Online Torah

Beit Hamidrash

Vayigash - Charachter Development

By: Eli Fisher - Student

Parashat Vayigash is a fascinating Parasha, both for its story, and for its location toward the end of Sefer Bereshit. Vayigash and its sequel, Parashat Vayechi, serve as a classic denouement to the stories of our...

Parashat Vayigash - Eli Fisher

Parashat Vayigash is a fascinating Parasha, both for its story, and for its location toward the end of Sefer Bereshit. Vayigash and its sequel, Parashat Vayechi, serve as a classic denouement to the stories of our forefathers - a completion of the story, but also of the ideas raised therein. It ties up the loose ends that still abound, and solves some questions that have remained conspicuously unanswered. It functions both as a curtain-call - allowing many themes we've been introduced to, to have a last appearance - and also as a revision, reminding us of what we have learned. Indeed, over the next two shabbatot, there is a sense of closure, as is fitting the closure of the life of the last of our three Avot.

Parashat Vayigash begins immediately after Yosef has pronounced his intention to keep Binyamin in Egypt, with him. It commences with Yehuda's strange series of pleas to Yosef to not detain Binyamin in Egypt (44:18-34). We witness Yosef revealing his true identity (45:1) and the brothers' subsequent shock (45:3). We hear Yosef guarantee his brothers sustenance throughout the famine (45:10-11). The brothers go back to Canaan to tell Ya'acov about what they have seen, and to bring Ya'acov to see Yosef (45:25). We hear of the prophecy that Ya'acov has on the way to see Yosef (46:29) and observe the reunion of father and son. Yosef finds his family accommodation in Goshen. Ya'acov and Pharaoh have a D&M about life (47:9), and the Parasha ends with a strange exchange between the Egyptian people and Yosef, which ultimately leads to Yosef buying the entire land of Egypt, its cattle and its people (47:13-27).

Throughout the stories of Ya'acov and his children, one would be justified in constantly being disappointed by their actions: Ya'acov lies to, and deceives, his father; he favours Rachel over Leah and creates hatred, envy and competition between the two sisters; he repeats his mistake amongst his children, who then sell Yosef. They subsequently lie to their Ya'acov causing him to believe his son has died. Reuven sins with Bil'hah; Shimon and Levi with Sh'chem; Yehuda with Tamar, etc. In fact, most of the biblical coverage that our protagonists attract, exposes them as weak, jealous, vengeful, deceptive and arrogant - certainly far from what we'd expect from our holy forefathers who heralded our faith and our nation. That is, until we arrive at Parashat Vayigash.

If Parasha Vayigash could be summarised in one word, that word would be ‘transition'. Parashat Vayigash, and Parashat Vayechi, signify the turning point in the biographies of Ya'acov and his children. Whereas once, the children were too arrogant to honour someone, that they wanted to kill Yosef, now they have learned to respect those above them. Whereas once, they had little compunction in hurting their father, the brothers now refuse to cause their father any suffering. Whereas once, the brothers would witness harm befall one of them and yet remain silent, now one of them pleads to even switch places and suffer in his brother's stead. Indeed, if readers of the Tanach wondered how the sons of Ya'acov, so flawed, could be the progenitors of Am Yisrael, and more specifically how Yehuda could be the ancestor of Malchut Yisrael, our Parasha explains that a transition takes place, where the sons of Ya'acov ultimately act heroically.

The Parasha open with Yehuda negotiating Binyamin's release from Yosef. He employs a range of persuasive techniques. He refers to Yosef as ‘Adoni' - my lord - in order to flatter him into agreement. He refers to himself, his brothers and even his father as ‘Avadecha' - your servants - to reinforce the flattery. In fact, he likens Yosef to Pharaoh ("Ki Kamocha k'Pharoh" (44:18)) - and this is merely the first passuk of the Parasha. Rashi and Nechama Leibowitz suggest that Yehuda also threatens Yosef that he would destroy parts of Egypt if Binyamin were not released - a tactic very different from flattery, but nonetheless effective. Moreover, Yehuda employs the evocative technique of emphasising that his old father, who already has lost one son or Rachel, loves Rachel's only other son:

"Yesh lanu av zaken, v'yeled z'kunim katan. V'achiv met, va'yivater hu levado l'imo, v'aviv ahevo."
"We have an old father, who had a young son in his old age. The son's brother died, so he is the only one left to his mother. And his father loves him." (44:20)

In fact, so evocative is Yehuda, that in this one exchange, he mentions a familial relationship no fewer than 23 times, of which 14 are references to his father. He even argues that should Binyamin not return, his father would die from grief (eg: 44:22), and repeats this argument five times in twelve p'sukim. Thus, so desperate to prevent harm befalling his brother or father - this time - Yehuda appeals to Yosef's ego and to his conscience.

We are left wondering: what has changed? Perhaps it is the intense guilt that haunted Yehuda - and presumably the other brothers - that has triggered this changed mindset. But something else seems different. This time, the brothers all seem highly aware of God's presence in everything they do. The incident where the brothers abandoned Yosef in the pit was characterised by their fear of how Ya'acov would react. Thus, they dipped his kutonet - his ‘technicolour dreamcoat' - in blood and faked his death. The incident with Binyamin, however, is characterised by their fear of both Ya'acov's and God's reactions. The evidence for this is subtle, but when noticed, extremely informative. In Yehuda's exchange with Yosef, as mentioned earlier, he refers to Yosef as ‘Adoni' and to himself as ‘Avd'cha'. He is speaking in second-person - you and me. But for two p'sukim, in the middle of the conversation, (44:19-20) something changes. Yehuda refers to himself and his brothers, not as ‘avadecha' as is common throughout, but as ‘avadav' - his servants. Implicitly, Yehuda and his brothers are not exclusively Yosef's servants, but they serve someone else too. Yehuda says:

"Adoni sha'al et avadav lemor: Ha'yesh lachem av o ach? (20) Va'nomer el adoni, yesh lanu av zaken."
"My lord asked his servants: Do you have a father or a brother? (20) And we said to my Lord, we have an old father..." (44:19-20)

In these two lines, the brothers are referred to as his servants, instead of your servants. After these two lines, it returns to the usage of the second-person ‘your servants.' The most likely reason is that the brothers were serving someone else, someone else who would be called ‘my lord'. It seems that in this instance, when Yehuda sees before him a choice - to save his brother or not - he is reminded by God: ‘Yehuda, do you have a brother or a father?' Yehuda is reminded that Binyamin is his brother and that he must try desperately to protect him, but also that the one who would suffer most would be Ya'acov, and he should save him from suffering too. At this point, Yehuda - because of Hashem's reminder - tries frantically to bring Binyamin home. What are the implications of this?

This instance, where the brothers can redeem themselves by saving Binyamin, mirrors the incident with Yosef. Every element of what they did wrong last time, is again referred to this time; but here, the brothers do not repeat their mistakes. They remember their father, they remember God, and they try desperately to bring their brother home. Yehuda, who was instrumental in Yosef's sale, is now instrumental in saving Binyamin. And to reinforce the comparison between the two instances, the Torah uses similar language.

Upon finding an empty pit, Reuven laments: "Ha'yeled enenu, va'ani? Ana ani va?" "The child is not with me. What about me? Where shall I go?" (37:30)

And Yehuda in his efforts to negotiate Binyamin's release: "Ech e'eleh el avi, v'hana'ar enenu iti?" "How shall I go up to my father, with the youth not with me?" (44:34)

The difference being: Reuven was concerned about his own fate, while Yehuda was concerned about the fate of his father.

Indeed, there are many references in the story of Binyamin that echo the story of Yosef. Except, when the brothers revisit their past, instead of repeating their mistakes, they learn from them, and do everything to redeem themselves. They prove, ultimately, to be successful. This is what we call, in Judaism, ‘Tshuva'. Based on the root ‘Shuv' - return, revisit - it implies having an opportunity to recommit a crime - an opportunity for recidivism - and not doing so. These are the Torah's implications when Yehuda seeks to be detained in Binyamin's stead:

"V'ata, y'shev na avd'cha, tachat hana'ar..." (44:33)

His final plea - the one that finally broke Yosef - has two separate meanings:
a) "And now, detain me, please, in place of the youth [Binyamin]"; or,
b) "And now, let me repent (Yeshev) through the youth [Binyamin]."

It is clear that Parashat Vayigash serves as a vivid description of turning around one's ways. But this Parasha ties up another loose end. Yosef, despite his brother's actions being grossly disproportionate, was nonetheless sinfully arrogant in his youth. His dreams, and insistence that his family listens to them, were terribly arrogant, and his boasting nature was far from the character we expect from our national heroes (Moshe, for instance, was ‘anav m'od' - ‘very modest'). So we see here, too, in Parshiot Vayigash and Vayechi, a great and eloquent tale of the transition from arrogance to modesty.

We know of Yosef that he is the firstborn of Jacob's favourite wife; he is the favourite son of the man that Hashem has chosen to carry the destiny of His plans. And through his youth, he has physical signs of his status as the favourite son, which he wears proudly in the presence of his less-loved brothers. We also know that Yosef was "Y'feh toa'r, vifeh mareh" - "Of beautiful form and fair to look upon" (39:6). Furthermore, in Potiphar's house, he was successful in everything that he did, and no-one was greater in that house than Yosef: ("Enenu gadol babayit ha'ze mimeni." (39:9).) Additionally, Yosef has dreams, as a child, which confirm his supremacy, and is bestowed with a special God-given ability to interpret dreams (in jail, and for Pharaoh). Even in prison, Yosef was supreme and favoured by the guards, (39:21-23). This all culminates in Yosef becoming the second-most powerful man in the world. Clearly, Yosef had every reason to be arrogant.

But there's a profound lesson in the story of Yosef. How should one who is physically beautiful be modest? Should he deny the obvious? Should one who is rich pretend that he is poor? Should one who is a genius pretend that he is, in fact, stupid? This story tells us that the answer is no. If it were true, talented writers would refuse to write books, because they would have been encouraged to not acknowledge their strengths. Talented musicians would refuse to sing, because they denied having talent; exceptional scientists would refuse to find cures, and gifted students would refuse to become professors, rabbis etc. And the world would be deficient for it. The answer, therefore, must be different. Those with characteristics, of which one should be proud, (success, appearance, popularity, brains, talent, health, etc.) should not deny reality; rather they should realise that it is not (entirely) their achievements. Yosef, who stands in front of his brothers bowing down to him, who is successful in everything he does - is handsome and is now the second most powerful and important human being in the world - knows whence his successes are derived:

"(7) Vayishlacheni Elokim lifneichem la'soom lachem she'erit ba'aretz, u'le'hachayot lachem lifletah gdolah. (8) V'ata, lo atem sh'lachtem oti hena, ki ha'Elokim. Va'y'simeni l'av l'pharoh u'le'adon l'chol beito, u'moshel b'chol eretz Mitzrayim. (9) Maharu v'alu el avi v'amartem elav "ko amar bincha Yosef: ‘Samani Elokim l'adon l'chol Mitzrayim.'" (45:7-9)

"(7) "And God sent me before you to give you a remnant of the Earth, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. (8) So now it was not you who sent me here, it was God. And He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and a lord to his entire house, in all of Egypt. (9) Go quickly and go to my father and say to him: "So says your son Yosef: ‘God made me lord to all of Egypt'"

Yosef, who in his early life, never once mentioned God's name, begins to attribute all his good qualities to God, claiming that whatever success he has had, has been God's doing. We are twice told that everything Yosef did, Hashem made successful: once in Potiphar's house (39:3), and then again in jail (39:23). ("V'chol asher hu asah, Hashem matzliach b'yado") Such is Yosef's modesty: he is not in denial of his gifts, but he knows that they are just that: gifts. His successes are contingent exclusively upon Hashem. And to know that, is modesty.

But the Torah implies that such acknowledgement of God is not, in itself, sufficient. It is not enough to attribute your successes to Hashem. Modesty requires one other criterion: that your God-given gifts do not impact, or in any way inform, your interaction with others. That, if you're intelligent, for example, you do not make others feel stupid. In two keys instances in Yosef's life, he had a tempting opportunity to sin because of his gifts. The first was with Potiphar's wife, where she was attracted to him because he was naturally handsome. In this instance, he, aware of the reasons behind Potiphar's wife's attraction, proclaims: "V'eich e'eseh et Ha'ra'ah ha'gdola ha'zot, v'chatati l'Elohim?" "And how can I do such a terrible act, and sin before God?" In the second instance, after Ya'acov's death, Yosef's brothers fear that, now that Ya'acov is out of the picture, Yosef might finally exact revenge. Yosef, because of his God-given power in Egypt, has such access to revenge, but once again, refuses to take advantage of his gifts, proclaiming: "Al tira'u, ki ha'tachat Elohim ani." "Do not fear, because I am beneath God." (50:19)

Thus, Parashat Vayigash serves as a turning point in the stories of our Avot. It acts to explain the transition of Ya'acov and his sons from the conspiring, deceptive and vengeful individuals they once were, to men of integrity, honesty, loyalty and self-sacrifice. So too, we observe the transition in Yosef from arrogant and boastful to the epitome of modesty - acknowledging that the source of his strengths and successes is God, and not allowing them to influence the way he treats others. In so doing, Parashat Vayigash explains how the children of Ya'acov became worthy of being forever engraved as the ancestors of Am Yisrael.