Archive for Vayigash

Vayigash: You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. .

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Greeting from Yerushalayim! I’ve been here since Tuesday morning, but
unfortunately, my suitcase is still locked up in the security room at
Heathrow Airport- I’m not making this up! Apparently, security
officials decided there was something suspicious about it. However,
it was not so suspicious that its owner- me- was prevented from
boarding. Go figure!

Before we go onto Torah study, I will only say that every Jew should
come to Israel at Hanukkah at some point in their lives, if only to
hear the techno-disco version of “Maoz Tzur” that seems to be a
special seasonal cell-phone ring tone! That, and the pride and
pleasure of seeing Hanukkiot burning in coffee shops, bars and
falafel stands.

More on Israel later- let’s do some Torah learning. We’re in parshat
Vayigash, in which Yosef and his brothers are reconciled after many
years apart, years in which Yosef has become the Prime Minister of
Egypt and has nationalized the economy in order to prepare for the
years of famine which actually bring his brothers into the land.

Yosef responds to seeing his brothers- who do not recognize him, but
only see the Prime Minister in all his official power- by playing a
game of cat-and-mouse, making them go get Binyamin, the youngest, and
then setting up Binyamin to be accused of theft. Just before Binyamin
is taken away to be punished, Yehudah steps forward and offers an
impassioned plea to Yosef, begging for mercy and offering himself in
Binyamin’s place. At this, Yosef can no longer contain himself, and
he bursts forth with emotion:

“Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he
called out, ‘Take everyone away from me!’ So no one stood with him
when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud,
so the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. Genesis (45:1-

Verse one is difficult to translate, but you might also render
it: “Yosef could not hold back with everybody standing there,” or
something like that. The main point is that Yosef, who has become
such a deliberate, thoughtful man that he can plan out the economic
activities of an entire country, and who can carefully test his
brothers over and over without revealing his identity, can hold back
no longer- his emotions overcome him. (As an aside, Rashi explains
that Yosef wanted his Egyptian attendants out of the room when he
revealed himself so that his brothers would not be embarrassed when
the fact of their having sold him was discussed.)

To me, the power of this moment, when Yosef simply must reveal
himself, is the image of a person bursting forth with love and
forgiveness, even for people who threw him in a pit and sold him as a
slave. Perhaps Yosef understood, on a deep level, that when his
brothers threw him in the pit, they too were acting out of powerful
emotions- but in their case, it was probably resentment at the
special treatment he received from their father, and their desire to
earn an equal measure of Ya’akov’s love and attention. That was the
kind of “bursting forth” that happens in every human life- when fear,
pain, passion, loneliness, and other powerful feelings cause a person
to do things which are later regretted. As I heard a gang worker once
say, nobody should be defined by the dumbest thing they ever did!

Yosef clearly wants to test his brothers, and we might even say he
seems to be taking some kind of revenge when he sets them up for
false accusations. But to his credit, the grudge couldn’t hold- from
within him bursts forth a powerful need to have brothers again, and
this overcomes his rectitude and self-restraint. This, too, is a
common human experience- when we want to hold a grudge, but just
can’t stop ourselves from forgiving and reaching out to those who may
have wronged us.

Taken to an extreme, the inner need to forgive can, of course, be
unhealthy, but in this case, and many others, it’s only to Yosef’s
credit that he knows when to hold back, and when to allow himself to
reach out. We might even say that it’s proof of Yosef’s own
transformation over the years that he can no longer “hold back” when
his words bring people together, as opposed to his younger days, when
his arrogant attitude caused such bitterness in his family. Neither
self-restraint nor complete emotional spontaneity are ideal for
nurturing relationships; as in the case of Yosef and his brothers,
it’s knowing when to hold back and when to reach out that makes love
possible. The fact that human beings sometimes act out of fear or
pain is a problem in every life; the fact that we are capable of
letting grace and love overcome us for the good is evidence of the
holy potential within every soul.

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Vayigash 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27)


At the end of last week’s parsha, Yosef conspires to accuse Binyamin, the youngest, of theft, and the brothers think that Binyamin will have to stay in Egypt to be Yosef’s servant. In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week’s parsha begins with Yehudah offering himself in place of Binyamin, so that Yaakov should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Yosef settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen


“He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them, and afterwards his brothers talked with him.” (Genesis 45:15)


Yosef can no longer restrain himself, and ends the game he’s been playing with his brothers. Yosef reveals his true identity, and in a highly emotional scene, the brothers are reconciled to each other. One could argue that this is the dramatic climax of the entire book of Genesis, which portrays harsh conflict between brothers since the first brothers in the Garden of Eden.


In North American society our image of masculinity is often the “hard man,” the “strong, silent type,” the tough leader who never displays weakness, emotion, or doubt. From John Wayne to the Marlboro Man to Pierre Trudeau to unforgiving corporate boardrooms, the stereotype of the “man in charge” (even if she’s a woman) doesn’t often include crying and expressing deep feelings.

At least one modern rabbinic commentator sees things differently. R. Zalman Sorotzkin, called the “Lutzker Rav,” (1881-1960), made the remarkable claim that Yosef merited his high position precisely because he was able to cry:

    We should note that Yosef was a man of tears. [Literally, a ba’al bechi, a “master of crying.”] We find that Yosef cried in parashat Miketz. . . and in this parsha. . . and in parashat Vayehi. The one who cries in bad times will also be able to cry in times of calm or achievement. The brothers, who had never suffered in their lives, could not cry even when their situation called for tears. Because Yosef could cry even for the troubles of others he merited greatness. (Quoted in Itturei Torah, translation and adaptation mine.)

Adding things up, we find that Yosef is described as crying no less than eight times in three Torah portions. We might also note that all these examples come from Yosef’s later years- crying seems to be something he learns with maturity. Personally, I find the comment that Yosef merited his position because of his ability to cry to be a welcome change from the typical idea of what makes a leader. The Lutzker Rav teaches us to look for empathy in our leaders- can they cry? Do they really “feel the pain” of others, or is it a show for political purposes?

The Lutzker Rav challenges not only our concept of leadership, but even of “manhood.” Yosef wasn’t the “strong, silent type” at all- or rather, he could be when the situation called for it, but he could also express his deepest feelings to those around him. He doesn’t seem self-conscious or embarrassed at all, crying in happiness and sadness equally.

Yosef cried when reunited with his family, and he cried when his father dies, and at the very end of the book of Genesis, he cried when he finds out that his brothers still feared that he might take revenge after Yaakov is buried. (Cf. Genesis 50.) His tears communicated in a way that goes beyond words, revealing the truth and depth of his connection to those he loved. Perhaps we might say that Yosef’s greatness was not only his political position, but his spiritual position, as a man of deep empathy, unafraid to show his emotional commitments.

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Vayigash 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

At the end of last week’s parasha, Yosef, now the Prime Minister of Egypt, had arranged to have a valuable cup placed in Binyamin’s saddlebags as all his brothers head back to their father with food to stave off the famine. The cup is discovered, and it looks like Binyamin, the youngest, will have to stay in Egypt to be Yosef’s servant. In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week’s parasha begins with Yehudah offering himself in place of Binyamin, so that Yaakov should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Yosef settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen.

Then Yehudah approached him [Yosef] and said: ” Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let your anger not flare against your servant- for you are like Pharoah! ”
(Genesis 44:18)


When it appears that Binyamin will be taken away as a servant to Yosef as punishment for apparently stealing the (planted) goblet, Yehudah steps forward and heroically defends him, offering himself instead. He speaks humbly but eloquently, begging for mercy on Binyamin’s behalf, pleading their elderly father would be utterly heartbroken.

Yehudah’s defense of Binyamin is one of the most heroic moments in the Torah; Yehudah seems to be selflessly sacrificing himself for the sake of his brother and father. He has changed since the day that he and his brothers threw Yosef into the pit, many years earlier. At that time, it was Yehudah who suggested selling Yosef into slavery in the first place. (Genesis 37:26). He might have been saving himself the trouble of actually killing his brother (and earning a bit of money on the side), or he might have been trying to concoct a scheme to keep Yosef alive when the others wanted to spill his blood- it’s not clear what his motivations were, but he was deeply involved in the harmful scheme.

Yet Yehudah was not the eldest of the brothers, and it’s not immediately apparent why he was the one to step forward to defend Binyamin and offer himself in his brother’s place. (He was 4th in the order.) We can note that both Ruven and Yehudah personally guaranteed Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov (42:37; 43: 8-10). Furthermore, Shimon, the 2nd eldest, wasn’t there, because he was held as a hostage by Yosef when Yosef accused them of being spies; but that still leaves Ruven and Levi as being higher than Yehudah in the birth order, and therefore perhaps with a higher degree of leadership responsibility, at least as most ancient societies would have seen it.

So our question is still unanswered: why was it Yehudah, out of all the brothers, who stepped forward to defend Binyamin? Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of midrashic stories dating from Talmudic times, offers an imaginative possibility. Noticing that the story of Yehudah and his daughter in law Tamar (Genesis 38) immediately follows the story of the presentation of Yosef’s bloody garment to Yaakov (37: 31-35), the midrash posits a connection. In this midrash, it was Yehudah who convinced Yaakov that Yosef was dead; in response, God said to Yehudah:

    You have no children now, and you do not know the pain of children. You have troubled your father, and caused him to mistakenly believe that his son Yosef is torn, all torn up. By your life, you will marry a woman and then bury your son, and [then you will ] know the pain of children. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayyigash: 9*)

On the surface, this midrash explains the whole story of Yehudah and Tamar, in chapter 38. The midrash connects Yehudah’s role in the sale of Yosef to his own experience of losing children- it is an example of midah k’neged midah, or “measure for measure.” Yet the midrash just quoted isn’t a direct commentary on either chapter 37 or 38 – it is placed later, in the section dealing with this week’s parasha, in connection to a verse that says “[Yaakov] sent Yehudah ahead of him to Yosef, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen. . . ” when the family is about to leave the land of Israel all to be reunited in Egypt with Yosef. (46:28) In other words, our midrash seems to be about Yehudah’s punishment for deceiving his father, but it’s actually brought as a commentary much later in the story, after the whole family is reconciled and reunited.

So what’s going on here, and what does all this have to do with our original question: why was it Yehudah who stepped forward, at great personal risk, to defend Binyamin? I think the placement of our midrash is crucial, for if it were merely an explanation of why the story of Yehudah and Tamar appears where it does, it would be offering us an image of a cruel and vengeful God, who kills one child to avenge another. Because this midrash is placed later, in connection with a verse that reveals the ultimate reconcilation of Yehudah and his father, I think this midrash is hinting that Yehudah’s experience of grief and bereavement was also the sources of great spiritual growth and evolving selflessness.

Our midrash says that when Yehudah was willing to let his own father sit bereaved, it was because he did not know the “pain of children.” Then he married, had sons, and lost two of them- thus bringing the lesson of the “pain of children” home to him in the most real and soul-affecting way possible. It’s not that God took away Yehudah’s children because of what he might have done to Yaakov- that would be cruel and capricious on God’s part. Rather, the midrash tells us what made their reconciliation possible: Yehudah’s ability (or willingness) to empathize deeply with his father’s experience, his “knowing the pain of children.” Empathy ideally leads to compassion, and it seems Yehudah’s compassion was so great that he could not let his father again lose a favored younger son.

This begs a further question: why should Yaakov be more bereaved at losing Binyamin than at losing Yehudah, since the whole point of Yehudah’s speech is that he will stay in Egypt as a substitute? Whether it was because Binyamin was the youngest, or because he was a son of the beloved wife Rahel, Yehudah knew that Yaakov had a special relationship with him, as he had once had with Yosef. (Cf. 44:30) This fact is what makes Yehudah’s compassion so extraordinary- not only was he able to empathize with a bereaved father, but he was even able to overcome his previous resentments to do so, perhaps even forgiving his father for loving his sons unequally.

This is the measure of Yehudah’s greatness: that he didn’t remain mired in his pain but grew spiritually out of it, taking tragedy and using it as the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.

*Quoted in Aviva Zornberg, The Genesis of Desire, an extraordinary book of contemporary Biblical exegesis. I have taken the midrash in a somewhat different direction than she did, but her essay is very insightful.

The whole story of Yehudah and Tamar (Chapter 38) summarized:

Yehudah has 3 sons, two of whom die after getting married to Tamar. Yehudah refuses to allow his daughter in law, Tamar, to attempt to conceive with his youngest son. She deceives him by dressing as a prostitute, and when he sleeps with her, she becomes pregnant. Thinking that she has been promiscuous, Yehudah is about to have her put to death, but she unmasks him as the guilty party, and Yehudah has to admit that she was justified in her actions.

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