This week’s portion is Vayigash, which means to to go up, or in the past “went up”. Vayigash is the continuation of the Joseph narrative. A quick overview: The portion opens with the conclusion of the cliffhanger of what will happen to Benjamin? Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and the tension can be felt in the story, the family sparks flying along with the palace intrigue. Pharoah is told quickly what is happening. Vayigash also gives the geneology of Joseph’s family, who came with his brothers ot the land of Goshen. Joseph tells his brothers to pack up and come to Goshen to ride out the famine yet in the end it sounds more like a business deal. A few interesting aspects found in the story here. First, Joseph rides up to Goshen to meet his father, Israel, and then also introduces a select few of his brothers to Pharoah. Joseph also shows his business savy by collecting livestock and then land and then parcelling it back out to the Egyptians when the famine is over with stipulations about how much the government is going to get of their crop. Pharoah allows Joseph’s family to stay because they are shepards and according to the text, the Egyptians find shepards “abhorrent” but seemingly necessary job they, the Egyptians, don’t want to do. So Joseph’s family gets seemingly prime land to do an unwanted job. Interesting. Why Goshen and not the seat of power?
A couple of interesting notes. Twice in the portion, once with Joseph and Israel and once with the brothers and Joseph, the Torah tells us that first the brothers wrapped their arms around Joseph’s neck and then Joseph wrapped his arms around Israel’s neck. I’m surprised I didn’t see much about this in the commentaries I read. So, I went to Google and checked out the meaning of neck in Biblical symbolism. This wrapping aoround the neck is a Biblical form of submission or giving power to. The brothers submit to Joseph and then Joseph to his father. When you stop to think about it, the neck is one of the strongest, most needed, yet most vulnerable parts of the human body. Besides our heart, if the structures inside our neck are cut off, we cannot survive and exist. In the part of my life as an EMT, a lot of time is spent going over airway and opening and controlling the airway and being aware of spinal precautions and injuries. We breathe and eat through our necks and our spines hold us up and send and receive messages from the rest of our body. We also speak from the voice box in our larynx, also in our neck. A baby’s neck is wobbly with their large heads and must be stabilized. So the idea is one is submitting their life, their existence, to the other person by wrapping their arms around the other person’s neck.
The second interesting note is that of the whole interplay of shepards being “abhorrent”. I’ve never taken care of sheep but have seen sheep in a farm setting. The Egyptians had other livestock as they mention horses in the portion. I wonder what the abhorrence was and was Pharoah saying yes to Joseph’s family coming more about them doing something everybody else didn’t want to do than being Joseph’s family? Were their skills and lifestyle were convenient for Pharoah? Now as an ESL instructor for over 20 years, this gives me pause that immigration has always been a thorny issue with interesting backstories on both sides. The Torah is silent about how the Joseph and his brothers reacted to this. Did they accept it as that’s the way things are or as do we have to do this for survival? It’s a lot of effort packing for a vacation, never mind moving about two hundred people. Again, there is no clear specifics if everyone came at once or slowly over time. This also sets up for and foreshadows the exodus with Moses later on.
The part that struck me the most was the part about Joseph giving Benjamin, the son of the right hand, as Benjamin’s name translates, a “gift” of jewels and money after Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Andrew Lloyd Weber doesn’t mention this part of the narrative in the musical. Did Joseph do this in front of the others or did he do this in a Mario Puzo kind of way, holding him back or meeting him in a garden somewhere and handing him a bag with the jewels and money with a slap on the back and a nice, firm handshake, and maybe a hug? What was said between these two brothers? Again, silence. Joseph never outright apologizes. Should we expect from our worldview for Joseph to apologize yet at the same time Judaism teaches true repentance is not repeating the same bad actions when put in a similar situation. Will Joseph ever encounter this particular situation again? Some situations happen only once and someone may never have the chance to be put in another, similar or same situation. Joseph is no fool, he knows what he is doing and probably had this planned all along. I can easily picture Joseph sitting on a throne of some sort when his brothers show up, having tasted the power of the Pharoah, looking at his brothers with disdain as they stick out like sore thumbs among the Egyptian elite, knowing they don’t recognize him in Egyptian dress and with the years passing, probably some physical growth if he is at the end of his teens, early twenties. Like most people in power, this scene is played out in front of the people who are the beck and call of royalty, just think of the recent PBS production about Queen Victoria. A group of silent witnesses who gossip after everything is said and done. Joseph finds a time and way to set up Benjamin and give his brothers the ultimate test in maturity and changing as humans. They pass and Joseph rewards Benjamin for being a pawn in Joseph’s test. Benjamin is never given a chance to speak his side of the story.
This part struck me the most for two reasons. First, being a spouse and being a parent and being a sibling. The little extras that get passed around to the people who have to deal with a situation that isn’t of their making. The ice cream cones for having to go places they don’t want to or the extra long playdate for similar reasons. Also this week I received an email that one of the most corrupt and abusive bosses I ever worked for is retiring at the end of this week. I’ve had many bosses and supervisors, at EMS right now I have ten alone, but this particular person takes the cake for one of the top five of the worst of the worst. Before I left, I made sure I emailed my list of grievances to him, all of his bosses, and all the people who worked with us in the form of a video. He then had the gall to email me after I sent the video and say after all the backstabbing and public humiliation he put me through in front of other workers and students that I was an integral part of the program he was in charge of. He even tried calling me when he said he had no access to the outside world during a medical rehabilitation. I promptly deleted the voicemail. I wanted to go to his retirement party and sit there and let my kids loose but I didn’t. I made the analogy to the person who originally referred me for the job that I would rather scrub a dirty ambulance from top to bottom with a toothbrush than ever deal with him again. And then here I am reading this portion about what Joseph did to his brothers. People told me I should not have done this due to social media and it’s a small world and blah, blah, blah. Yet Joseph did the same thing in his own way, giving his brothers a taste of their own medicine and rewarding the fall guy for his emotional pain and suffering. I understand Joseph now in this portion, sitting, watching, waiting, and playing the games he has to. I know this particular boss will never apologize. If he had
apologized or reinstated what he took from me, maybe I would have stayed but I’m not sure. Part of me says I have received apologies from a few people I never thought I would have over the last couple of years from grievances of long ago, so maybe….. Yet the other part says I would rather scrub that ambulance with a toothbrush if I ever have to be within breathing room of this person again. Joseph didn’t have this indecision. There’s no sense of apologetics thoughout the portion, only of power and on the opposite extreme, heartache and reconciliation. He did what he did and what he knew he had to do to find out where his brothers stood. Have we all had a Benjamin in our lives? Yes, we have. So what can we carry with us from this portion?
For all the lovely dovey Hollywood endings we see in the media, reconciliation is a process and not one we as humans want to admit to or maybe in some cases never go through. Yes, people have apologized to me but we haven’t reconciled. They aren’t part of my life except maybe when I see them grocery shopping or a social media post. Joseph has made that jumpy leap to reconciliation but the Torah leaves it in the dark about the aftermath. Is it a tense one or is everyone at ease with each other or somewhere in the middle? Or has it simply been forced? Every situation is unique. Does the distance to Goshen from Pharoah’s court make it easier? I wonder at this time of year when many people I know are making long car rides to see relatives that see infrequently.
Overall though, Joseph reminds us that sometimes you do what you have to do and no matter the outcome, life continues and one must continue with it as Joseph so eloquently does.