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Torah Commentary
Vayigash (December 7, 2013)

Sherry Nehmer,


“So I say to him, ‘Listen, Pharaoh, there’s going to be another famine, but I know how to get us through it, as long as you do exactly what I say.’ And the poor guy — well, he’s just standing there with his mouth open, so I say, ‘Have I ever steered you wrong? Have I?’ Well, of course he listens to me, because I’ve never steered him wrong. Didn’t I save his kingdom time after time? Didn’t I tell him to sell short and make a profit on livestock? He should be kissing the hem of my coat of many colors. Of course the Pharaoh’s gonna do what I say! And wait, here’s the best part. I—”

“Seriously, Joseph, could we please just have a nice dinner without you yakking about how brilliant you are?”

“Yeah. Give it a rest, dreamer. We all know you’re a genius—”

“—If you do say so yourself.”


“Reuben’s jealous of you know who!”

“Shut up, Benjy.”

“Shush, guys — knock it off. You’ll upset mother.”

“Which one?”


“Simeon! Levi! Stop nudging each other and pass the hummus.”


“You only left me the scrapings!”

“You snooze, you lose.”

“Dad! Simeon and Levi took the last of the hummus!”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, we’ll get more. Bilhah, get Zeb some more hummus.”

“What am I, your wife or your servant?”


“Our family is so weird.”

“Gad, stop rolling your eyes or they’ll stick that way.”

“Oh please. You are such a kiss up, Judah.”

“Asher — Zebulun! Stop it! Let’s just have a nice dinner. We’re all together again, and Joseph’s home! We’re all happy, right? Right?!

“Yeah, right.”


“That’s better.”

“So anyway, Pop, as I was saying before the menagerie interrupted — there’s a famine — you know, the second one, and I go to Pharaoh and tell him I had a dream, because the man is superstitious beyond belief, and because I’m the only one who can fix Egypt—”

“[GROAN] Would someone please make Joseph stop talking?!”

IMAGINE, IF YOU WILL, the reunion of Joseph and his father after so many years apart. Joseph — the son long thought dead — and his elderly father, whose grief for his youngest and most beloved son has only recently been assuaged by the birth of another son to his favorite wife. What must that meeting have been like?

Well, perhaps not as imagined above, although we’ve all attended family gatherings where one or two people dominate the conversation or misbehave in some way. But putting that aside, the chapter Vayigash chronicles the reunion of Joseph with his brothers, and later with his father, Jacob, and it’s hard to imagine a reunion more poignant. We learn a great deal about the family dynamics of Jacob’s family. Judah emerges as a leader, a spokesman for his family and a thoughtful man. All the brothers are remarkably protective of Benjamin — having sold Benjamin’s brother Joseph into slavery, they now move heaven and earth to protect their youngest half-sibling from harm. At this point in their lives they seem to have matured as a family, if only to protect their aged father from distress.

Of course, Joseph is the key player here, and it is he, the second youngest of a brood of 12 (13, with Dinah, who has disappeared from the narrative now that her disturbing story is done) who is the success story of the family. Not only has he saved himself, but he also has used his cunning and native skills — and a knack for dream interpretation — to save Pharaoh and Egypt. It has brought him riches and power. Now he moves his entire family to Goshen, provides them with a livelihood, sees them through a famine and, we assume, introduces them to his friends at court. It’s easy to picture Joseph as the “Nice Jewish Boy Who Made Good,” who is a credit to the entire family, the one the parents talk about all the time, probably to the annoyance of his siblings. (Reuben and Simeon and Levi and Naphtali and Issachar and Dan and all the rest may be successful shepherds, but it’s hard to compete with “My Son, the Big Shot.”) Joseph is a particular type we see even today: shrewd, successful men who come from nothing, seize opportunities, endlessly recreate themselves and land on their feet, and then go on to remarkable success. He’s one of the most interesting characters of Genesis, to my mind.

But it would be missing the point to think of the story of Joseph and his brothers and his father as merely a rags-to-riches adventure tale or an Odyssey with a happy domestic ending. From the moment Joseph embraces his brothers, his words tell us exactly what this chapter, and indeed, Joseph’s entire story, is about: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” …“It was not you who sent me here, but God…” Joseph’s success, the rescue of Egypt from famine, even the relocation of Jacob and his family to “the best of all the land of Egypt” and the creation of a people, are all done by God’s will, and to his purposes.

Filled with joy, Jacob receives a message himself: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” A promise, a prophecy and finally a personal note of great poignancy — that’s what Jacob — Israel — receives in this moment. As the chapter concludes, we read that “Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it and were fertile and increased greatly.” It’s a theme that’s repeated in the next, and final, chapter of Genesis, Va-y’chi: “God intended [my being sold into slavery] for good — to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.”

Through the actions of a cunning and clever Joseph, and the great patriarch Jacob, the stage now is set for Exodus. We’ve seen this family through bitterness, jealousy, fear, relief and rejoicing, and we’ve witnessed their place in the remarkable story of the Jewish people. Through the story of Joseph and his brothers, a people has been created and put in a place where they may flourish and grow. Now Israel will enter a period of hardship, but it will emerge greater than before.

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