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Parashat Vayigash 5778 — 12/23/2017

Parashat Vayigash 5778 — 12/23/2017

Bereishit 44:18-47:27
And now, do not be distressed, nor reproach yourselves that you sold me here, for it was to be a provider that Gd sent me ahead of you. (45:5)

Yosef tells the brothers elsewhere, Although you intended me harm, Gd intended it for good… (50:20) In other words, Gd foiled the brothers’ plans. Yet Abarbanel points out that nowhere do we find either Yosef or Ya’akov or Gd rebuking the brothers. Why is that? We would think that the intention is what counts. If Gd turns the situation to Yosef’s advantage, so that Gd’s Will that the Jewish people come to Egypt will be carried out, how does that exonerate the brothers? And granted that everything turned out well, Yosef still spent 12 years in prison on trumped-up charges. It seems that that should count against the brothers as well.

Abarbanel quotes from Proverbs (21:1): Like streams of water, so is the heart of a king in Gd’s hands; wherever He wishes, so He directs it. In other words, the entire story of Yosef’s sale and the family’s coming to Egypt were orchestrated by Gd for His own purposes – in order to fulfill the prophecy made to Avraham, in order to forge the Israelite nation into a people with a common bond, in order to execute judgment on the Egyptians, etc. And Gd did it the way one would create an irrigation system – by means of various different pieces, all placed together in specific ways, to divert the flow of the water in the desired direction, so Gd moved the pieces around in such a way that Yosef would be in the right place at the right time with the right skill set to rise to the position of Viceroy and save Egypt and his family from starvation.

All this does not answer our question about why the brothers were not punished. Abarbanel comments:

In this case, the brothers’ hatred of Yosef, a product of their own free will, gave Gd the opening, as it were, to direct the brothers to sell Yosef into slavery in Egypt. [my bold]

If the brothers admittedly acted on their own free will, it seems impossible to conclude that there were no consequences to their actions. In fact, there were some immediate consequences: Yosef tested the brothers to make sure that the feelings of hatred that had caused his sale to begin with were dissipated, and, according to the Rabbinic tradition, there were consequences much later: the Ten Martyrs about whose death we read on Yom Kippur were held to be reincarnations of the 10 brothers (Binyamin was not involved in the sale). We learn from the first set of consequences that punishment is not meant to exact revenge, but to bring behavior in line with what it should be, and to educate the person so that future behavior does not get out of line. From the second we learn that in Gd’s scheme of things, justice may be delayed for a good reason (e.g. so that the brothers could be the progenitors of the Israelite tribes, or so that a wrongdoer may repent and become a blessing rather than a curse – see The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne), but it is never denied.

To return to the quote from Proverbs: the heart of a king is in Gd’s hands. Does this mean that leaders lose their free will? The question comes up in the portions of the plagues of Egypt, where Gd “hardens / strengthens Pharaoh’s heart.” It was part of Gd’s plan for Egypt to have to endure the 10 Plagues, yet the commentators go to great lengths to explain that this does not mean that Pharaoh lost his free will, as we have discussed at the relevant parshiyot in years past.

I’d like to discuss two approaches. The first involves the concept of collective consciousness. Every group of people has a collective consciousness. When you go to another country you can feel that things are different – even between the US and Anglophone Canada you can feel the difference when you cross the border (and of course the feeling is even more pronounced in Québec where there is a language difference). The government of a country (or any other political division) reflects the collective consciousness of that country. This is easier to see in a democracy, but even in a dictatorship, the dictator would not long survive without the support of the people, at least tacit support. When dissatisfaction rises to a certain level, the dictator is overthrown. However, the ruler of the nation can only express the collective consciousness of the nation. How many promises have Presidential candidates made that they could not keep once in office and subject to the competing pressures of different constituencies? So while Pharaoh the individual may have had full use of his free will, Pharaoh the ruler of Egypt was probably quite a bit more constrained. Perhaps in the same way, all the members of Ya’akov’s family were acting in the way they did due to the constraints of their collective consciousness, and the need to go down to Egypt in order to become a great nation. The Haggadah puts it nicely: He [Ya’akov] went down to Egypt: Forced by Gd’s command.

A complementary approach: Gd has a plan for the evolution of creation. The purpose of creation, according to Ramban, is that human beings come to recognize Gd in every bit of creation. In essence, we are not and have never been separate from Gd, but we have become distanced from that understanding. Alone and apart, we see life as a zero-sum game and do what we think we have to grab more and more. Life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The whole purpose of the Jewish people’s existence is to facilitate this global awakening. For whatever reason, that plan required our enslavement in Egypt, perhaps so we could learn compassion for the weak and oppressed. Perhaps Gd had a Plan A to get us there, but when the brothers sold Yosef, he was forced to resort to Plan B or Plan C. All the actors could display their free will, but the sum total of all this display was constrained by Gd’s overall purpose. Thus Yosef, from his point of view as the “victim,” was able to tell the brothers that everything was OK; it was according to Gd’s plan. But the brothers, having made wrong choices, still would have to expiate their behavior somehow, as mentioned above.

The best advice, as always, is for each individual to raise his/her spiritual level so that their every action is in accord with Gd’s Will and Gd’s plan. Then action is effortless and nourishes all of creation.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayigash
Vayigash” means “and he drew near.”  Literally, this refers to Judah drawing near Joseph to speak with him confidentially about the injury that Joseph will do to Judah and Benjamin’s father if Joseph holds Benjamin hostage until Jacob comes. As such it starts a conversation in which Joseph is touched by Judah’s loyalty to his father and to his brother and Joseph’s heart opens to reveal his identity not merely as Pharaoh’s chief representative but also as Judah’s brother.

The conversation leads to Joseph saying that he should bring Jacob and all his people, possessions to Egypt/Mitzraim and Joseph will give him the land of Goshen, good land, the best of the land, to dwell in. One translation of Goshen is “inundated land”; symbolically, land in which Gd’s Presence pours forth.

Symbolically, “drawing near”, means “drawing near to Gd.”

We draw near to Gd when we love our family, our neighbor, as our self—when, for example, we work to provide for their material need, not only our own. And then Gd reveals at least something of Himself in the form of the satisfaction we get from seeing our family, our neighbors healthy and happy.

“The best of the land” means “the land in which Gd’s Presence is most clearly experienced.”

This seems very true but it seems to have taken Jacob and the Sons of Israel to appreciate the holiness of the land because when Jacob and his family arrived, the famine, only two years old, ended. We learn this when Torah tells us that at this point the Egyptians who had not stored up, asked not for food but for seed to plant: the land had become fertile again so the famine was ended.

While Jacob and the Sons of Israel are living in the best of the land, which Pharaoh gives to them, the rest of the Egyptians have sold themselves into slavery and have sold all their possessions, so they have no land of their own, only seed to plant on Pharaoh’s land.

So, the people of Egypt have not been raised up from Mitrzraim, restrictions, though Gd acting through Joseph, has raised Pharaoh of Mitzraim, of Restrictions, up to the clarity, the synchronicity, with which he perceives the validity of Joseph’s interpretation of his dreams and trusts him, not only as a dream interpreter, but as one who is sufficiently an agent of Gd that Pharaoh entrusts him with his kingdom.

And this lack of harmony in the land provides the basis for the later events in which despite the public funeral and honor given Jacob, in which Pharaoh sends his servants, elders and elders of the land accompany Jacob’s family to bury Jacob in Canaan, the funeral of Joseph takes place in Egypt – already some appreciation of synchronicity, of the Presence of Gd, is lost.

This gets to the point where Torah tells us, in Exodus 1:8, “a new Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph” – not that he hadn’t heard of Joseph, but that his perception was sufficiently dimmed, sufficiently fallen from Harmony, Synchronicity, that he could not sense Gd’s Presence in Joseph’s descendants, and put them into slavery.

But “All is well and wisely set”: this will lead to Moses, the Exodus, the return to Canaan for the Children of Israel. Perhaps Gd wanted the Children of Israel to leave the land of synchronicity for a while in order to develop a greater ability to live in the land of restrictions.
And perhaps the message for us is that we must not only do our best to draw near to Gd and to raise the leaders of our society to this level but we must also do our best to raise everybody to this level: we must not only love one neighbor as our self but all neighbors! We must learn to experience Canaan, Harmony, within ourselves so fully that we can bring it into the world of Mitzraim, restrictions, our everyday world, and raise our life and our world to the degree that we can experience Gd as the Wholeness beyond the duality of Harmony and Restrictions – experience and never lose!

Baruch HaShem