Commentary for Vayigash

9 Dec

At the end of last week’s parshah, Joseph framed Benjamin for stealing a goblet, and announced that while the rest of the brothers were free to go, Benjamin would remain in Egypt as a slave.  This week’s parshah starts with Judah making a desperate plea to Joseph.  Jacob was reluctant to send Benjamin down to Egypt with the other brothers, and Judah knows that after already losing Joseph, losing Benjamin would cause their father to die of sorrow, so he begs Joseph to allow him to stay as a slave in Benjamin’s stead.  Hearing of the pain this would cause his father and seeing that the brothers were protective of Benjamin in a way they had never been protective of him, Joseph breaks down in tears and reveals his identity to his brothers.


Joseph then sends his brothers back to Cana’an to fetch the rest of their family to stay with them in Egypt until the famine passed.  When the brothers got back to Cana’an and told Jacob the happy news, Jacob refused to believe their story.  Then, upon seeing the wagons Joseph had sent with them, Jacob changed his mind and believed that Joseph was still alive (Gen 45: 27-28).  This begs the question “what was it about the wagons that made Jacob change is mind?”


Rashi answers this question by saying that the Hebrew word for wagon, “agalah” and the Hebrew for word for heifer, “eglah” are comprised of the same Hebrew letters in the same order, only with different vowels.  Therefore, by sending the wagons to Jacob, Joseph was sending him a reminder of the last set of Halachah they had learned together before his disappearance; the laws of the heifer whose neck is broken.  This connection seems tenuous at best, but connecting the laws of the heifer whose neck is broken (Eglah Arufah) with this week’s parshah does yield some interesting insight.


The ceremony of the Eglah Arufah (described in Deut 21: 1-9) takes place when there is an unsolved murder that takes place between the borders of two towns.  In the ceremony, the elders of the town closest to the crops break a heifer’s neck as a guilt-offering to God for not properly escorting the traveler safely to the next town.  The ceremony of the Eglah Arufah teaches us that we still bear some responsibility for things that are out of our control if we had some power to perhaps prevent them.  While a two escorts to see a traveler safely to the next town might not have been enough to stop an entire gang of bandits or a pack of wolves from killing the traveler, they might have been enough to stop just a lone bandit or a lone wolf from doing so, and thus, by not properly escorting the traveler, the government of the town might share a small role in the traveler’s death.


Judah knew that Benjamin’s fate was purely in Joseph’s hands, and that he could not force Joseph to let Benjamin go if Joseph didn’t want to, but he also knew that losing Benjamin would break his father’s heart.  He had to do something.  So he put himself out there.  He offered for Joseph to have him stay and let Benjamin return.  If Joseph accepted the offer, it would save both their father and Benjamin at the cost of his own life, and if Joseph declined, they were no worse off than they were before.


So Judah makes his plea, and by doing so, shows Joseph that his brothers are changed men, leading to the family finally being reunited.  Although things may seem like they are out of our control, we often still do have the chance to influence events, and it is our responsibility as Jews to do so in ways that increases the good in God’s world.

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