Genesis  44:18-44: 27     Lesson Notes 11  
Torah Portion Vayigash

I. Read Genesis 44:18-34

 A. I don't know of a more poignant scene anywhere than this one. And, as we'll see, neither had Joseph! Sir Walter Scott called Judah's plea "the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence."

Let's unpack each piece of it. Try to identify each and every element of Judah's appeal:

1. Vayigash - Judah went up to him - this has the sense of drawing close both emotionally and physically. There is quite a lot of mystical and spiritual thought on what this coming near of Judah to him might mean. World to world. Soul to soul. King to king. Etc. As we'll explore in a moment, it could be the penitent one approaching the righteous one. 

In the Zohar, there is a citation back to R. Judah who said, "...that before Joseph and Judah drew near each other there was no peace, but as soon as they did so they brought much peace into the world, and great joy above and below, since as soon as Judah came near to Joseph all the tribes joined him. We should let our thought and imagination roam here." 

Vayigash is a word that introduces 3 types of action in the Bible: to do battle (in II Samuel), to conciliate  (in Joshua), and to pray (in I Kings). Judah was ready in such ways here. 

Whether Judah's showing deference here, whether political or authentic or both, is surely part of facilitating a drawing close, especially when it leads, as Ramban says, to a supplication designed to bestir Joseph's compassion. 

Some sages believe Judah approached himself! That is, he came to the truth about the father's feelings about Benjamin, about how best to honor his father and his needs, the right thing for him to do, etc. It shows a keen understanding that has come out of remarkable growth and moral maturity. 

2. He goes straight to the heart of the matter that Joseph has made central to the test. Do the brothers care? Now that the weak brother is made vulnerable again how will they respond? Have they tamed their jealousy, their hostility, their callousness? 

Can they accommodate their self-interest and esteem to a deference to and care for their father and his love for the brother who appears to be the "last" remaining son of Rachel? This would be quite a transformation, quite an elevation of others' interests above his and his brothers, which had been hard and harsh. Judah had originally pushed Joseph into being a slave. Now he would make himself a slave. Judah had pushed his father to misery. Now he would do anything to prevent it. 

Judah is here to say YES!

3. Notice the numerous times Judah shows concern for others, including so many references to their father. Now, the well being of the vulnerable "other" brother takes precedence and the need to protect from pain (and death) of the weak father becomes paramount. 

This orientation of love and compassion is central to acts of loving kindness. This is what God wants of us. This is what Joseph hoped to see. And here in this speech it's demonstrated about as beautifully as is possible. 

4. Note the reference to the quote from Joseph not to let him see their faces without the boy. Recall our discussion of faces in the wrestling and reconciliation tale of Jacob/Israel. Here Judah shows he/they looked at the face of their father and that his pain at this injunction evoked such compassion from them they couldn't leave  the young brother. All this - at the risk of arousing the ire of the vizier. So, Judah offers himself instead of the brother. 

B. Summary: recognition of guilt and thorough psychological and ethical transformation. Judah shows a profound turning in both words and action, with sacrifice grounded in his offer of his own substitution, caring and love for his father. This breaks through sin and pain, breaks through his father's and Joseph's having been wronged. 

Atonement and reconciliation are now possible. And the masks can come off, and real selves are exposed, giving rise to fulfillment of destiny and God's purposes. 

This quality of teshuva shows the way for people who are not perfect and who stray from God's path and act badly to others to find their way back to others, and to God. That it was Judah who modeled teshuva is one powerful reason why this religion took on his name. 

In our tradition, Joseph is often considered a righteous one, though he, too, arrived there through a process of teshuva. Judah is seen as the penitent one. And while we prize righteousness, as we have studied in so many places, there is a special regard here in the Bible for penitence. Without it, the path to living righteously is not one we imperfect beings could ever walk. 

II. Read Genesis 45:1 - 8, 25-28. 

A. Joseph is so moved he weeps again, this time openly and publicly. The Hebrew words in 2 are: he gave his voice sound in weeping. Wow. 

B. What's the meaning of Joseph's saying they should not reproach themselves for selling him into slavery?

(This is what we do when we reconcile. This is also the language of forgiveness. 

Also, one who has been hurt and is with God tries to see and live the redemptive side of what has occurred. Here, if Joseph hadn't been there and hadn't led with solutions to the famine (all, God-directed), all the family would have perished. "It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you." 

Isn't this how people of faith see such things? This does not take away or absolve the wrong that was done. That required the hard earned teshuva, which Joseph helped engineer. This is not lost in the story or in Joseph's mind. But it's the other side of the story - the side Joseph - with God's help - made happen in the saving solution to the famine, irrespective of the wrong that was done him by the brothers.)

C. Why does Joseph say that they should not be perturbed on the journey home? (24). 

(Fear of safety on the road? Feel guilty? Effect recriminations on each other? Believe it's a trap from him to do them harm? As we'll see later in the story, it's not clear to the brothers that all is now sweetness and cream, right? Nor should they in most such circumstances. It would be unrealistic, no?)

D. 1. Why didn't Jacob ask, challenge, doubt the news since this account was so at odds with the story the brothers had given of Joseph's demise years earlier.

(Upon stunning good news, don't we let doubt and questions fall away, at least in the instant?

2. Note Jacob's manner. Hardly the hale and hearty image of the younger and middle aged man we've followed for the last few sessions. The toll of age and experience, so beautifully conveyed in just a few words. 

3. Note too that the sons come home to bring news to "Jacob," but that it is Israel who says, "Enough, my son Joseph is alive. Let me go see him before I die." Why Jacob in one place and Israel in the other?

(In one, he's the man, the father. In the other, it is as patriarch, the conveyor of the tradition, the one who carries forth the blessing, particularly after the struggle, who wants have that final encounter with Joseph and the family. The dream is still alive; as are faith and hope and the vision. 

Also, as we will explore at length in Exodus, Israel is being sent to Egypt for a later and more profound purpose, a redemption by God to receive God's revelation and for the whole of the people to be God's.) 

 III. Read Genesis 46:1 - 4

A. What do you make of this vision of God to Jacob in the night? It encourages Jacob to not be afraid of going to Egypt. What's important about that? God keeps alive the promise of making of him a great nation and that Joseph will "close his eyes" and that God will bring him back. Unpack all this.

(Jacob likely thought his mission was to come back and stay in the land, not to go to Egypt. He probably thought that he might be acting in a way contrary to God's mandate of his father and grandfather, and indeed of him. That he should do something else through a call from God was likely crucial to Jacob's moving forward, especially in old age. 

It must have been comforting that he would die with Joseph's being nearby and that he would be returned to the land, and especially that the covenant promise with God would endure. He doesn't learn that there would be a painful interlude (enslavement of the people!), but not knowing was certainly a gift from God.)

B. What are we to make of God's saying, "I will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back." Is this personal to Jacob? Is this for the whole family or nation? If so, it echoes God's being with Joseph when he went down? We know where this story goes. Does this also mean God is with the people when they are enslaved and will be there to redeem them? 

IV. Let's just note in 46:28 that Jacob sent Judah to point the way to Joseph. Nice literary way of signifying and rewarding Judah's role in the reconciliation. 

V. Genesis Chapter 47

This might be a good section to have someone assigned to spell out the economics policy Joseph and the Pharaoh followed - its merits, its payoffs to all concerned, its hardships, and both good and hard feelings that resulted. Henry A. Wallace praised it, but he, of course, was a "government sort of guy." One other thing we must keep in mind, irrespective of our modern sensibilities or political views, is that the idea of central control, control by the king, was the norm in the ancient world, certainly so in Egypt. 

(Tough policies, to be sure, maybe even ruthless. The chief debtors and the aristocracy may have been hurt and angry.   Effective? Maybe. No alternative? Maybe. Cruel?  Saving for the people indeed, or dominating? Necessary or abusive? Were the people slaves or tenants? They survive, but it took a toll. Can a type of governing be wise and even ethical but harsh and "close to the line?" Shrewd, successful, admirable, saving, but not without consequence?

They're grateful for their lives being saved, but "being serfs to pharaoh" can't altogether play out well.  Would a softer approach have worked? Perhaps worth discussing, if time.)

Conclusion

It's been a long way from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers - fratricide to reconciliation.  We've learned a lot about God's expectations of us,  how we are to live with each other. We've got a long way to go, but we've come a long way. And we've certainly had instruction in God's word about how to make that journey. 

Next week we wrap up Genesis and the story of Jacob and Joseph and the family, culminating in  a remarkable scene at Jacob's deathbed. Jacob will bless his sons, which looks both backwards and forwards. At one level, it readies us for the future of these sons and tribes as we prepare for study of the time in Egypt, the Exodus, and beyond. On another level, it is a poignant story for all of us who reflect in our own lives on relations between ourselves and our parents, us and our children, and the legacies that endure after death. 

 See you Sunday. 

Torah Portion Vayigash        Genesis  44:18-44: 27 

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