Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yigash – B’resheet (Genesis): 44:18-47:26

Each of the weekly Parashot (parashas) presents a narrative that tells a story of individuals (and later of much larger groups), describing their relationships, fortunes and misfortunes, travels and battles, struggles and learning situations, instructions for living (the ‘Torah’) and much more. Every one of these stories also relates to the Elohim of Yisrael. No doubt, there is a great deal to be gleaned from these accounts, as indeed we do. Yet, an even more careful examination will reveal facts beyond ‘mere’ object lessons or annals of the past. These episodes, that occurred so long ago, formed the foundation of a continuum which is part of today's world dynamics!  And what's more, they have a bearing on our very own lives. This thread of continuity, which ties the biblical characters, their decisions and responses to YHVH – indeed, their very lives - to ours, is what makes the Parashot so exciting and important.

With this in mind, we approach Parashat Va'yigash. “Va’yigash” means "and he approached” or “drew near," originating from the root (noon, gimmel, shin). At the outset of the Parasha we see Yehuda "drawing near" to Yoseph. Although in his blindness Yehuda does not recognize his brother, still his new 'approach' (after having passed his tests) enables him to draw closer to his sibling, albeit as mentioned, unawares.  As we saw at the end of last week's Parasha, Yehuda has been reformed through some reflection and repentance. This, as well as some of his other traits, to be discussed later, should inspire us with hope and anticipation regarding his descendants, who are destined to follow in the footsteps of their progenitor. Some day, they too will draw near to their long-lost, hidden brother; not only to the brethren from amongst the descendants of Yoseph, but also to their greater and as of yet unrecognized Brother, Yeshua (see Zech. 12:10-13:2). 

The words of this ‘greater Brother’ take on special meaning in the context of the current story, a story that may be viewed as a prophetic pattern relating to the collective destiny of Yehuda. Thus, Yeshua’s declaration, "no man can come to [the Son], except the Father… draw him" (John 6:44), lend an added dimension to the first 16 verses of the Parasha (see 44:18-34 - Yehuda's monologue), where father is mentioned no less than 14 times. Surely this emphasis on ‘father’ represents and alludes to another glimmer of hope for the progeny of Yehuda, in their tight adherence to the Heavenly Father. 

Yehuda's oft repeated "eved - servant” (or literally “slave”), singular and plural and “adonie” (“my master/lord”), in connection to himself and his family (ref. 44:18, 19, 21, 23, 24, 27 etc.), is indicative of the fact that Yoseph's dreams are being fulfilled. But it also clearly foreshadows Yehuda's future attitude toward his Master and Messiah. Following Yoseph's disclosure of his identity, the latter beckons his brothers to come near to him – “g’shu - of the same root of va’yigash - and they respond by, again, “drawing near” (45:4). Interestingly, the name of the land that Yoseph will be designating for his family will be Goshen. This name, even though not a Hebrew word, sounds very much like the above-mentioned verb and thus informs us that without “approaching” or “drawing near” to their brother, the sons of Yisrael would not be able to take advantage of the place of refuge prepared for them (cf. John 14:1,2).

     In recent Parashot we have been following Yehuda's process of learning about redemption. We have looked at the term "arov," which is “guarantee” or “surety.” In his monologue addressing Yoseph and presenting the case of Binyamin, Yehuda says: "For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, `If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father forever'" (44:32 emphasis added). Among the many words derived from this root, a.r.v (ayin, resh, vet/bet), we also find “pleasant” – “a’rev,” as in…” Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me… He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi… then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing – “arva” - to YHVH" (Mal. 3:1, 3, 4, italics added). This sequel of events culminates with Yehuda's offering bringing great pleasure to the Father’s heart. Yehuda's treatment of his brother Binyamin in the Parasha, and the "eravon" (guarantee) that he is so faithful to keep, speak of a future day when Yehuda’s house will do so corporately. “Drawing near” and “pledge” meet in a prophetic scripture penned by Yimiyahu (Jeremiah), describing a day when Ya’acov’s tents will be restored (ref. 30:18), and when a Ruler of greater and nobler stature will come forth from the midst of the nation. “He will draw close – “ve’nigash” – to Me, for who is he who would pledge – “ve’arav” – his heart to draw close – “lageshet” – to Me? says YHVH” (30:21 italics added). It is no coincidence that these specific terms are strung together so many centuries later, when reference is made to Yehuda’s greater Son (and brother), thus illustrating that the life of the ancient forefather exemplifies what eventually comes to full manifestation and fruition in his progeny, in this case Yeshua. But the ‘chain’ doesn’t stop there, we have here an illustration of what will also be expressed in the future by Yehuda’s natural offspring, that is the Jewish nation.*  

In this second journey to Egypt, Yehuda acts again as the spokesperson for his brethren and the one leading the way. It is only after he approaches Yoseph that the rest of the brothers do likewise. When Ya'acov and family arrive in Egypt we read: "Then he [Jacob] sent Judah before him to Joseph, to point out before him the way…" (46:28 italics added). Yehuda's lead will become a scripturally repeated pattern (e.g. Num. 2:3; Jud. 1:2; 1st Ch. 5:2a), applicable all the way to our present days. In Z’char’yah (Zechariah) we read: "…For YHVH of Hosts will visit His flock, the House of Judah, and will make them as His royal horse in the battle. From him comes the cornerstone. From him the tent peg, from him the battle-bow, from him every ruler together. They shall be like mighty men who tread down their enemies in the mire of the streets in the battle. They shall fight because YHVH is with them, and the riders on horses shall be put to shame.  I will strengthen the house of Judah…" (10:3b-6a). All this is to show how Yehuda is and has been the first contingency of the People of Yisrael to return to the Land, and as such is fulfilling this prophecy and pattern of leadership.

     Last week we read in 43:30-31 how Yoseph's "heart yearned for his brother; so Joseph made haste and sought somewhere to weep. And he went into his chamber and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out; and he restrained himself." This time, after Yehuda's words, Yoseph is unable to restrain himself any longer (ref. 45:1). In both cases the word for “restrain” is "hit'apek" (a.p/f. k - alef, pey/fey, kof) and means, “to hold in, restrain, be strong.” It originates from the same root that serves the word "ah'fik” – “riverbed” - which restrains the water coursing through it. On the earlier occasion, Yoseph's inner strength enabled him to withhold his flow of emotions.  This time, the ‘dam’ breaks, there is no restraint and the ‘ah'fik’ overflows with tears as he makes himself known to his brothers.

     "Made himself known" is "hitvada," of the root “yada” (y.d.a, yod, dalet, ayin) – “to know.” “Yada” is a widely used verb. There are many levels of “knowing,” including the knowing of great intimacy, such as in the physical/sexual relations between husband and wife (e.g. Gen.4:1). However, “to make one’s self known” is not used frequently. In Bamidbar (Numbers) 12:6 YHVH says: "Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, YHVH, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream" (italics added). Thus in the future of the nation, YHVH will be using the very same word employed here by Yoseph when the latter discloses himself to his brothers, since Yoseph is indeed in the category of a prophet to whom YHVH makes Himself known.

     "But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for Elohim sent me before you to preserve life" (45:5 emphasis added). We already noted that "sent" is the theme of the story of Yoseph. All the circumstances that have befallen him have been part of YHVH's pre-determined plan to send him for His purposes. Yoseph is a man with a mission, brought to light now by his own words - "to preserve life." To make his point Yoseph repeats these words before his stunned brothers… "And Elohim sent me before you to preserve you a remnant in the earth, and to keep alive before you a great escape" (45:7). Yoseph employs the words "she'erit," which is “remnant,” and "pleta," referring to “escape or refuge,” thereby projecting on to the coming events. Thus, the final outcome of the predicament of the soon coming famine and forced emigration, and later of forced labor, enslavement and genocide, although potentially of great threat to the Israelites’ very existence (possibly sustaining a mere “remnant”), will actually culminate in a “great deliverance” in both quality and quantity. It is in their host country that the family of Ya'acov will become a great multitude (ref. 47:27). It seems that this seed, in order to increase greatly, requires foreign soil!

Several times in his monologue, while trying to plead Binyamin's case, Yehuda makes reference to the death of Binyamin's brother (that is, to Yoseph), to the possible death of Binyamin himself, and to the likely death of his father (44:20, 22, 31). In the narrative, which immediately follows Yoseph's first, albeit rhetorical question to his brothers, is whether their father is still alive (45:3). As we noted above, Yoseph then declares that the purpose for his mission was "to preserve life" (v. 5 emphasis added), and in verse 7, "to save you alive" (emphasis added). When the brothers return home they tell their father that, "Yoseph is still alive" (v. 26 emphasis added). After the initial shock, it says that "the spirit of Jacob their father revived… and Jacob said, 'Joseph my son is yet alive: I will go and see him before I die'" (v. 27, 28 emphases added). Thus death, and the threat thereof, which had colored the first part of the Parasha, is offset by life and revival in the 'counter' text. Almost from the start, the story of Yoseph and his mission portends the themes of impending death followed by survival. At the end of the Parasha, we once again encounter this topic, woven neatly into the fabric of the text. In the narrative that deals with Ya'acov and his family's reunion with Yoseph, in chapter 46, we read: "And Israel said to Joseph, 'Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive’" (v. 30 emphases added).

     Next, we see Yoseph's interaction with the hungry Egyptian populace, whose lives are greatly endangered by the famine and by lack of financial means by which to obtain sustenance. In order to alleviate impending death, these people pay for their supplies with their land and labor (as they have already used up their livestock for that purpose, ref. 47:16, 17). Their words express the same vocabulary:  "Wherefore should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land be not desolate" (47:19, see also v. 15, emphases added). Yoseph complies with their request, adding that a fifth of the purchased sustenance is to be handed over to Par'oh (v. 23, 24). "And they said, 'you have saved our lives'" (v. 25 emphasis added). Next week's Parasha, which actually focuses on Ya’acov’s death, starts with the words, "And Jacob lived…" (emphasis added), being also the name of the Parasha (although some translations use “dwelt” for “lived”).

We cannot depart from this week’s reading without pausing to look at the scene of Elohim's last (recorded) appearance to Ya'acov. On his way down to Egypt, Ya'acov stops in Be'er Sheva where he "offered sacrifices to the Elohim of his father Isaac. And Elohim spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, 'Jacob, Jacob'. And he said, 'Here am I.' And he said, 'I am Elohim, the Elohim of your father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for there I will make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again’" (46:1-4). Since there is no (previous) record of Ya'acov's anxiety (about going down to Egypt), the words "fear not" seem rather curious. But as nothing is hidden from Elohim, He is obviously responding to a real and tangible concern in Ya'acov's heart. He most certainly was aware of the word given to his grandfather Avraham about his offspring and their exile. Ya'acov's heart therefore must have been troubled. The sojourn of his people into the land of plenty was likely to lead to a spiritual bondage, to be possibly followed by physical slavery. Hence YHVH promises him that He will go down with him and bring him back. Since Ya'acov was destined to die in Egypt, he serves here as a prototype for the people as a whole, who would come out of his loins.[1]  The 'many in the one' is a typical and familiar Biblical-Hebraic thought pattern, found both in the Tanach (Old Covenant) and in the Brit Chadasha (New Covenant), and powerfully and fully realized by our Messiah and Savior – Yeshua.

  • This is not to dismiss the fact that Yoseph is also a prototype of Messaih

  1. Studies in Bereshit, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman.
            Eliner. Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in
            the Diaspora.  Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.