Weekly Drash – Shabbat Va’yehi | January 2 2015
By: Rabbi Joel A. Alter
When Joseph was young, he obtusely, obnoxiously announced the exalted future that occupied his dreams. Obnoxious, because even if one dreams such dreams, only a fool would proclaim them with such delight to his older brothers and distinguished father. “Listen to this dream I dreamt!” he sang out, fluffing the collar of his pretty coat, when we first opened the Joseph story four weeks ago. Citing only his own fertile imagination as the source of his dreams, he stakes out what he believes is his rightful place over his brothers and parents. Indeed, so ridiculous and out of line do Joseph’s dreams seem that Jacob, who loved Joseph more than all his other brothers, nonetheless echoed back Joseph’s words with derision, dismissing the significance of his son’s self-aggrandizing imaginings: “What are these dreams you’ve dreamt! Do you really expect me and your mother and brothers to bow ourselves to the ground before you?”
Joseph’s words were obtuse, too, because even before he spoke of his dreams, his brothers hated him so intensely that they could not speak a good word to him. Their father’s favoritism was plain to see. In such a toxic environment, even a child typically learns some discretion. But not Joseph.
Resentments simmered over years, Jacob failed to intervene, the brothers fed one another’s hostility and none exercised wise leadership to de-escalate or reconcile, and when opportunity presented itself the brothers acted – clumsily, greedily, rashly, heartlessly, and with cowardice. They wrapped themselves in a cloak of self-interested deceit, presenting to their father Joseph’s coat, which they themselves had ripped and dipped in blood, saying, “We found this. Identify whether or not it is your son’s,” leaving him to exclaim, “My son’s coat! A vicious beast has eaten him! Joseph is torn to pieces!” All the while, the coins from Joseph’s sale to Egypt-bound slave traders jangled in their purses.
And yet, the dreams proved prophetic after all. Joseph ascends to greatness from degraded slavery. First in his master Potiphar’s house, then in the cell blocks of an Egyptian prison, and finally in Pharaoh’s court, ruling over Egypt as second to the emperor himself. It’s in this most exalted role of Joseph’s that the brothers, facing the demise of their family from a regional famine, present themselves to the ruler they don’t recognize as their own brother, begging to buy food with which to save their father and their whole family. Joseph anonymously presses them over a long period, testing them harshly to see if they have learned the loving sacrifices that family ties entail. Have they learned compassion? Have they learned honesty?
Not until last week’s portion of ויגש, when Judah offers his own life and liberty to preserve that of Joseph’s full brother Benjamin, and their father’s life in turn, that Joseph is overcome with his brothers’ transformation and can bear no longer to withhold his abiding love from them. He announces himself to them, letting loose sobs of relief and love, grief and regret that resound throughout Egypt.
What follows is fascinating. Like the anxious rumble of timpani in a classical symphony, we witness Joseph’s brothers express residual doubt that Joseph has truly, can truly have, forgiven them. In last week’s portion, when Joseph first revealed himself, his brothers were so shocked they recoiled from him. They see themselves as trapped in his throne room, left to the mercy of the unlimited power and authority of the Kingdom of Egypt.
Joseph sets about reassuring them repeatedly: “Come near, please. I am your brother Joseph whom you sold to Egypt, but don’t be concerned with that now, don’t let it trouble you that you sold me into this place, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” Alluding to the 14-year plan for storing up and distributing Egypt’s surplus food which Joseph discerned from Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph continues to reassure his brothers: “God sent me on ahead of you to provide that people would survive in this land, and to rescue you in a great deliverance.”
Joseph’s final instructions as he sends his brothers back to Canaan to pack up their households, along with their aged father, and relocate to Egypt, are that the brothers not quarrel along the way. He well understands that the unimaginable irony of their story might inspire in them intense guilt, regret, self-justification, and mutual recrimination. How will they tell their father what’s become of Joseph without incriminating themselves? What will become of their place in their father’s eyes, let alone their respective inheritances?
When they bring the news to their father they say only what they must to convey the present reality without a hint of how it came to be: Joseph is alive, rules over Egypt, and has summoned the family to relocate there so they may survive the famine under royal protection. Unsurprisingly, Jacob disbelieves them at first. כי לא האמין להם, we read last week.
Is this simply the shock anyone would feel, or perhaps, too, an expression of the fractured trust that characterized the entire family dynamic? And not only since Joseph’s brothers sold their own brother into slavery and silently watched their broken father descend into inconsolable grief, but since, well, since the beginning of the Book of Genesis – the very foundation of our Jewish family story. From Cain’s callous, rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to Abraham passing off his wife as his sister, to Abraham’s severing of the parent-child bond in offering Isaac as a sacrifice, to Judah withholding Tamar from his son, to Jacob’s deceit toward both his brother and father… there’s more. Trust is hard to come by in our Genesis family.
Is it any surprise, then, when our story finally draws to a close in this week’s parasha and Jacob – having settled comfortably in Egypt with his growing family, their wealth secure, protected by royal edict, and assured by God that he would be buried in the family plot back in Canaan, thereby securing the divine blessing that is both the anchor and the destiny of his family… Is it any wonder that when Jacob extends to his sons his final blessing, that full trust remains elusive?
First, the pattern of misaligned blessing continues into the next generation. In a formal blessing in which Jacob adopts Joseph’s two eldest sons as his own in order to enhance Joseph’s inheritance among his brothers, Jacob also elevates Joseph’s second son, Ephraim over his eldest, Menasheh. This strikes Joseph as a misguided move (the Torah even uses the harsh term, וירע בעיניו, it was wicked in his eyes [48:17]), but it’s too late. Jacob acts as he feels God’s will requires.
Once Jacob is dead and buried in Canaan, the Torah tells us that the brothers again fall into anxious doubt about their fate in Joseph’s hands, which is to say they question whether his forgiveness will outlive their father. At chapter 50:15 we read, “Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died and they said amongst themselves, “Perhaps Joseph will turn hostile toward us and will avenge the misfortune we brought him.” In a final irony, they, who burned with jealous rage at their father’s blatant favoritism toward Joseph, appeal to Joseph’s special relationship with their father to protect themselves. Or to paraphrase Rashi, they lie in the interests of peace. “Your father,” they falsely claim, “instructed us before he died as follows: Tell Joseph to please forgive your brother’s sin and wrongdoing in causing you misfortune, and forgive their wrong – they who are but servants of the God of your father.”
Joseph bursts into tears that his brothers would feel they need to appeal to their late father’s authority and unseemly favoritism to secure Joseph’s lasting forgiveness. They even offer to be his slaves for life – if only he will spare them. He assures them, again, that whatever ill intent they had for him, God willed only good, and all is and all will be well.
This, then, is the final heartbreak of our story. And it’s a cautionary tale. Trust squandered is regained only with great difficulty. The bonds of family are at once unbreakable and terribly fragile. Joseph is reconciled with his brothers, and they with him, but it’s up to each of us to read the text carefully, to imagine our lives and our experience into it and to ask if שלמות, if tranquil wholeness, is ever again attained.
For me, I suspect not. A wound may heal, yet leave a scar. This is not in itself tragic. It’s nothing other than how life works. But the brothers’ recurrent wariness toward Joseph though he is so magnanimous toward them in the end – reminds us to cultivate and protect our relationships of trust with extraordinary care. It cautions us to check our suspicions and to grant the benefit of the doubt whenever we can.
And Joseph’s frequent citation of God’s unseen hand at work in his life, once he’s matured out of the illusion of his own self-sufficiency, reminds us, too to find in our lives opportunities for life-giving generosity, rather than sniffing out hidden layers of duplicity and betrayal. None of us is free of the tug of jealousy and envy, nor of the hostility they engender. But neither is any of us free of Joseph-like opportunities for humble magnanimity. On this first Shabbat of 2015, let’s add to our New Year resolutions a commitment to honor trust with loving generosity.