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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayigash
December 27, 2014 – 5 Tevet 5775

Annual: Genesis 44:18-47:27 (Etz Hayim p. 274; Hertz p. 169)
Triennial: 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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Judah pleads with Joseph for mercy, knowing that Jacob would be crestfallen if he knew that Benjamin was imprisoned. Joseph decides to tell his brothers his true identity, reassuring him that he would not take revenge on them for selling him into slavery. Instead, he insists that the entire family relocate to Egypt. Jacob rejoices at the news that Joseph is still alive, and Joseph’s extended family settles in Goshen. Jacob meets the Pharaoh and reveals the anguish he has felt in his life. Joseph proves himself a master economic planner, nationalizing Egypt’s land and livestock.

Theme #1: God and Jacob, The Three-quel

God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into 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.” (Genesis 46:2-4)

For the third and final time, God speaks to Jacob and reassures him once again that he will find a satisfactory conclusion to his life.

The expression “fear not” is only directed to one who is afraid. Jacob was afraid and said: Now that I am about to go down to Egypt the days are at hand foretold my forefathers regarding the decree of bondage and affliction on my seed in a land not their own. Thereupon the Holy One blessed be He set his mind at rest, saying: “fear not to go down into Egypt”. Notwithstanding that I warned your father I have come to promise you that though the days of bondage and affliction are at hand, so too is the blessing wherewith I blessed your grandfather, “that I shall make you a great nation …” -- Hizkuni

[At the beginning of the book of Exodus,] nameless, faceless, these too are the “children of Israel.” How are we to read this description of their anonymous fecundity? … This is a celebration of fullness, of life burgeoning and uncontained. This reading would be a fulfillment of God’s promise to Jacob: “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.” The redundant expressions of fertility [in Exodus 1] have been read as denoting multiple births, healthy development, absence of fetal, infant, or adult mortality. -- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture

The addition of riches and glory is a snare to weak minds, and [Jacob] also recollected that he had been left to himself, as no one had gone forth out of his father’s house with him to keep him in the right way, but he had been left solitary and destitute of all good instructions and might therefore be supposed to be ready to change and adopt their foreign customs. Therefore, when that Being, who alone is able to behold the invisible soul, saw him in this frame of mind, he took pity on him and, appearing unto him by night while he was lying asleep. -- Philo

Questions for Discussion:

Hizkuni claims that God knows Jacob well enough to implore him to “fear not,” even though Jacob had not said so. It is a sign of a good friendship when we know someone well enough that we don’t have to ask how he/she is feeling. Does that characterize the relationship between God and Jacob? Does the fact that God speaks to Jacob on three separate occasions -- far more than God had spoken to Isaac -- attest to the closeness of that relationship?

When commenting on the opening verses in the book of Exodus, Zornberg notes that the Israelites, now numerous, are living legacies to the promises made to Jacob years before. What are effective ways to live out the legacies of those who lived before us?

Philo says that God understands Jacob’s trepidation before leaving Canaan and moving to Egypt. This is in contrast to God’s initial encounter with Abraham, of whom God does not address any fear Abraham may have had. How do we account for this? Is Abraham fearless in a way that Jacob is not? Does God not address Abraham’s emotions since it is the first (recorded) time that God speaks to Abraham, and thus does not know him quite as well as Jacob, with whom he is speaking for the third time?

Theme #2: Lucky Number 70

All the persons belonging to Jacob who came to Egypt -- his own issue, aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons -- all these persons numbered 66. And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two in number. Thus the total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was 70 persons. (Genesis 46:26-27)

The initial census of the Israelite nation is meant to explain more than just numbers.

Why was Israel subjugated to all the nations? So that within Israel they would live on, for Israel must incorporate the world. -- Zohar

“Seventy persons” is a typological number, symbolizing a large clan or large community. This can be demonstrated from a number of contexts. … From all of this we may deduce that the number of seventy is typological and indicates a large amount. However, in our parasha the Sages viewed “seventy persons” as a precise number rather than a symbolic figure meaning “many,” and therefore, they were faced with a problem. The list of Jacob’s descendants given in Genesis 46:5-21 only totals sixty-nine. -- Moshe Zipor, “Your Ancestors Went Down to Egypt Seventy Persons in All”, from A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Volume II

Esau had six souls in his family, yet the verse calls them “souls of his household,” in the plural, because they worshipped many deities. Jacob had seventy [family members], yet the verse calls them “soul”, because they all worshipped one God. -- Leviticus Rabbah

Questions for Discussion:

The Zohar tells us that Israel cannot be cut off from other nations and must be able to co-exist with them. What risks does a community or country run when it isolates itself from those outside? What are the potential benefits? How has modern Jewish history been a long-running exploration of living Jewishly while still interacting with the outside world? What lessons have we learned?

Zipor points out a mathematical problem, as the number of Jacob’s family does not match the final number mentioned in the text. Why would the text want to round up from 69 to 70? Why would the text be so concerned with numerical symmetry? Is it because of the importance of the number seven in Jewish tradition?

Leviticus Rabbah posits that Jacob’s family, because of its commitment to monotheism, has a common thread that Esau’s descendants lack. Every family has its share of common traits and differences. What commonalities tend to bring families together most effectively? Is blood indeed “thicker than water?”

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