15 December 2004, 1:00 PM
This week’s parshah (Vayigash, Gen 44:18-47:27) starts with Judah pleading with Joseph (still in disguise) for Benjamin’s freedom. The scene leads up to Joseph revealing his identity and forgiving his brothers’ actions, for it was the Lord’s will, not their actions, that put him where he is, rich and powerful and able to save his father from the famine. The boys all go back to Canaan to get Jacob, who rejoices in the news, and they all pack up and go to Egypt. Jacob and Joseph meet, with many tears, and there’s an odd little conversation between Jacob and Pharoah, and the whole family settles down to prosperity in Egypt while Joseph buys all the land and makes sharecroppers out of the natives.
And that’s pretty much it. Can I add that I’m glad that Joseph does give the old man some comforts, as it’s pretty much the only nice thing he ever does for anybody? I mean, Joseph is clearly a tremendous administrator, and gorgeous besides, but he doesn’t seem to be much of a mensch. I should say, he has lots of opportunities to be downright wicked, and he doesn’t take them; I’m not saying he’s a villain or anything. It does seem, though, that he is good at (A) interpreting other people’s dreams, which he admits isn’t his own skill be the Lord’s, and (2) running large estates. Which are nice and all, but where’s the wisdom, and the loving-kindness, and the piety?
Well, and anyway, there are only a couple of what-ifs that spring to my mind. What if Judah doesn’t come forward, but is satisfied with Joseph agreeing to commute Benjamin’s sentence from death to imprisonment? Would Joseph have not revealed himself? What if Joseph changed his mind again, and set up yet a third test? What if, when Jacob/Israel comes, he can’t get along with grown-up Joseph?
And what if Joseph doesn’t extort the land from the Egyptian farmers? What if he finds some other way of distributing the food, rather than centralizing all the wealth and power in the hands of the Pharoah? Of course, his hands guide the Pharoah’s, but does he not realize that this Pharoah will die? Or does Joseph imagine that he will take the throne? Either way, it’s that central power which lets another Pharoah enslave the people Israel; Joseph is making that unborn dictator a saddle and bridle.
By the way, it doesn’t fit in with my theme of counterfactuals, but I’m moved, this time through, by that meeting between Jacob and Pharoah (47:7-10). Two old men, formerly aggressive and powerful, now totally dependent on Joseph. Both found Joseph beguiling and favored him above all others; do they both regret it now? Pharoah shows no more interest in Jacob than in anything else, since Joseph took over. Jacob has to repeat his blessing, is mighty Pharoah getting a bit deaf? Jacob, that trickster and manipulator, just whines about his age and his hard times. Joseph moves it all along quickly, and puts the old man out of the way in a quiet but lovely spot far from the capital. There’s a sadness in those few verses that I find moving, somehow.