This painting was done for a boy named Joseph, named after his grandfather Joseph. He celebrated his Bar Mitzvah reading parshat VaYigash, about Joseph.
The colourful story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax in this week’s parsha. The brothers and their father, Jacob, had survived the famine in the land of Canaan but could not survive much longer. Against the heart broken patriarch’s intuition the brothers traveled to Egypt to get more food. They had gone before and met the Pharaoh’s second in command- and had a strange experience there. But this time they went with troubled hearts because they had to go with their youngest brother, Benjamin.
Joseph was playing a game with his brothers, and it’s difficult to understand exactly why he made the demands of them. This parsha begins just after Benjamin had been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice had been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers had been told that Benjamin will become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction.
The beauty/ pathos of the story unfolds from here. Judah steppped forward and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to this great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped that by telling this leader of his father’s frailty the leader may accept Judah as a slave rather than take his youngest brother.
Joseph could carry on the charade no longer. He cleared all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “and he cried, ‘Cause every man to go from me.’ And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.”
When I read those phrases I imagined a stately, handsome regent who was always in control. He was a man who had faced one challenge after another but had always kept his wits about him, analyzed, strategized, and succeeded. He had played with his brothers, waiting for just the right time to reveal his identity. I think he was “undone”, hearing Judah’s humility and love for Yaakov, the father Joseph hadn’t seen for decadess and possibly thought he never would see again. The narrative set the scene in a compelling way. Joseph was so overcome that he losts his controlled facade. Alone with his brothers he let out such a cry of anguish that the entire land of Mizrayim (Egypt) heard… What powerful text.
The story had begun many years earlier. Fraternal jealousy instigated a cruel joke at best or a malicious death wish at worst. That behaviour broke a family apart and had a ripple effect on the generations that followed.
As time went on Judah would become one leader of the tribes and the other brothers would unite as a group called “Yisrael”. We know from the text in the Bible that just as the brothers separated when Joesph was sold, their descendants- the tribes of Israel – would once again separate and form two kingdoms.
The conflict in the history of the Jews- the competition for leadership, the separation of the nations – was foreshadowed in the story of Abraham’s sons, then Isaac’s sons, and now again in the story of Jacob’s sons.
The hafatarah for this week is Ezekiel 37: 15 – 28. Ezekiel the prophet lived in the early part of the 6th C. BCE. He was among those exiled to Babylon. In this haftarah he is told by G-d to take two sticks. On one he should write the name of Joseph and his “house” (kingdom), and on the other the name of Judah and his “house” (kingdom). The two sticks should then be held together signifying that the two kingdoms should and can be reunited. The people of Israel will be gathered from among the nations, they will live righteously , and they will live as one nation.
We have seen the story played out over and over again. Now we have our own country of Israel. Jews are immigrating there from the four corners of the world. Yet we are divided by traditions, dress, levels of observance, and internal politics. We’ll see how our next chapter unfolds.
Let us pray for unity and peace among our people, and peace in the world.
Shabbat Shalom, Laya