Dec 9, 2010

VaYigash 5771/2010: "Closer, Come Closer"

VaYigash 5771/2010: "Closer, Come Closer"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

An often overlooked message within the Joseph story is the Joseph's own explanation to his brothers of what has happened:

"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 and 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 history through Joseph's mouth) as the means towards Sinai and freedom? Are we to see suffering as justifiable, an acceptable means to ends? Even read into history after the fact (especially then, since readers are then survivors of the trauma), these verses are incredibly difficult. Perhaps offensive.

But other verses within this Parasha suggest an alternative approach, one which redeems God along with Joseph.

According to many translations, Joseph calls his brothers to "Come forward(Gen. 45:4)" But the Hebrew text is more accurately rendered "Come close to me. And they came close," which emphasizes that Joseph called his brothers more tenderly, more intimately.  Additionally, 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 "Judah went up to him", but the Hebrew word indicates that Judah "Came close."  A midrash suggests that Judah positioned himself in between Joseph (whose true identity remains secret) and the courtiers. Intimacy was the goal - not the navigation of system and hierarchy suggested by the conventional translation.

Similarly, God is more than the biblical text.  One definition of God cannot suffice. The challenge of navigating the layers of the Jewish interpretive tradition is exacerbated when the text feels like an impenetrable system. But that's not what the layers are. Every attempt to understand, to stretch, and to challenge the text is truly an act of relationship, a coming closer for reader, authors, content, and the ultimate dreams. For Jews (and others), this means that the desire to come close to God through Torah fosters relationship - with the biblical authors, with the generations of readers and commentators, with self, with a community of fellow readers/seekers, and with the Divine.

Torah is more than the word, and meaning is more than one read of sacred text. Our path can be incredibly compelling - and freeing. All we need do is be brave enough to "come close."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  || 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  || 
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