This week, in Parasha Vayigash we learn the last chapter of Joseph’s journey in Egypt.
In last week’s parasha we saw all the brothers gathered before Joseph. When the brothers were leaving from their visit to get more food, 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. The brothers have been arrested, and Joseph is about to judge them.
Judah explains their sad situation. 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 Joseph, who is second only to Pharaoh, 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 of Egypt 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.
All of this has been a great secret during the 22 years since Joseph was sold into slavery and sent to Egypt. According to our tradition, Joseph’s brothers proclaimed a cherem, a solemn ban, on anyone speaking of what happened to Joseph. The cherem applied even to Joseph, so he could not tell anyone how he came to be in Egypt or even send a message to his father. The cherem is difficult to understand. What makes most sense to me is Joseph obeyed it because he understood his journey – being taken to Egypt, imprisoned with Pharaoh’s chamberlains, and given the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams – were all part of a divine plan to put Joseph in a position to save his family from the famine. Because of this, he obeyed the ban, and did not contact his father.
The last step in God’s plan is that Jacob and his family – 70 people – and their servants and flocks all enter Egypt. 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, and settling them far away will keep them from offending the Egyptians.
So the Israelite slavery in Egypt begins. Even it has a divine purpose, but we must wait 210 years later to understand it, when we receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
A special note: In the weekly parashot we will study over the next few months, we will learn of our sojourn in Egypt. Ancient Egypt was a land rich in many things, but not the spiritual values of Torah. 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.