Torah Reading for Week of December 20-26, 2020
“Betrayal & Retribution”
By Rabbi Rachel Axelrad, ’20
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Vayigash highlights yet another instance of betrayal in the Joseph narrative, following the numerous instances in the Jacob narrative. Joseph has not committed any deceptions or betrayals, up to this point, although he, like his father Jacob, was the object of another’s betrayal. In this parashah, Joseph arranges for a valuable goblet to be hidden in Benjamin’s sack, and subsequently accuses Benjamin of stealing, representing the ultimate ingratitude after Joseph’s generosity. It is Joseph himself who has betrayed his younger brother, while accusing Benjamin of betrayal against him.
The incidents in this week’s parsha are preceded by earlier incidents of deception: Joseph’s brothers sold him and lied about his status to their father Jacob. Potiphar’s wife lied to her husband about Joseph’s intentions, resulting in Joseph’s prison sentence. Earlier, Jacob committed two major wrongs against his brother Esau and his father Isaac. Jacob himself was the object of betrayal by Laban, his uncle and father-in-law, and again by his cousins, Laban’s sons. Jacob’s daughter Dina was the reason for the grievous crime of deception and betrayal committed by her brothers against Shechem. Jacob’s entire family, from his father Isaac and brother Esau, to all of his offspring, suffered from tragedies that occurred through the betrayals and crimes of others in the family against each other.
Finally, Joseph reverses his deception, embraces his brothers, accepts their apologies, and meets his father. Joseph then brings the entire clan to Egypt to live in comfort and affluence in the land of Goshen during the time of famine and poverty that impacted so many. Is this justice? Is this Divine Providence? Is it proof that atonement was fulfilled by everyone who was obligated to do so?
In the traditional interpretation, Jacob is seen as the chosen patriarch, following Isaac, who was the link between Jacob and Abraham. His lineage enabled his destiny. Thus, whatever he did is seen as inevitable, or necessary to fulfill the will of Adonai. The issue of deceit is secondary to that of destiny. The narratives of Jacob and Joseph end with Jacob’s death in Egypt, in the land of Goshen, where he lived in peace and prosperity, with all of his family around him. Joseph’s own life was lived in a position of political and economic power, and much wealth. Ultimately, neither Jacob or Joseph was tarnished by past deceits. They were destined for greatness, and whatever actions brought them to their ultimate rewards were either by Divine will, or else as a result of suffering and atonement.
The contemporary perspective must consider the human element. Jacob cannot be seen as absolute, beyond consequence. Furthermore, there is the strain of deceitful behavior that trickles down through his offspring, even to Joseph-albeit to a very small degree. Jacob and Joseph and all of Joseph’s siblings suffered deeply for their actions. Lineage counts. Despite any perspective of Divine will and destiny, all who were involved in the years of betrayals suffered as a result of committing, or being the object of, betrayal. Suffering and retribution happened. While there is always the possibility for atonement, actions always have consequences, and those consequences will impact not just the doer but also those around him (or her).