Parshat VaYigash begins with the climactic encounter between Yosef and Yehuda, facing off over the fate of Binyamin, who has been falsely accused of stealing Yosef’s chalice. There are two interesting parallels to previous events in the saga of Yaakov’s family, which echo here. Firstly, there is the accusation leveled against Binyamin. If we hark back to Parshat VaYetze, we are reminded of the accusation, made by Lavan, that a member of Yaakov’s household had stolen his idols. In that case, of course, the accusation was true, and the thief was none other than Binyamin’s mother, Rachayl. In that case, as well, a spirited defense of the accused is mounted, with tragic consequences. Yaakov’s curse, intended to emphasize the baseness of Lavan’s claims, boomerangs against Rachayl who had in fact taken her father’s idols. The curse claims her life during the birth of Binyamin himself.
A second parallel can be found in Yehuda’s confrontation with Yosef. I have often wondered about the Midrash (Breishit Rabba 93), quoted by Rashi, that fills in the details of the conversation between the two. Amongst the issues raised is Yehuda’s threat to kill Pharaoh and Yosef (other Midrashim expand this to include a threat to destroy all of Mitzrayim). What could have motivated the Midrash to go in this direction? After all, logic dictates that eleven strangers would most likely not be in a position to harm the viceroy of Egypt in his palace. The fact is that he is surrounded by guards (as is evidenced by Yosef’s order that all people be removed from his chamber when reveals himself to his brothers (chapter 45)). Beyond that, nothing in the passukim themselves would indicate that Yehuda sees himself as negotiating from a position of strength. If anything the opposite is true. We clearly see Yehuda begging for mercy based upon the frailty of an elderly father and his own oath given to that father, culminating with Yehuda’s offer to replace Binyamin as Yosef’s slave. If the passukim convey anything it is desperation and futility, not strength and valor.
One possibility, of course, is that the Midrash is coming precisely to ameliorate that impression, and to restore dignity to Yehuda and, by extension, all the Jewish people, who have been forced to deal with these types of situations throughout the ages. I would like to suggest a different possibility, based upon the behavior of Yaakov when confronting Eisav. In one of the more famous comments of Rashi, we are told of Yaakov’s preparations for this confrontation. Rashi tells us that Yaakov’s strategy contained three elements: prayer, bribery and taking up arms in self defence (32:9). Now surely Yaakov’s military position is as desperate as Yehuda’s was. After all, Eisav has always been the warrior while Yaakov was the scholar. Furthermore, Yaakov is moving toward Eisav at the head of a large household, burdened with young children and cattle, while Eisav is leading a band of battle tested fighters. One need not be a military tactician to understand why Yaakov saw military action as a last resort, and set up a camp in the back lines to serve as refuge for his forces after they are routed.
Yehuda, at his father’s urging, adopts a similar tack. In parshat Miketz (43:11-14) we see that Yaakov repeats the first two steps of this strategy, preparing a tribute for the powerful ruler and at the same time appealing to Hashem for help. The Midrash, then, is filling in the third step, the willingness to fight, even when such a course of action appears suicidal. Yehuda, then, follows in his father’s footsteps, first by defending a family member against the accusation of theft, and then by preparing for all eventualities when confronting the king.
The emotional climax of this confrontation is, of course, when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. ChaZal see in Yosef’s initial revelation a thinly veiled rebuke to his brothers. “Ani Yosef! HaOd Avi Chai?” (45:3), proclaims Yosef. And his brother’s reaction? Silence. “Ki Nivhalu Mipanav”. Why? Shame, says Rashi. The gemara in Chagiga (4b) tells us that the brother’s are rendered speechless by the rebuke of Yosef. But what is that rebuke? HaOd Avi Chai? Has my father survived the emotional pain that you have caused him these past twenty-two years? How can you stand here and preach about an elderly father when you have caused him so much pain? This accusation, eloquently reduced to three words, haunts the brothers.
Yet here, there was an answer, though unuttered due to the shock that the brothers are now experiencing. An answer that Yaakov himself gave, thus providing a third parallel to this family’s difficult past. The Netziv points out that the passuk suggests that the reason the brothers do not answer Yosef is because they are stunned and shamed into silence, but not because they have no answer. And what would they have answered? The same answer, says the Netziv, that Yaakov flung back at an anguished Rachayl, when she reproved him for her inability to conceive (30:1). Don’t think, said Yaakov then, that just because you are my first and ultimate love, that I somehow love my sons from Leah less. Your inability to conceive is your personal tragedy, but it does not lessen the rest of my family. Here, too, the brothers wish to tell Yosef, “Yes, you were our father’s favorite, but just as you would never question his ability to move forward if one of us were to disappear, why do you think that your disappearance debilitated him more?” But their shame and shock prevents them from doing so.
Yet we know that Yosef’s disappearance did in fact debilitate Yaakov. And Yosef knows it as well. When instructing his brothers to convince Yaakov to agree to come to see him in Mitzrayim, Yosef tells them that they have heard of Yosef’s survival and success from an unimpeachable source – Yosef himself. “Ki Pi HaMidaber Aliechem” (45:12). Most commentaries understand this to be referring to the fact that Yosef is speaking with his brothers in Hebrew, a language unfamiliar to Egyptians and therefore a clear sign that Yosef is “one of them”. (See the Ramban for a cogent analysis of the difficulties in this approach). The Meshech Chachma, however, suggests that Yosef’s comment of “Ki Pi HaMidaber Aleichem” was not referring to himself, but rather to his father. Yosef’s original plan, explains the Mesech Chachma, had been to continue the charade until Yaakov himself came to Mitzrayim, thereby completely fulfilling the prophecy of the sun, moon and stars bowing down to him. This scheme is disrupted by Yosef’s inability to continue the charade (v’Lo Yachol Yosef l’Hitapek). Now Yosef is confronted with an unanticipated difficulty. While Yosef was missing Yaakov had lost his access to Ruach HaKodesh (see Rashi 45:27). This was a direct result of the anguish Yosef’s disappearance had caused, depriving Yaakov of the inner tranquility that is a necessary condition for receiving nevuah. Once he learned of Yosef’s survival, however, Yaakov would regain his Ruach HaKodesh, and then be unwilling to leave Eretz Yisrael, as being in Eretz Yisrael is another necessary condition for nevuah. Yet Yosef realizes that he can only provide for his family if they join him in Mitzrayim. Hence the message to Yaakov is that he will not lose his Ruach HaKodesh, since it began to flow in Israel and will therefore continue in Chutz La’Aretz as well. And that is the meaning of “Ki Pi Hamidaber”, that the mouth (of Yaakov) that had spoken with Ruach HaKodesh would continue to do so, even in Chutz La’Aretz. (This idea is expressed in the Gemara Moed Katan (25A), which, according to Rashi tells us Yechezkel receives nevuah in Bavel since he had already begun to receive it in Israel).
Clearly, then, as is demonstrated by Yaakov’s loss of Ruach HaKodesh, Yosef’s disappearance has left Yaakov distraught and despairing. The brothers claim that Yaakov’s love for them has helped Yaakov overcome the loss of Yosef is proven false.
Ironically, it is this very recovery of Ruach HaKodesh that leads to Yaakov’s descent into Egypt. For it is the subsequent nevuah that he receives in Be’er Sheva, where HaShem reassures him not to fear going to Mitzrayim, that seals the decision.
This week we bid farewell to the Australian and South African students who have been with us since last January. Yosef’s message rings out to them and to us. Even when we are forced to leave Israel, if we have prepared ourselves properly, the spirit of Eretz Yisrael stays with us until we return. B’Karov.