Thursday, 21 Dec 2023

Written by Rachel Berkson

In Parashat Vayiggash, personal relationships are complicated, and political relationships are also complicated. The parashah opens with a touching scene of reconciliation between Joseph and his estranged brothers. Judah, previously the ring-leader in selling Joseph into slavery, now takes full responsibility for bringing Benjamin safely back to their father Jacob. In a narratively satisfying reversal, he even offers himself as a slave to Joseph.

Judah here serves as a model of Teshuvah, true repentance. However, even ideal Teshuvah cannot erase the past and the consequences of sin. Jacob, who believed for many decades that his beloved son had been killed by wild beasts, is not miraculously healed when he learns that Joseph was in fact alive all along. When he hears the news, instead of being happy he collapses, and when he is revived he mentions seeing Joseph again in the same breath as his own death. And when he receives the great honour of being presented to Pharaoh, all he can say is that the years of his life have been small and hard. Even though by many measures Jacob has had a very successful life, achieving both  material prosperity and a close spiritual relationship with God, he can never fully recover from his (apparent) bereavement.

And what of Joseph himself? He has endured betrayal by his brothers who almost killed him, and barely found enough mercy to cast him into a pit and sell him to slave traders. Although God protected him and made him successful during his time of slavery in Potiphar’s house and his years in prison after his mistress falsely accused him, he has still lived through these incredibly traumatic events. His experiences have not left him unscarred.

In Vayiggash we see Joseph as the magnanimous “lord of all Egypt”. He provides for the people during the time of famine, he is able to bring his father’s whole family to Egypt and assign them a desirable region of the country, Goshen. (The name of their new home reminds us of the opening of the Parashah with a related meaning of drawing close.) But there’s a problem buried within this fairytale ending: slavery. It was wrong for Joseph’s brothers to sell him to slavers, it was wrong for the traders to traffic him along the trade route until he ended up as the personal slave of Potiphar. And it’s wrong for Joseph to enslave the entire population of Egypt in exchange for food during the famine years.

It would be nice to believe that people who suffer terrible experiences, as Joseph did, learn great spiritual lessons and become models of empathy for others. But that’s not universally true, and Vayiggash is unflinchingly honest about the reality that even a good person who is close to God can be morally corrupted rather than refined by living through trauma. People who have experienced abuse are at increased risk of abusing others. Joseph is promoted from the most abject situation of enslavement and prison to a position of ultimate power, but he has not learned from his experiences that it is wrong to enslave and imprison others. He uses his power to inflict the same harms he experienced, but this time on an empire-level scale.

In a couple of weeks we will move into Shemot, the book of Exodus. Here we see a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph, who will move to enslave the entire Israelite people for many generations, a situation which opens the door to vast cruelties including mass murder of Hebrew babies. Can we understand this as partly a response to the Egyptians themselves suffering under the slavery imposed by Joseph, where they had to turn over their land and freedom and a fifth of all their produce to the Egyptian state? To take that view would certainly not provide a justification for enslaving the Israelites, but it might offer a context for the moral depravity we see in Exodus: the ordinary Egyptians have lived through national trauma and harming others is the only way they can feel safe rather than powerless. Their leaders are all too ready to take advantage of the people’s real trauma and twist it to their own purposes.

It is perhaps more comfortable to brush over Joseph’s political choices; some translations use euphemistic words like ‘serfs’ or ‘labourers’ to talk about Joseph’s system for the Egyptian people, but rightly report that the Israelites were the ‘slaves’ of Egyptians a few generations later. In the terrible conflicts of recent decades, and which are still destroying lives today, it’s all too easy to pick a side. The people who look like us are innocent victims bravely defending themselves against their oppressors. The other side are monsters who commit atrocities because they are fundamentally evil. Vayiggash, which presents our hero Joseph as committing terrible cruelties, calls us to look deeper. We need to consider that people on all sides may have suffered terrible trauma, both individually and collectively. No amount of past suffering or present oppression can justify committing acts of terrorism or war crimes or any violence, but it can create conditions where people desperately looking for safety can be persuaded to be cruel to others.

Vayiggash is all about trying to draw close to the other. The mighty lord with the power of life and death turns out to be the brother of the supplicants, who previously mistreated him in their younger days. The Israelites live close to the Egyptians in Goshen, but don’t mix fully with the Egyptians who distrust foreigners and shepherds. Later on, the Egyptians who cruelly enslaved our ancestors were themselves living with the trauma of being enslaved by Joseph. Through understanding the past of our enemies and gaining insight into their fears, perhaps we can draw close enough to them to end generational conflict.

Rachel Berkson  LBC Rabbinic Student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.