Vayigash: Family Reunion

It seems so fitting that this week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, for it is a story of a moving family reunion outside of the Land of Israel, because I am right now visiting my family in the United States.

Joseph, who is serving as viceroy in Egypt, confronts his band of brothers who have come to him for help, and he asks about their family (but the reader knows that Joseph knows who they are), and he learns that his father is still alive.

In one of the most moving parts of the Torah, Joseph reveals his identity (Bereshit/Genesis 45: 2-5):

Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, “Take everyone away from me!” So no one stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
And he wept out loud, so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.
And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” but his brothers could not answer him because they were startled by his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me,” and they drew closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.
But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.

He not only forgives his brothers who sold him into slavery, but provides for them during this time of famine.  He is able to see the positive and Gd’s guiding hand in what had once been a terrible ordeal – being crossed over by his own brothers as they threw him into a pit to be taken away by slave traders.

Joseph’s brothers confront him  (45: 14-16)  And he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.  And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them, and afterwards his brothers spoke with him.  And the voice was heard [in] Pharoah’s house saying, “Joseph’s brothers have come!”

At issue here is a balance between chesed, or lovingkindness and goodwill, and gevura, or “might”, the ability to restrain ones urge to bestow goodness upon another who is unworthy.  Can a family member or a loved one ever do something so horrendous that we cannot or should not forgive?

Yesterday I saw the new movie Invictus, which tells the story of reconciliation following apartheid in South Africa.  Newly elected President Nelson Mandela tries to unite South Africa around rugby, which had been a symbol of apartheid and white domination.  Rather than ditch the old symbols and systems, he engaged with what had once between the enemy after assuming office in the first multi-racial democratic elections.  He told the government officials not to think that they needed to abandon their posts.  After sitting in prison for 27 years for leading anti-apartheid efforts, he looked at the oppressor in the eye as a comrade in the waiting.

Another issue that is addressed in this parshah is Jacob’s family making yerida or coming down to Egypt during a famine in the Land of Israel. For those living in Israel and those making aliyah, under what circumstances one might leave is a serious question.  Many Americans who make aliyah leave or at least temporarily leave for weeks or months at a time in order to make more money abroad.  Should parnasah, the ability of one to support oneself and one’s family send a person away?  Should you only leave if you don’t have enough to eat, or just if you don’t live with all of the material comforts you are used to? What about when bombs start falling and children are blown up at cafes?  Will that send you away?

Pharoah is kind to Joseph’s family and allows them to raise their sheep in the land of Goshen.  Coming up next will arise a Pharoah “who did not know Joseph,” and the band that will later become the Jewish people are made slaves.  In other words, this begins the first exile, or galut. Before coming to the United States, where I am now visiting my family, I joked around with friends about heading to “galut”. This parshah forces me to question what exactly is an exile, and to what extent it may can it be a good thing, both for the Jewish people in this story in the Torah and for the Jewish people of today.

I read a Chassidic insight by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe saying that Gd sent Joseph to Egypt and then the rest of his family as part of a plan.  “The key to Israel’s eventual liberation from Egypt was already ‘programmed’ into the circumstances under which their galut commenced.” Had the Jewish people not been slaves in Egypt, they would not have been freed “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” as we say at the Passover seder, and would they have been given the Torah?

This article defines galut as “a place where one does not want to be — a place that is contrary to one’s intrinsic self and will.” In the gym yesterday, a man asked me why I wanted to live in Jerusalem.  Not knowing whether he wanted the short or the long answer, I hesitated, and began with: “It’s a whole lifestyle, really.”  I can tell you about the learning opportunities, the cultural events, the people, the milder winters.  I wish I had read this article yesterday, because it sums up the opposite feeling of being in Israel nicely: It is a place of my intrinsic self and will.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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