Table for Five: Vayigash
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” but his brothers could not answer him because they were startled by his presence. Gen. 45:3
Mayim Bialik, Actor, Neuroscientist, Author, Mom
Imagine being left for dead, sold into slavery in a foreign land, and forced to start life anew with no support from your family, while surrounded by no one who knows you. You would change.
You might change so much that you hardly recognize yourself. So much that your own kin no longer recognize you. Joseph was not simply older, with more wrinkles, less hair, or a chubbier waistline. Joseph had feared death and been abandoned. He had been abused and felt terror. He had been taken from his home and lost his family of origin. He had started over. And this changes a person.
The first thing Joseph asked after revealing himself to his brothers was, “Is my father still alive?”
Why didn’t he reach out to his father sooner?! Couldn’t he have sent a messenger? A passenger pigeon maybe? Something?! It’s true that the world was different then. Communication wasn’t as it is now. It’s also possible that he was afraid to reach out. Because perhaps Joseph’s question was not simply about his desire to see the man who loved him most. Maybe he wanted to know if the man who loved him most still knew who he was after all of the change he had undergone.
Joseph thus helps us ask one of the most critical questions any person can ask: how much can I change and still have you love me?
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar In-Residence, Aish/JMI
If you think you have family drama, kick back and just read the entire book of Bereishit aka Genesis. It’s must-see TV! From Cain and Abel to Joseph’s near fatal relationship with his brothers, and everything in between, there is family intrigue in spades. And no one is spared! Not Abraham. Not Isaac. Not Jacob. The spiritual giants who were the progenitors of the Jewish people and the embodiment of Jewish values, experienced a level of family dynamics that to the uneducated eye, bordered on dysfunction.
Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, who misguidedly viewed him as a threat to the holy destiny of the Jewish people. They actually thought about executing him but settled on selling him into slavery. How brotherly! Undaunted, Joseph rose up from the degradation of slavery and from the pain of sibling hatred to become the second to Pharaoh. Quite an impressive trajectory!
So now, at the crest of Joseph’s power, standing before the very brothers who betrayed him, the stage is set for an epic encounter and a delicious opportunity for revenge. And how does Joseph capitalize on this moment? He asks about his father and then comforts his stupefied brothers. No outbursts. No recriminations. No revenge. Joseph ascends to the heights of power but does not lose his neshama nor his faith in a higher purpose.
Bereishit’s drama is not random. It’s there to remind us that the most strained relationships can help us develop the most sublime sensitivities. Shabbat Shalom.
Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash of the Sephardic Educational Center
Joseph’s words sum up the drama between him and his brothers at the transitional moment of their relationship from alienation to recognition. For the first time when addressing his brothers, Joseph calls Jacob “my father” instead of “your father.” Even at this moment of intimacy and reconciliation Joseph reminds them that Jacob was most of all his father, only secondarily their father, and never our father.
They look back at all the distancing between them: Joseph’s failure to acknowledge them, the sale, the dreams, all the way back to the coat of many colors and the tragedy of the parent who preferred one of his children over the others. No wonder the brothers are startled! Joseph’s words “my father” bring their relationship back full circle, and they see that the key to their relationship with Joseph lies not between him and them but between all the brothers and Jacob.
Joseph is testing his brothers: can they live with the pain of his privileged status, which created the original divisions between them? The phrase “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” echoes “These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph…” at the beginning of the story, the painful realization that Jacob’s story is the story of Joseph. The brothers have reached the point where they can acknowledge the guilt, the sorrow, and accept that this is the way things are. But will the reconciliation be complete if Joseph cannot give up his privileged status and see Jacob as “our father”?
David Brandes, Screenwriter and producer
Why does Joseph ask his brothers if his father is still alive? After all, he already knows the answer. They told him in their long narrative earlier in the text. Moreover, if Joseph needed to know this terribly important information, why didn’t the brothers answer the question; and why didn’t Joseph press them for an answer?
Perhaps the clue is to be found in Joseph’s framing the question. He uses the possessive: is “my” father still alive, rather than the inclusive: is “our” father still alive?
Joseph wants to forgive his brothers. He tests them and learns from their responses that they are truly remorseful. But is it possible to reconcile after their cruelty to him? Can what’s done be undone?
Joseph sees and hears that the brothers love their father, as much as he does. He realizes that this mutual devotion might be the key to their reconciliation. That’s when he asks the question in which he signals that the “my father” he is referring to is not the sometimes-divisive father Jacob but rather the transformative father Israel who contained his struggles, kept the family together and ultimately became the progenitor of an eternal nation.
I am suggesting that Joseph knows with certainty that his father Jacob is alive but he does not know if his family Israel has survived. When the brothers fall into each other’s arms crying and hugging, the answer is self-evident. The family lives. Am Yisrael Chai.
Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, Mishkon, Venice
Our sages teach that Yosef’s brothers were startled into silence on account of their shame – for not protecting their little brother, choosing instead to harm him, and then hurting their father by concealing their crime from him.
In the intervening years, the brothers likely found ways to cope with their shame – just as many of us do when we err. And yet, when confronted by a living Yosef, they realize the foolishness of their coping strategies. With their shame once again upon them, they are left with nothing to say in their defense.
Our tradition teaches that the first words to come off one’s lips in the morning should be Mod(e/a)h Ani – Grateful am I – for God returning my soul to me and having faith that I will use the gift of life to do good. The Sefat Emet teaches that whenever we squander the opportunity to do good, we experience shame – for having used our God-given abilities to work against the will of God. And we likely experience further shame once our failures become known to the world.
Shame is a powerful emotion that warns us against misdeeds and keeps us on the path of doing good. The exchange between Yosef and his brothers teaches us this very lesson, and asks us to consider – before taking any action – whether we would be ashamed if the truth of that action were to become known. If we always strive to do good, we need fear nothing at all.
With thanks to Mayim Bialik, Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, and David Brandes.
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