Commentary for Vayigash

13 Jan

In this week’s parshah Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, who have come to Egypt seeking food because Cana’an is in the midst of a famine. Joseph first puts his brothers through a harrowing test, framing Benjamin for theft to see if the bothers would turn on Benjamin the way they had on him. Although it would arguably have increased their overall chances of survival to abandon Benjamin, as that would make for one less mouth to share food with during the famine as well as avoid an argument with the person in charge of distributing the food, the brothers come to Benjamin’s defense. Seeing that they have changed their ways, Joseph releases Benjamin and reveals his true identity to them.

During his revelation, Joseph asks his brothers “Is my father still alive (Gen. 45:3)?” Many commentators have noted the odd placement of this question in the narrative.   The brothers have mentioned Jacob multiple times already, all in ways that would indicate that he is alive and well (42:13, 43:28, and even earlier in this same conversation in 44:24-25). Indeed, one of those mentions (43:28) was the brothers responding to Joseph asking “Is your aged father of whom you spoke at peace? Is he still alive?” in the previous verse. So why does Joseph now ask this question again?

Rabbi Avie Gold points to the difference in the wording of the question. He tells a story about teaching this parshah in a seventh grade class in which one of the students, whose father had abandoned the family while the child was still young, explained Joseph’s question as follows: “I know that your father is still alive. He has been with you all these many years; you all live together. He cares about you and is a living father to you. But does he still think of me? Does he still pray for my welfare? Is he anxious to see me again? Is my father still alive?”

Earlier in the conversation, Judah had explained that Benjamin had an older brother but “his brother is dead (Gen. 44:20).” Rashi points out that they did not know this for a fact, which begs the question of why Judah would say that the other brother was “dead” when telling the truth (or part of it, anyway)- that he was sold into slavery- would be an equally reasonable explanation for why the twelfth brother was not with them and why Jacob would be overprotective of Benjamin and heartbroken if he did not return.

One explanation for Judah’s choice of words is that the brothers had simply not given Joseph any thought in many years. Whether or not Joseph was alive somewhere in the world was irrelevant; to them, Joseph was dead.   The great irony of this, of course, is that in that moment of leaping to Benjamin’s defense it was Joseph’s brothers- the ones who had sold him into slavery and not given him a second though- who ceased to exist.

Unlike the bothers, Jacob- Joseph’s father Jacob- had never died. As Gen. 37:35 tells us, Jacob did not let a day go by where he didn’t think about Joseph. When a loved one passes on we carry their memory with us. We remember the good times that we had together and the lessons they have taught us, and we ensure that, through us, they continue to leave their mark on the world. The departed are only truly gone if we allow them to be forgotten.

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