Torah Reading for Week of December 16-22, 2012
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D. ’11
The Joseph Narrative, which spans Genesis 37:1 to Genesis 50:26, beginning with the identification of Joseph as his father’s most beloved son and progressing through Joseph’s death, is a family saga as well as a Toratic bildungsroman. Rich in plot, symbolism, motivation and characterization, Nahum Sarna famously characterizes the Joseph Narrative as unique in the Torah due to its “unparalleled continuity of narrative.”
But Parshat Vayigash, the fourth and final parsha of the Joseph Narrative, does not display structural continuity. On the contrary, Vayigash begins as an abrupt break in the middle of Joseph’s story–what Avivah Zornberg calls “Perhaps the most dramatic break” between parshiot in the entire Torah. This break means that the final segment of the story begins with the words “Vayigash eilav Yehudah” (“And Judah approached him”), giving such emphasis to the word Vayigash that “And he approached” becomes the name of the parsha.
Indeed, Judah’s decision to approach the Egyptian lord is a desperate strategy: attempting to reach the man behind the mask of power, Judah appeals both to his status and to his humanity, beginning with humility but presuming to ask if the great man has a father or a brother, explaining that his own father’s beloved son was torn to pieces and that if something should happen to the remaining son, it would mean his father’s death, for “the soul of the one is bound up with the soul of the other.”
The complex interplay of relationships between father, sons and brothers that informs the Joseph Narrative rises to a crescendo of anguish in Vayigash. Like the 17th century English poet Ben Jonson, whose “On My First Sonne” describes his despair at the death of his son Benjamin, the “child of my right hand, and joy,” Jacob’s grief at Joseph’s supposed death has never been assuaged. The sons who may have dreamt of winning their father’s love in the absence of his favorite have been schooled in irony, for Jacob has never stopped yearning for his lost Joseph. Inevitably, Rachel’s younger son, Benjamin, has become his father’s raison d’etre, the treasure that the guilty brothers must safeguard, for Benjamin provides Jacob’s life with meaning–so much so that his life ensures his father’s. But, as Vayigash makes clear, Jacob’s enmeshment with Benjamin is no solution for a family that is starving not merely for food but for a resolution of its painful history. In truth, there is not a member of the family whose soul is not bound to the events and consequences of a long-ago day.
Judah’s decisive approach signals the denouement of the Joseph Narrative, a dramatic revelation so grippingly poignant that Tanchuma says that angels descended from heaven to listen in on the dialogue in this parsha. In the language of Muriel Rukeyser, Joseph has been “split open, unable to speak, in exile” (“The Poem As Mask”); now, in response to Judah’s catalyst, he does speak, revealing not only his identity but his longing; in doing so, he sets his family on a course of healing and reunification that is, literally, life-saving for them all.
But, as the midrash to Vayigash makes clear, there is still more to this part of the story, though the plot of Joseph Narrative moves on. The true mark of the brothers’ spiritual release from the bonds of envy, deception, guilt and shame that have so long shackled them is their collaboration as they consider how to inform their father that he has no need to fear more loss and that his long-lost son will be restored to him. Their decision to enlist Asher’s daughter Serach to gently break the news to Jacob that Joseph is alive and prospering in Egypt suggests that this action-orientated, male-dominant family has truly been transformed. No longer driven by the fear and loss of their collective past, the brothers are able to value and trust a perspective that is both female and from the younger generation. Their concern that their aged father might die from shock upon hearing the astounding news that Joseph is alive and well suggests that the brothers have matured emotionally. The brothers’ reliance on a young girl who, the midrash tells us, waits for just the right moment to relay the news to her grandfather through rhyming song while accompanying herself on the harp, suggests that they, too, understand that healing requires time, patience, gentleness and trust.
Serach acquires immortality when her grandfather blesses her that death may never rule over her, for her message brings his “spirit back to life.” As the resuscitator of Jacob’s spirit, she embodies this story’s happy ending: the healing power of hope to release and transform even the most tightly bound soul.