctity and its centrality to Jewish spiritual life.

Historic Note

The record of Joseph's exploitative administration of Egypt's resources and populace is read on December 11, 2010. On December 11, 1792, King Louis XVI was put on trial for treason, following a famously despotic reign over hungry and impoverished subjects.


 
 
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