Vayigash (וַיִּגַּשׁ — he drew near) Genesis 44:18–47:27
Lordship and Bondage: Recognition and Divine Cunning
Last Shabat, in Torah study, our rabbi said that Hebraism in comparison to Hellenism was relational rather than solipsistic. Everything happens in relation to another, especially the development of self-consciousness. It could be said that the main theme of the Torah is recognition.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked and were ashamed after they had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Sexual intercourse introduced mutual recognition of the other even as it also introduced shame of one’s bare self, of one’s material self, of a self propelled by drives and passions. In the Cain and Abel story, the two brothers vie for God’s recognition as they sacrifice the best of their labours, whether the fat of his animals in the case of Abel, or the richness of his crops in the case of Cain, the farmer. God grants recognition to Abel. In envy and rage, for what is a man worth if he is not recognized as being near to God, and a sense of injustice, Cain kills Abel. Cain effaces Abel from the surface of the earth.
Skip ahead, though there is much on recognition in between. Jacob wrestles with a stranger/God and afterwards insists that he had come face to face with the Divine. Jacob is then able to come face to face with his brother Esau whom he had cheated out of his father’s blessing and was meeting him for the first time in twenty years. Esau, instead of having held onto his wrath all those years, embraces his brother in joy and rapture even as his brother comes near to him in fear and trembling.
The three patriarchs did what they were told to do or what they needed to do to come nearer the projection of a family legacy, from dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Joseph is the first of our original set of ancestors that does things for their own sake, for his own sake. Joseph is NOT a patriarch. In his narcissism, in his self-centred behaviour, in his knowledge of himself as a dreamer and an aesthete, he will be the first to become a Lord, the first to achieve true greatness in the world of public affairs. When Joseph had a dream prophesying that his brothers would bow down to him as their Lord, and even his father and mother would do so as well, recognition is once again invoked, but it is not the mutual recognition of a man and a woman, it is not the recognition of the Lord of a supplicant, and it is not the reverse recognition of man of his Lord as his equal as when Jacob wrestled with the stranger. It is recognition that combines all three elements – mutuality, lordship and bondage, and self-recognition of the divine within any human.
First and foremost, came the recognition that they are all brothers in one family, equal in stature in the family, in spite of Jacob’s explicit favouritism for the sons of Rachel. The clear responsibility for this was not the father, but the pact between the two sisters who had become Jacob’s wives and were as different as Cain and Abel, and in as different circumstances within the politics of the family. “We your servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.” (Genesis 44:13) And one is not. Not, we are eleven brothers. Not, we are twelve brothers but one died. But an ambiguous reference to a twelfth brother, who ironically stood lording it over them. For Joseph had not been treated with brotherly love. Though initially intended for death, Joseph was cast out. He “was not” because he was no longer among them. Though they could look him in the eye, he “was not” because they did not recognize him. And the irony. He was above not among them.
Thus, second, there is the recognition of the superiority of one over the many, first of Joseph over the other brothers in terms of wealth and power, and, second, the superiority in a very different sense of Judah over the others in taking responsibility for his deeds, for his thoughts and for others. Without being a saintly figure, Judah saved Joseph’s life, sending him into slavery instead of death. It is Judah who recognized that the loss of Benjamin would be the final straw in breaking their father’s heart, while Joseph, in contrast, and almost in sheer selfishness, insisted that his youngest and only full brother be brought to see him, even though that separation might kill his father. Joseph insisted that his half-brothers bring his younger full brother, Benjamin, to Egypt even when Judah warned him that doing so would kill their father, for Jacob’s soul was “bound up” with Benjamin’s. So, it seemed, was Joseph’s. And the loss of Benjamin to his father would kill Jacob because he did not draw Benjamin near to him, but suffocated him with his love.
Third, Judah offers himself as a bondsman as surety for Benjamin. In contrast, Joseph went too far. Lordship had gone to his head. Joseph dreamt that his father would become his servant and bow down to him. That dream too had to be fulfilled. And it was. In contrast, Judah lived in a rough world and adapted well to it. But, unlike Joseph, Judah was a natural giver. He gave of himself. More than that, when he perceived an injustice, he responded, not by taking a position of moral purity. Nothing he did was morally pure. He was the epitome of morality by coming up with a pragmatic solution that would acknowledge and respect others while turning their efforts into a different direction, even if that direction was far from an ideal one.
Compare Judah to Reuben. Reuben felt the responsibilities of his position in the birth chain. He tried to exercise those responsibilities in the midst of a world of jealousy and envy, competition and regard with the honours owed to one’s father. He was much closer to a purely good man than Judah, even though his father gave him no respect or recognition for who he was and what he did for the family. But, on the ground, he was less successful than Judah who knew somehow almost instinctively how to blend his sense of responsibility to the other, not only the other in need, but the other who denied and refused to recognize that need, and combined it with his own willingness to sacrifice.
This is one of the weirdest parts of the Torah. The ostensible hero, the one whom we read about for four weeks – the only one who surpasses him is Moses – is Joseph. But the real hero, the unsung hero, is Judah. Without Judah, there would be no Joseph.
But look at Joseph’s behaviour. I already pointed out that Joseph was willing to sacrifice his father’s life so that he could be reunited with his own full brother. Quite aside from this indifference to a father who favoured him, who had doted upon him, he treated his father with the greatest disrespect. It is one thing to dream of having your father bow down to you. It is quite another to allow, to even expect him to do so when once again they meet after so many years of separation, after such a long period of his father mourning for his loss. But perhaps it was because Jacob, ever the self-centred calculator, mourned for his loss only because Joseph was the child of his dearly and deeply beloved Rachel. Perhaps Joseph felt his father had never loved him for who he was, but simply because he was his mother’s son. Perhaps this was behind Joseph’s ambitious desire for recognition, for power, for lording over an Other.
Look at how the parshah begins. Not with Joseph coming near, but with Judah coming near. “Then Judah approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.’ (Genesis 44:18) Judah begins by asking to come close to Joseph at the same time as he flatters him and says that Joseph is close to Pharaoh and, in effect, Judah is unworthy of coming close to him. Look at Judah’s cleverness in soothing Joseph lest he become uppity and insulted that his office is not being respected and he unleash his anger at the brothers.
Joseph may be Prime Minister or Vizier of all of Egypt. But Judah is the real politician – a person oriented to the Other, oriented to the public good and with the sensibilities and mastery of rhetoric to convince the Other that what they must do is for their own benefit. Further, as Rashi noted, claiming that Joseph was akin to Pharaoh was not only flattery, but an underhanded insult. The Hebrews, after all, did not really have the highest respect for Pharaoh’s lordly ways even as they paid him all the lip service needed to get by. Their Lord was, after all, far superior to His Lordship.
Can you possibly imagine what happens next? Just think of you being a lowly Canadian or American and being introduced to the Prime Minister or the Speaker of the House in Washington and the first question he asked about you is, “Have you a father or a brother?” (44:19) Not, do you have parents? Not, do you have siblings? Given his sensitivity to others, Judah had to clue in that this situation was distinctly abnormal. Judah and his nine other brothers reply in chorus that we have an old father, a very young brother back home and that his full brother is dead. Now the answer is not the ambiguous, “is not” this time. Joseph is pronounced dead even though the brothers knew he had been sold into slavery. Better dead than red, better dead than a life of perpetual enforced service.
Rashi likes to point out how the answers aroused Joseph’s suspicions. But my attention was drawn to Judah and how he was going to handle it. For I cannot believe, as Rashi does, that Joseph suspected that his brothers had gone down (the Israelite perspective) or came up to Egypt (the view of the Egyptian court) for a nefarious purpose. It just does not make sense to me that Joseph is suddenly concerned about their ambitions – to acquire Egyptian wives. But perhaps. It is possible that Joseph projected on his brothers’ motives for glory and honour and wealth and public recognition desires similar to his own. I, personally, do not have such a cynical view of Joseph as Rashi.
Then comes the very revealing and unveiling line uttered by Joseph. “And you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, and I will set my eye[s] upon him.’” (44:21) The New Testament is full of allusions to eyes. For Matthew, the eye is the lamp of the body. (6:22) By looking into someone’s eyes, you can read their character. But Joseph was not looking to read Benjamin’s character, but to feast his own eyes upon him. Was he also asserting that he, Joseph, was not concerned to see what Benjamin looked like, but was akin to God in wanting to see what was in Benjamin’s heart? (I Samuel 16:2) Was it, in the end, as black as his own and that no one recognized?
I doubt it. One never gets the idea at this stage of the story that Joseph compared himself or saw himself in God’s light. Rather, he portrayed himself as the reflection of the Pharaoh’s. Joseph was more akin to wanting only the most worthy to appear before him. Though he was a brilliant politician and public servant in not only recognizing but anticipating the needs of the people and how they could and should be filled, he was always even more interested in expanding the wealth and glory of the Pharaoh. Hence Joseph’s brilliant efforts, however morally heinous, to give food to the needy middle class, but only in exchange for their lands, for their cattle and for their perpetual serfdom.
If he, as Psalm 101 commanded, only wanted o appear before him what delighted his own eyes, and what delighted his own eyes was not the inner soul of the Other, surely Judah would have picked this up and become suspicious. For Joseph was not asking for his eyes to be opened so the wonders of the world could be open to him. He, after all, was the dreamer, the seer, the wonder of the Egyptian world. Further, unlike Jesus who aspired to open everyone’s eyes in that way, the Israelites were more concerned with whether their tongues spoke the words of their God. For, in the end, it is really through a man’s words that you can read him. Israelites by and large did not believe that eyes were the window into the soul. And Joseph certainly did not, so caught up was he with that which delighted his eyes. He was truly an aesthete.
It is Judah who tests Joseph about his motives. Was he suspicious that Joseph may not only have been gay, but was a man who loved boys, a pedophile? Judah on behalf of his brothers pleaded with Joseph. If we take Benjamin away from his father, it would kill their father. Judah did not betray his suspicions, only his fears. How did Joseph reply? He gave them an ultimatum. “If your youngest brother does not come down with you, you will not see my face again.” (44:23) Not simply you will not see me. You will not see my face. Joseph was assuming the position of the Hebrew God and saying that he would remain hidden from them. Of course, if he did so, they would not get the food and the provisions that Jacob had sent them down to Egypt to buy. Would they surrendered to Joseph’s blackmail in spite of their, especially Judah’s, suspicions.
Their father was devastated. As far as Jacob was concerned, his soul had become totally wrapped up in Benjamin. It was Jacob, not as a pedophile, who would not detach himself from his son just as once he would not let go of the Lord with whom he had wrestled. But all their lives were at stake. Jacob gave in, especially when Judah pledged his own life as surety for the boy’s return. (44:32) But these same words were first offered up to Joseph. (44:30) Joseph would have none of it. He showed little compassion for the situation into which he had put both his brothers and especially his father. While Joseph had expressed the desire to delight his eyes, Judah wailed, “Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!” Joseph needed and wanted to satisfy his eyes. But Joseph, the deep moralist, the one most concerned for the other, could not stand the anticipation of watching his father wail.
Then in Chapter 45, Joseph suddenly changed course. He revealed who he was to his brothers. Why then? Because it was clear that it was Judah’s gauntlet that had won the day. Joseph had threatened them with sending them home without provisions and never allowing them to come to Egypt again to get food. But even at that, Judah would not give in lest his father’s heart be broken.
The most interesting part is how Joseph revealed himself. He cried. He wailed. He broke down so even his servants who had been sent out of the room could hear. So much for maintaining appearances! Joseph gave in to his inner voice and set aside his preoccupations with seeing and being seen. And Joseph uttered those powerful words with which the parshat began. “”Please come closer to me,” and they drew closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” (45:4) One cannot help but weep when you read this verse.
Here is the epiphany. This is where Joseph once again becomes a Hebrew. For he comes to recognize that it is not his skills, it is not his attributes of seeing into the future, but only that he was an instrument of God’s will. He returns to the beliefs of his forefathers. You are not to blame for selling me into slavery. I am not to be credited for achieving such a high position in the world. It is all part of God’s will and how God reveals himself. It is the cunning of history. It is the cunning of the divine spirit. “God sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve [it] for you for a great deliverance.” (45:7)
This, in the end, is what Judaism is about. No matter whether you are a lowly serf or someone who has achieved the highest honours, you are but an instrument of history, an instrument of God’s will. The rest of the parshat is but the unpacking of this self-discovery, this self-revelation, this coming to recognize God as the ultimate Other, while, at the same time, working His will through our various hearts.
With the help of Alex Zisman