Dec 16, 2007

VaYigash 5768/2007: "Closer, Come Closer"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

An often overlooked message of the Joseph stories is the theology implicit in the way he explains the story to his brothers upon disclosing his identity. Joseph says:

"Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come forward to me." And when they came forward, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach Yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and God has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 45:4-8)"

In other words: The brothers shouldn't be worried that Joseph will exact revenge - they were not to blame.

What is the theological implication? That this criminal act, perhaps all crime, is ultimately God's design. What then of accountability, consequence? Free will? Now, of course, we've "read the book, and we come out on top (a la Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical midrash)", but Joseph was abducted, assaulted, jailed; Jacob lost his son - are we to encounter the story as detached readers, convinced throughout of God's Plan as the justification for the suffering endured by others? What then might we say of the Sho'ah being part of a plan that led to the State of Israel in the same way that the Egyptian slavery is to be understood (according to the biblical authors' understanding of history through Joseph's mouth) as the means towards Sinai and freedom? Are we to see death and suffering as justifiable, as acceptable means to ends? Even read into history after the fact (especially then, since many readers are then survivors of the trauma), this text is incredibly difficult. even offensive.

We can perhaps use the text of this Parasha itself to reapproach the God known described in one way therein.

According to many translations, Joseph calls his brothers to "Come
forward." But the Hebrew text of "Geshu na eilai, vayigashu" teaches that Joseph called his brothers, saying "Come close to me. And they came close" The context informs us that, before disclosing his identity to his brothers, he sent all the courtiers out of the room. This is paralleled by a rabbinic read of Judah's actions in the beginning of our Parasha for which the name "VaYigash" derives. The typical translation of Judah's action is "Then Judah went up to him", but the Hebrew word "VaYigash", from the same root as teaches that Judah "Came close". A midrash suggests that Judah positioned himself in between Joseph (whose true identity was still secret) and the courtiers. Intimacy was the goal - not navigation of system and hierarchy.

God is more than the biblical text, and one definition of God cannot suffice. The difficulty of navigating the layers of Jewish tradition associated with every piece of Torah is exacerbated when the text feels like an impenetrable system. But that's not what the layers are. Every attempt to explain the text is truly an act of relationship, a coming closer for the reader, the authors, the content, and the ultimate goals. For a Jew (and for others), this means that by desiring to come close to God through Torah, multiple relationships are fostered - with the biblical authors, with the generations of readers and commentators, with self, and hopefully with a community of fellow readers/seekers.

Torah is more than the word, and God is more than Torah. Our particular path can be incredibly compelling, and freeing. All we have to do is be brave enough to "come close."

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