Parshas Vayigash

Rabbi Berel Wein

The opening verses of this week’s Torah reading are among the most dramatic and challenging in the entire Torah. Two great, powerful personalities in the house of the children of Yaakov – Yehudah and Yosef – engage in a clash and debate of epic proportions regarding the release of their brother Binyamin. At first glance, it seems obvious that Yosef has the upper hand in his struggle. After all, he is the viceroy of Egypt, the commander of the palace guard who are armed and ready to do his bidding. On the other hand, Yehudah has very limited options as to what to say and what to do in order to obtain the release of Binyamin. Yosef’s position of power appears to prevail but the impassioned plea and tone and contents of the words of Yehudah are not to be easily ignored. So, in a sense, one could say that Yehudah will himself prevail over Yosef. But in a clear analysis, one should come to the conclusion that neither of the two great antagonists, the leaders of the tribes of Israel, is the victor in this clash of ideas and worldview. The true champion that will emerge from this entire baffling and fascinating story is the old hoary Yaakov, seemingly isolated back there in the land of Canaan, mourning and despondent as to what has happened to his family. In anguish, he shouts: “Yosef is no more, Shimon is no more; both of them will be lost to me!” It is that image of their father that haunts both Yehudah and Yosef. And each, in his own way, wishes to do justice to their father and to everything that he represents.

And it is this image of Yaakov that brings Yosef to the climax of the story and to his ability, nay, necessity to reveal and reconcile himself with his brothers. Jewish rabbinic thought over the ages has always attempted to make the story of Yosef and Yehudah relevant to each individual generation of Jews. I think that the most relevant message that all of us can gain from this great narrative is that it is the image of our ancient father Yaakov that truly hovers over all of our current struggles. It is our task, not merely to win the debate with our other brothers or even with outside powers that are seemingly stronger and greater than we are, but rather to somehow remain faithful to the old, wise man that we can no longer see but who is somehow always with us. What gives both Yehudah and Yosef troubling pause in the midst of their impassioned debate is the question as to what their father thinks of their words and their actions. It is this unseen presence of Yaakov that drives the brothers to reconciliation and to restoring a common purpose in their lives and those of their families. In effect, they are thinking: “What would our father think of this conversation and of this confrontation?” Father Yaakov has looked down at all of the generations of the Jewish people ,and in one way or another, every generation has been forced to ask itself what would Yaakov think of us, our words and our behavior. It is that ever-present idea in Jewish life that has been an aid and a boon to our seemingly miraculous survival as a people and as a faith. We may not see him, but we can be certain that he is there with us today as well.

Shabbat shalom.

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