Parshat Vayigash


Sometimes, unfortunately, you hear the dvar Torah before the Torah.  Meaning, the “dvar Torah” is the meaningful message and the compelling interpretation of the text of the Torah.   It can be so inspiring that we then go back to see the text, and the realize that the interpretation did not really make sense.  I hope that this does not happen to you when listening to my divrei Torah, but this happened to me.

The classic “dvar Torah” regarding the opening of our parsha is that Yehudah stepped forward, confessed to his failures, and demonstrated true leadership.  He offered a passionate confession that dramatically moved Yosef.  

This message is amplified in the midrash that applies certain quotes from Tanakh to this speech of Yehuda  and conversation:

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת ויגש פרשה צג

אחד באחד יגשו (איוב מא ח) זה יהודה ויוסף,

אֶחָ֣ד בְּאֶחָ֣ד יִגַּ֑שׁוּ וְ֝ר֗וּחַ לֹא־יָב֥וֹא בֵֽינֵיהֶֽם׃

One scale touches the other; Not even a breath can enter between them

This means that their talk was so intimate that there was absolutely no barrier between them.

(תפוחי זהב במשכיות כסף דבר דבור על אופניו (משלי כה יא

Like golden apples in silver showpieces Is a phrase well turned.

Meaning that this was an incredible use of language.

מַ֣יִם עֲ֭מֻקִּים עֵצָ֣ה בְלֶב־אִ֑ישׁ וְאִ֖ישׁ תְּבוּנָ֣ה יִדְלֶֽנָּה׃ (משלי כ ה)

The designs in a man’s mind are deep waters, But a man of understanding can draw them out.

משל לבאר עמוקה מליאה צונין והיו ממיה יפין, ולא היתה בריה יכולה לשתות ממנה, בא אחד וקשר חבל בחבל נימה בנימה ודלה ממנה ושתה, התחילו הכל דולים ושותים ממנה, כך לא זז יהודה משיב ליוסף דבר על דבר עד שעמד על לבו ויגש אליו יהודה.

This can be compared to a well with great water that is too deep for anyone to access until one wise person tied rope to rope to a bucket, and lowers it deep into the well to bring up the great waters.  

Similarly, Yehudah’s talk was deep, powerful and effective.

The text of the Torah itself indicates the emotional power of the speech:

בראשית פרק מה:   (א) וְלֹא יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיִּקְרָא הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו: (ב) וַיִּתֵּן אֶת קֹלוֹ בִּבְכִי וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּשְׁמַע בֵּית פַּרְעֹה:

Yosef could not contain his emotion.  He emptied the room and cried loudly.

The thing that is missing is the speech itself.  The bulk of it is Yehudah rehashing the previous events that Yosef already knew because they happened with him, or because the brothers already told him.  Then there are a few phrases that are difficult to decipher, such as

כי כמוך כפרעה which the mefarshim debate as to their interpretation difficult ways, ranging from: “ I consider you to be all powerful like Pharoah” to “We will destroy you like we will do to Pharoah”.  Either way, it is highly unlikely that Yosef would have understood either midrashic interpretation, especially if they were speaking through a translator.

According to the pshat of the Torah, how was this speech so impactful, as we know it created an incredibly emotional moment that became the entire turning point of the saga?

I believe that the answer is that when you think about a conflict, an emotional fight between loved ones, siblings, there are always particular issues - expressed in words - that create the conflict.  But often if you listen to the words that lead to the resolution - the issues are not really resolved.  They are ended because both parties recognize that their love for each other is more important than the issues that they are fighting about.  And they let the issues go. They sort of resolve them and they sort of forget about them.  They move on.

I think that this is exactly what happened with Yosef and the brothers-

At the outset, the Torah tells us that לא יכלו דברו לשלום - they could not get along.  For sure there were reasons, but ultimately, it was an emotional reality - they could not get along.  Until one day, this day, that they were able to, regardless of how the midrash interprets the ambiguity of Yosef’s words.  They did not matter. And the brothers still may not have forgiven their father and brother for creating their jealousy, but they forgot about it, or finally stopped focusing on it.

The conflict described in the parsha stands in contrast with the haftarah, where the descendents of Yehudah, the Southern Kingdom, with the descendents of Yosef, the Northern Kingdom, centered in Efraim, who were divided two and half thousand years ago.  We have not yet been reunited, and today’s haftarah speaks of our ultimate reunification in the messianic era.  

While the parsha foreshadows the haftarah, they are so different, in that the conflict in the parsha is resolved relatively quickly, and the conflict in the kingdoms is incredibly ongoing, and even before their exile, it was hundreds of years that they continued to fight, never to reunite.

I think that the difference is that the conflict of Yosef and his brothers was personal.  Personal conflicts are difficult, but can be resolved. And we do it all the time, whether it is making up after a conflict, or avoiding a conflict by making ourselves flexible.  Siblings do it, spouses do it, and parents and children even do it.  You might have a different idea about when to leave a family gathering than your spouse, or than your parents.  You do not need to discuss it and come to an agreement.  We compromise and meet in the middle, or not in the middle, because it is worth it.  We might not like it that a parent seems to favor one child.  But we try to overlook it.  

However, the divide in the kingdom was not only personal.  It was principled.  It was a conflict about what we thought God wanted.  And when we represent God, we cannot compromise.  Who are we to compromise on God’s will?  People who are flexible of forgoing in their personal relationships; who are bending, gentle, and selfless with others, can sometimes be completely unbending when discussing issues of faith and when fighting God’s wars.  

Indeed, it comes from a good place, and it is the reason why the conflict in the Middle East are so difficult: because they are not territorial wars or economic conflicts: they are God’s wars.  That is what plagues the Jewish Kingdoms, and that is what plagues us today as well.  Even within the Jewish community and even within the Orthodox community.  

Our most difficult conflicts are about whose practices should be deemed non-halakhik and non-Orthodox.  Or whose style of nusach, chazanut or decorum most perfectly maximizes proper tefilah and kavanah.  

Who can compromise on the cheshbon of God?

I submit that the moral of the story is that just as we can overlook differences and compromise in our personal lives, we should do the same in our religious lives.  Not to compromise on our observance, but yes, to compromise on our judgement of others and to compromise on the way to structure the most meaningful tefilos.  And ultimately, I believe that if we will makes room for the views of others in our hearts, then we will also make room for God, and God, in turn, will make room for us.

Wed, January 17 2018 1 Shevat 5778