The Vort: Va'Yigash – Recognition and Redemption

Parashat Va’Yigash recounts the story of Joseph’s reunion with his father Jacob and his eleven brothers in Egypt. At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, appeals to Joseph for mercy after Benjamin has been unjustly accused of having stolen a wine goblet from Joseph’s house. When Joseph announces his intention to hold Benjamin in captivity as a penalty and to release the other brothers, Judah explains with dramatic flourish that retaining Benjamin in Egypt and not returning him to his father Jacob would literally kill the ageing patriarch. Shortly thereafter, Joseph commands everyone in his house, save his brethren, to leave the room. It is then that Joseph tearfully reveals his true identity to his dumbstruck brothers. He then supplies his brothers with ample food and cattle before sending them back on their way to Israel, requesting that they return to him in Egypt with Jacob. After hearing the shocking news that Joseph is still alive, Jacob agrees to go down to Egypt with the brothers to see Joseph “before I die.”
While this portion is packed with emotion-laden content and dramatic revelations, I would like to focus on a brief but very bizarre exchange between Jacob and Pharaoh upon Jacob’s arrival in Egypt. Within the grand sweep of the narrative, this curious moment is somehow lost, but the implications of Jacob’s statements here provide key insights into understanding the entire story:vayigash1

Pharaoh asked Jacob, “How many are the years of your life?” And Jacob answered Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the span of my fathers during their sojourns.” (Gen. 47:8-9)

While in the verse immediately preceding this passage, Jacob blessed Pharaoh, it does not appear Pharaoh offered any formal, conventional greeting to Jacob. Instead, Pharaoh immediately asks Jacob his age. Even stranger is Jacob’s cryptic response in which he seems reflectively to make an unfavorable comparison between the quality and length of his own life when compared to those of his father and grandfather.
Samson Raphael Hirsch interprets Jacob’s peculiar answer by explaining that Jacob is thinking about the spiritual value of his life. In the conventional, physical sense, Jacob has already lived a long life, but spiritually, his 130 years fall short of what he had personally hoped for himself. In other words, Jacob’s response is a concession to imperfection. In the text, we never see the moment in which Jacob suddenly realizes that ten of his sons had deceived him by casting Joseph off into a pit, but here, at this dramatic turning point, we can now infer what has happened.
The years of Jacob’s life have been “few and hard” precisely because of the multiplying layers of trickery and deceit that have shaped and defined his life’s story. Jacob’s very status as patriarch is only the consequence of his having tricked his twin brother and stealing his birthright; Laban, Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law-to-be, in turn tricks Jacob by extending the years of his servitude to him in exchange for marrying his daughter Rachel; Laban eventually tricks Jacob again by replacing Rachel with Leah; once Jacob is finally married to Rachel, she tricks Jacob and Laban by hiding her father’s idols; and finally, and perhaps most crushing of all, Jacob’s own sons banish his most beloved son Joseph and tell him a bold-faced lie.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for recognition (base root נ.כ.ר) appears often in these stories of deception. For example, when Jacob stands before his blind father Isaac, pretending to be Esau, it is written (Gen. 27:23) “ולא הכירו”, and “Isaac did not recognize” it was actually Jacob. When Joseph’s brothers presented the blood-soaked cloak of their discarded brother (they themselves dipped Joseph’s garment in blood so they could say he was devoured by an animal), Jacob looks at cloth “ויכירה”: “he recognized it” (Gen. 37:33). Finally, when Joseph himself deceives his brothers by hiding his identity upon first seeing them in Egypt, we see an especially interesting play on words: “…וירא יוסף את אחיו ויכירם: ויתנכר אליהם וידבר אליהם קשות“  “And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he hid his own identity from them and spoke harshly to them…” (Gen. 42:7). The words for “recognized” and “hid his identity” (two nearly opposite actions) here are both based on the same Hebrew root: נכר.
It is interesting to note that Joseph had also previously employed a measure of guile in his dealings with his brothers when he ordered the goblet to be placed in Benjamin’s sack in order to incriminate him. It is important to note that by means of this ploy Joseph was able to test his brother’s reaction to the jeopardy of their younger sibling (and Joseph’s only whole brother, during whose birth Joseph’s mother Rachel had died). Both in the incident of the goblet and when he concealed his identity, however, Joseph’s use of trickery in his dealings with his brothers was unlike that of Jacob and Jacob’s sons when they acted treacherously with their respective brothers. Joseph’s subterfuge had as its purpose a testing of the brothers with the goal of being able to forgive them, and not personal gain and advancement, as was the case in the other instances. Joseph’s love for his brothers and desire for familial reconciliation (rather than the strife and treachery that had marked this family in the past) is the overwhelming emotional message of this parsha, as we see from Joseph’s inability to control his joyful tears when he finally reveals himself to his brothers. In her poem, Joseph and his Brothers, the very talented, recently deceased Minnesota poetess, Ruth Brin z”l derives the following poignant moral lesson from this parasha :

“…Yet when he spoke roughly to them
he had to turn away and weep.
This was the heart of Joseph,
that he had to weep in spite of himself.
This was the greatness of Joseph,
that he was unable to use his brothers
as tools in his hands.
Remember Joseph when you plan to use a person
as a tool, and weep instead.”

Shabbat shalom.

7 thoughts on “The Vort: Va'Yigash – Recognition and Redemption

  1. Have you ever pondered the meaning of the name “Jacob, deceiver”? Is it a metaphor for jews (or G-d) being deceptive? Disclaimer: honest question, I know it has antisemitic overtones, but I thought any insight would somehow dispel such uncomfortable thoughts.

  2. Juan, who told you that Jacob means “deceiver”? Jacob was named so because he grabbed his brother’s heel as Esau was coming out of the womb. “Heel” in Hebrew is עָקֵב (akeiv). There are other meanings attributed to Jacob’s name, spiritual meanings and interpretations derived from his name, but none of them is “deceiver”.

  3. Juan, Jacob means “follower”, not “deceiver”. Also, Jews get their name from “Judah”, which means “praised”. So your last name means blacksmith, are you a blacksmith?

  4. Also—and this was one of the main points—what distinguishes Jacob as a character is his ability to grow as person (Joseph too: he transforms from a haughty, self-centered boy to a deeply sensitive and self-disciplined man). Even though he is depicted as somewhat deceptive, Jacob’s character drastically improves throughout his life. Consider this story arch compared to ancient Greek literature: for example, Odysseus never changes significantly as a person. He begins and ends the same kind of hero. The Hebrew Bible differs radically in this respect. Characters are essentially flawed, but they learn.
    Also, the etymology of Jacob’s other name (Yisrael) = Gen. 32:29
    ויאמר לא יעקב יאמר עוד שמך כי אם ישראל כי שרית עם אלוקים ועם אנשים ותוכל
    In day school, they would always tell us Yisrael had to do with “Yashar El” (straight [to] G-d), but as Oren points out, this is not exactly accurate. The quote above from Gen. 32:29 refers to Jacob’s physical struggle with a divine being (and his triumph).

  5. Raysh, I don’t think that is an accurate etymology for Israel. the root is y-s-r, not y-sh-r. for more insight see Hosea 12:4 “In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and by his strength he strove with a godlike being”

  6. Thank you for your insight. I’m gratefully surprised my idle question brought forth such insightful thoughts, and I apologize.

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