Parshat Vayigash

Parshat Vayigash

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

The setting of this week’s Torah portion is the decisive moment in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, the still disguised brother, has taken his brother Benjamin as a captive and offered to let the other 10 brothers return home. They had sold Joseph into slavery 22 years earlier, would they again desert a brother?

The parasha opens with the words, “Vayigash alav Yehudah” – Then Judah approached him (Joseph). According to a Midrash from B’resheet Rabba, the term Vayigash can be understood in three ways based on its usage elsewhere in the Bible.

In II Samuel 10:13 we read, “Vayigash Yoav v’haam asher imo l’milchama” – Yoav and the people (Vayigash) approached ready to do battle.

In Joshua 14:6 we read, “Vayigshu v’nai yehuda el yehoshua” – And the children of Judah approached Joshua to seek reconciliation.

In I Kings 18:36 we read, “Vayigash eliyahu hanavi vayomer” – And Eliyahu hanavi approached God in prayer.

Our Rabbis teach us that Judah approached the man whom he believed to be the prince of Egypt, ready to do battle, willing to seek reconciliation, and confident that with God’s help he would redeem his brother, Benjamin.

The Judah pictured in this week’s parasha is indeed a changed man from the person who participated in the sale of Joseph 22 years earlier. By offering himself in place of Benjamin, Judah becomes a prototype for the responsible Jew of future generations. His passion and compassion are unequalled by any of the previous heroes of his family, including his great grandfather, Abraham. Following Judah’s magnificent plea, his prayer for his brother’s liberation is answered. Aware that Judah (and by inference the other brothers) had truly changed, Joseph reveals his true identity to them. The children of Israel passed their test. They proved themselves worthy of Joseph’s intervention on their behalf.

Joseph, too, has changed. While still assertive and self-assured, he is much less arrogant than the young boy in the technicolor dream coat who antagonized his brothers. Joseph has assimilated. In outward appearance, in style and in action, he has become indistinguishable from the princes of Egypt. As Pharaoh’s second in command, Joseph has become second to none in his adaptation to Egyptian culture. Yet, Joseph remains a Jew at heart. Regardless of the implications it could have upon his own status, and despite his brothers’ prior treatment of him, Joseph recognized that he had a unique role to play in the redemption of his people.

Judah and Joseph are challenging role models for the contemporary Jew. For the past 60 years, Judah has served as a prototype for the contemporary Israeli who approaches personal challenges and those Jews facing oppression around the world ready to do whatever is necessary to redeem them and protect them. Simultaneously, we American Jews have played the role of a Joseph willing to commit our wealth and our societal position in order to help others who are in need. Like Joseph, American Jews of the past two generations have recognized that God’s blessing of prosperity imposes upon us the responsibility to support our brethren in need.

Last month, while attending the UJC General Assembly in Jerusalem, I became very aware that these prototypical stereotypes no longer apply. American and Israeli Jews of the 21st century can no longer be neatly divided into Joseph and Judah. Israelis are no longer our “poor cousins,” even though the high unemployment among the Haredi community and the challenges in the absorption of new immigrants from Third World countries into the economic mainstream have created increases in poverty. Rather, we must recognize that Jews in America and Israel are a more diverse and diffuse community – economically, religiously, and politically. Like the 12 sons of Israel, we, the contemporary children of Israel, are connected to each other by the bonds of brotherly love and divided by sibling rivalry. There are rich and poor in both communities. We are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and secular Jews who can all define ourselves in unique and legitimate ways. What we share is a common destiny and the challenges of assimilation, alienation, and anti-Semitism.

The theme of the G.A. was partnership. Creating a true partnership between Israeli and American Jews will require better understanding of each other and a willingness to respect our differences and affirm and confirm our shared history and destiny. It will require on the part of both Israelis and American Jews to accept that in spite of our differences we are one people.

In the Biblical narrative we read this week, the successful reunification of the children of Israel required reconciliation between Joseph and Judah. I suggest to you this Shabbat that our individual and communal future as Jews requires us to reconcile the Joseph and the Judah aspects within ourselves and between ourselves. On this first Shabbat of 2009, which is also the Shabbat following Chanukah, the festival of rededication, let us rededicate ourselves to integrating the Judah and the Joseph within us. Let us recognize that the words “Vayigash Alav Yehudah” must be read as a challenge to all who call themselves Jews to: “Vayigash,” be prepared to do battle for the sake of our brethren; to “Vayigash,” draw nearer to each other through efforts of reconciliation and acceptance; and to “Vayigash,” reach out through prayer to God asking for guidance and offering to be God’s voice and hands in the world.