Parashah Vayigash is the culmination of the drama between Joseph, son of Jacob, and his brothers. In a pique of hatred and jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and had him carried off to Egypt when he was 17 years old.
Vayigash begins years later when there was a terrible famine throughout the land. Jacob sent his ten oldest sons to Egypt to buy food and bring it back to Canaan. Who was in charge of distributing Egypt’s bounty? Joseph–who had risen to a position of power and favor within the Egyptian hierarchy–recognized his brothers immediately and was furious. He was so angry that he withheld giving them any food unless his brothers brought Benjamin, the youngest brother, to Egypt. When that happened, Joseph made it appear that Benjamin had stolen from him. As punishment for the “theft,” Joseph decreed that Benjamin must stay in Egypt as his slave but that the other brothers could leave.
Judah, the brother who had guaranteed Benjamin’s safety to their father, stepped forward. He begged for Benjamin’s life claiming Benjamin was the son of his father’s old age and that Jacob would surely die if Benjamin did not return. Judah pleaded with Joseph to release Benjamin and keep him as a slave instead. Judah’s humility and his willingness to substitute himself into slavery led to the moment when Joseph revealed himself as their long-lost brother. The sons of Jacob went back to Canaan and told their father that Joseph was alive, and the entire family moved to Egypt, where they lived under Joseph’s protection.
One meaning I found in Parashah Vayigash is about personal growth and improvement of character. Joseph was a spoiled, arrogant fellow in his youth, but through his years of adversity, he developed into a principled and honorable man. He was capable of setting aside his anger and hurt feelings when he saw how his brothers had come to regret the way they had treated him. When Judah–the very architect of his sale into slavery–begged for his brother’s life for the sake of Benjamin and their father, Joseph realized how much his brothers had grown.
The other takeaway for me was about faith. Rabbi Jonathan Kupetz of Temple Beth David in Pomona, CA once said, “We often don’t see God’s presence until the crisis is passed.” Joseph drove this point home when he told his brothers not to be chagrined for selling him into slavery because, “…God sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land and to keep you alive for a deliverance.” I personally have experienced the truth of these words when the pain of a broken engagement led me to visit California, where I met my beshert. And when a miscarriage and life-threatening ectopic pregnancy led to adopting our son, who was truly meant to be ours. And when a devastating layoff became the catalyst that led my husband to a satisfying and purposeful, but never imagined, career. It was not easy to “keep the faith” during those times of crisis, but the eventual outcomes were better than I could have imagined at the time.
We are now struggling through the most daunting, disappointing, and depressing year most of us have ever had to face. Moreover, we’ve been isolated from the very people, places, and events that renew us. It’s hard to hold onto one’s faith during such a terrible time but look around you. Marvel at the work being done by heroes – exhausted medical workers who continue to put their lives on the line to care for the sick, scientists scrambling to find ways to defeat this devastating virus, and members of our temples who strive to keep the people in our congregations feeling connected and supported.
Just as Joseph couldn’t appreciate God’s support while going through his toughest times, some of us are now experiencing the same sense of helplessness. We’ll have to plow through as best we can, remembering and relearning the same lesson every generation is taxed with that while it is difficult to realize God’s support until our personal crisis has passed, most seemingly impossible, harrowing times do eventually end–and with God’s help, we will surely emerge, just as Joseph did, stronger than we ever were before.
Flo Cohen is a past-president of Temple Sinai of Glendale (CA) Sisterhood. Besides being active in her congregation, she is a Pacific District Area Director and serves on the WRJ North American Board.