Sunday, December 17, 2017

Parashat VaYigash: "Is My Father Still Alive?"

"Is My Father Still Alive?"
A Message for Parashat VaYigash 2017
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The long-awaited moment had arrived. Yosef had finally revealed himself to his brothers. As expected, he was met with a shocked speechlessness and crying. Particularly striking, though, are Yosef’s words at that time: “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” (45:3) His thoughts and feelings in that instance weren’t driven by a connection to the brothers in his presence, but by a concern for his absent father, Yaakov.

And Yosef could no longer hold himself in check before all who stood attendance upon him, and he cried “Clear out everyone around me!” And no man stood with him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers.

Yosef’s revelation at this juncture was unplanned. If he had controlled himself better, he would perhaps have sent his brothers back to Canaan and held Binyamin hostage. This would have caused Yaakov to descend to Egypt, whereupon he would probably prostrate himself before Yosef. Yosef’s dream of everyone bowing to him would then be fulfilled.[1] It appears, however, that it was the thought of his father that broke his composure.

Yaakov soon caused another shift in Yosef’s demeanor. The parashah begins with Yehudah’s “approach” (va-yigash) to Yosef (44:18). It continues with Yosef’s initial demand that his brother’s “come close” to him (45:4), and then his instructions to “bring down my father here” (13). It presents the image of Yosef as a strong authority figure who does not “approach” others, but is instead “approached” by them. Then Yaakov arrived. “And Yosef harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Yisrael his father in Goshen” (46:29). Yosef no longer acted as the self-described “lord to all Egypt” (9), but rather as the average person who must “approach others.” His immediate action thereafter was again a selfless approach, as he came to Pharaoh and addressed him on behalf of his family (47:1), and his last encounter with his father similarly included an important “bringing forward” of his children (48:10,13). Yosef’s condescending conduct leveled off with the appearance of his father.

The fact that Yosef’s personality changed when the thought about his father was perhaps due to the fact that Yaakov represented a moral conscience to him. The Hakhamim appropriately captured this reality when they imagined Yosef overcoming an internal struggle with the wife of Potifar, because “the image of his father’s visage appeared to him.”[2] Whenever Yosef thought about his father, his perceptions of self-strength and superiority subsided.

The moral conscience inherent in Yosef’s vision of Yaakov may have been the simple reverence of a son to his father. Perhaps, however, its significance ran deeper than that. Summarizing the rabbinical commentaries, Louis Ginzberg remarked, “The whole course of the son’s life is but a repetition of the father’s.”[3] Tracing the lives of Yaakov and Yosef from their difficult inceptions, to their rivalry with and deception of brothers, their exile from home – and everything in between, scholars have long noted a striking parallelism.[4] This reality must have added an integral dimension of relatability from Yaakov to Yosef. Yosef found in his father a familiar personality who possessed a similar history. He saw in Yaakov’s ethical triumph, despite his various challenges and success, the embodiment of his own moral conscience.

I am Yosef. As he let down his cover and divulged his true identity to his brothers, Yosef admitted his moral conscience – Is my father still alive? The image of his father and its powerful meaning gave the all-powerful Yosef the strength to expose his weaknesses to his brothers and admit his true identity.

The image and thought of our own “father” – our moral conscience, must embolden us as well during times of adversity and doubt. It must give us the strength to stand up and act in accordance with our beliefs even as it may expose our hidden vulnerabilities.

[1] This was suggested by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses (Jersey City, NJ, 2013), pg. 40. It follows the general theory of Nahmanides (42:9), that Yosef was driven in much of his actions by the pursuit of a fulfillment of his childhood dreams.
[2] See Rashi’s Commentary to 39:11 (s.v. la’asot).
[3] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA, 2003), pg. 4.
[4] See, e.g., Aaron Wildavsky, Assimilation versus Separation: Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Religion in Biblical Israel (New Brunswick, NJ, 2002), pg. 111-12, and the sources cited in fn. 42.