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Parashat Hashavua

Drash on Parashat Vayigash 2018

Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Progressive Judaism Victoria
Melbourne, Victoria

As is often the case in the biblical narratives the complexity is visible to us, the later readers, who watch the lives of the ancients unfold by means of the biblical “replays” year after year. Those caught up in the original events often failed to recognize what seems evident from the text. What began as Joseph’s power over his brothers, because he was their father Jacob’s favourite, is being exercised over them once again. Having tried to eliminate him, Joseph now sits in control of the food supply and the brothers come as supplicants. The brothers are like the sheaves of wheat in Joseph’s dream, having to bow before him.

But having already been in his presence and tried to negotiate the purchase of food, the treacherous siblings find themselves trying to explain the setup, in which favoured youngest brother Benjamin was found to have a silver goblet in his saddlebags. We know that Joseph arranged to place it there, but they were not aware of the ruse. By this trick, in last week’s parasha, Joseph replicated the means by which to steal Benjamin away from Jacob, just as he had been stolen and sold to get him away from the family. Role reversal mirrors back to the perpetrators what they did years before. Becoming indispensible in Egypt had been Joseph’s best revenge.

At the start of Vayigash, Judah now begs to be the hostage exchange for Benjamin. The brothers are back in Joseph’s court, having already negotiated with him, received portions of food from him, eaten a meal with him. Still they could not see what was in plain sight: Joseph was their host. Previously overcome with emotion (Gen 43:30-31), Joseph had withdrawn to compose himself, before returning. Finally, in Vayigash, he could stand it no more. He cleared the court v’lo amad ish and no [court attendant] man (anticipating ‘who is a man?’ in the Moses story of the killing of the slave driver, Ex 2:11-12) remained within hearing of these family members be’hitvada yosef el echav, as Joseph himself made known to his brothers that it was none other than him! (Gen 25:1).

The use of the reflexive form of the verb ‘to know’ adds something more than just Joseph making known to the brothers who he is. This is the invitation to insight. How will the brothers put the pieces of their puzzle together now? Whose sin is absolved, whose conscience salved? Implicitly, as we retell the episode, we are also invited to revisit what we know - but repress - in how we treat others. Are we prepared to confront our dealings with others? Have we ‘hurled them into the pit’, ‘sold them into slavery’, betrayed them in a range of ways, or have we been the ones on the receiving end? When we, like Joseph, can stand it no more, there is a chance for the emotional upheaval that invites truth telling and reconciliation. Only on that basis does the story of Jacob’s family move to Goshen and take us on the road to enslavement and then to freedom.

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