Vayigash: Compassion and Exile

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. . . .  (Bereshit 47:21)

Good morning!

This week is undoubtedly one of the emotional high points of the Torah: after Yehudah’s impassioned plea on Binyamin’s behalf, Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, and they have a tearful reunion. Yosef sends them to get their father and settles the family inGoshen, a pastoral region ofEgypt, but the story then takes a darker turn. The years of famine that Pharaoh dreamed are not yet over, and the citizens of Egypt become more and more desperate, selling their possessions, animals, land and eventually even their own labor to Pharaoh in exchange for food.

Yosef is the one in charge of this nationalization of the economy, and after he takes the land in Pharaoh’s name, he allows the population to become sharecroppers, paying a portion of the crop to Pharaoh as rent. Yet in what seems like a cruel and dictatorial twist, Yosef moves the people around, from one town to another, not allowing them to remain on the land they sold to the king.

Commentators wonder at Yosef’s motives, but the simple answer is perhaps the least palatable: Yosef moved the population around so that people would know that they had lost the right of ownership of the land upon which they lived. In this, some commentators, compare him to the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who exiled Jews from towns in Judah when he conquered parts of the land of Israel. (Cf. 2 Kings 32 and see more on this here. )

Yet our friend Rashi, among others, offers an additional explanation: Yosef moved the people ofEgypt around so that none would call his brothers “exiles”[in derision]. If the entire population were exiles from their hometowns, then surely they could not disparage Yaakov and his sons as exiles fromCanaan.

Now, this is morally impossible logic on one hand- it makes no sense to cause great upheaval and pain in order to teach compassion- but it contains a kernel of wisdom on the other. First, this reading portrays Yosef as wanting to preserve his brother’s honor, even after their terrible betrayal of him as a youth, and thus serves as an image of overflowing forgiveness and spiritual maturity. More important, I think, is what it suggests about the redemption of suffering: suffering (in this case, the pain of losing one’s home and land) is an inevitable part of the human condition, but it can, with openness and grace, teach us compassion for others.

Note, please, that the rabbis who offer this interpretation neatly turn around the idea, stated so often in the Torah, that we must treat the stranger with kindness, because we were strangers inEgypt. In this reading of our verse, it is the Egyptians who might learn to treat the Israelites with greater kindness based on their experience of dislocation. Tragically, it doesn’t last, and as the contemporary Conservative commentary Etz Hayim points out, eventually the Egyptians turn on the Israelites, perhaps out of anger at what Yosef has done to them.

Nevertheless, in this moment in the Torah reading, it’s striking to consider the image of Yosef taking Egyptians off their land so that they would not insult his brothers; it is an image both cruel and fascinating, provoking me to ask about ways that I have served one person at the cost of another. In this reading, Yosef knows that the famine calls for desperate measures, and perhaps hopes that at least a little good can come from such a terrible situation. Suffering is redeemed when we learn what we can from it; it doesn’t make the pain less, but can make us more human in the pain.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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