This week, we study Parasha Vayigash – “he approached.” The approach this sentence describes is Judah approaching the Viceroy of Egypt, who Judah and the other brothers do not realize is their brother Joseph. But there are other important approaches we will discover.
In last week’s parasha there is a touching scene where all the brothers are gathered before Joseph. He will decide the fate of the youngest, Benjamin. When the brothers were leaving, Joseph had his servant hide his silver goblet in Benjamin’s saddle bags. Once the brothers begin their journey home to Canaan, Joseph has his servant stop them and search them for the goblet.
Now Judah describes his predicament: When they came to Egypt before to buy grain during the great famine, Joseph said the brothers could not return unless they brought Benjamin. Jacob treasures Benjamin because he and Joseph were the only sons of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and Jacob believes Joseph is dead. Jacob would only let Benjamin go after Judah promised to look after him. Judah explains this to the second most powerful man in Egypt, and says that if the brothers do not return with Benjamin, it will kill their elderly father.
Joseph is overcome with emotion. He orders everyone but the brothers to leave the room. When he is alone with his brothers, he cries out: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
The visiting brothers cannot believe the Viceroy is Joseph, and he convinces them by explaining all that has happened to him – a story that none but the other brothers would know. He calms their fears of revenge by explaining that he realizes it was God who put into place all that befell him so that he would be in a position to help his family during the great famine. All the brothers embrace Joseph and he embraces them. He tells them to return to Canaan to bring back their father and their families, because there are still five years of famine to survive.
It has been 22 years since the brothers gave Jacob the bloody coat of Joseph and let him assume his beloved son was killed by a wild animal. As the brothers return home, they realize the news that Joseph is alive could be so startling to their father that it could kill him. This approach is also special. Our tradition tells us the brothers have Asher’s daughter, Serach, go to Jacob and begin singing and playing her harp about Joseph being alive and the ruler of Egypt. This raised his spirits and readied him for the news.
Jacob does not believe his sons when they say Joseph is alive. Joseph anticipated this, so he described to his brothers the last Torah lesson Jacob learned with him before he went to check on his brothers with the flocks. The brothers describe this lesson to Jacob, and he knows that they have spoken with Joseph.
Now Jacob gathers his entire family and begins the journey to see Joseph in Egypt. He fears leaving Canaan, the land that God has promised to his family as long ago as the Covenant of the Parts with Abraham (where God appeared to Abraham in a vision, after which Abraham had a dream [Genesis 15:7]), and go to a place like Egypt where the people worship idols. At night, God appears to him in the last of the great dreams of the Patriarchs. God tells Jacob, “I am the God – God of your father. Have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there. I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up. And Joseph shall place his hand on your eyes.” Thus God strengthens Jacob for his approach to Egypt.
So Jacob and his family – 70 souls – and their servants and flocks all enter Egypt. As they do, another magnificent approach occurs, when Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, goes out in his chariot to meet his father. The Torah gives us the scene: “He appeared before him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively.” Our rabbis have discussed to whom the “he” and “his” refer – which person is Joseph and which is Jacob. The Sages of the Talmud explain that the scene describes Joseph falling on his father’s neck and weeping, because Jacob, who never thought he would see his son again, is giving thanks to God by reciting the Shema. In fact, the next sentence says that Israel (Jacob) tells Joseph, “Now I can die, after my having seen your face, because you are still alive.”
Pharaoh has allowed Jacob and his family to settle in the fertile land of Goshen, because they are shepherds. Since the Egyptians worship animals, they dislike cattlemen and shepherds, so letting them settle in a far corner of the country will keep them from offending the Egyptians. It will also hopefully keep the Israelites from following Egyptian customs.
Thus begins our slavery in Egypt. How can it be that our ancestors could be considered enslaved when they were saved from a famine and given a fertile land in which to live? Because before we became slaves in the physical sense, performing backbreaking labor on useless projects, we lived in a land where the people worshipped idols and had cultural practices that were spiritually degrading. We feared entering this land, but all of our approaches that brought us to it were part of the divine plan that, 210 years later, will cause us to approach Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.
A special note: In following the weekly parasha over the next few months, we will learn of our sojourn in Egypt. We will find that it was a land rich in many things, but not the spiritual values of Torah God wants us to live. Our people will be enslaved there, and it would be natural for us to be angry about that. The people, religion and culture of ancient Egypt are very different from those of modern Egypt. Torah tells us not to reject the Egyptian, because Egypt saved us from famine. (Deuteronomy 23:8) We must not be upset with people now for things that happened in their land 3,500 years ago.