Genesis Facing God and Ourselves

By Rabbi David Maayan

Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

Parashat Vayigash takes its name from Yehudah’s act of “drawing close” to Yosef in order to pour out the remarkable speech that finally causes Yosef to reveal his identity. Yehudah recounts the series of events that have transpired since he and his brothers came to Egypt seeking food during the famine, particularly the demand that the Egyptian official (whom we know to be Yosef) made upon them to bring their younger brother Binyamin along on their return trip. Framed for having stolen money, but having no way to defend themselves (as Yehudah admits in the closing verses of last week’s parashah), they face terrifying consequences. The Izhbitser Rebbe, R. Mordekhai Yosef Leiner [d. 1854], highlights Yehudah’s remarkable inner strength here. In fact, he marvels at Yehudah’s ability to approach “even though there is apparently nothing new now in his words.”

This is a remarkable observation. Yehudah’s speech is so impassioned that it can seem revelatory in its power, yet there is no fact in Yehudah’s story that Yosef did not already know. Furthermore, far from having a “winning” story that exonerates the brothers, Yehudah himself has just admitted (Gen. 44:16) that God has brought their sin to light, and thus that they should all be slaves to Yosef: “What can we say? What can we plead? How can we be justified?” Somehow, from this position of seeming despair, Yehudah finds the inner strength to draw close to Yosef and begin to speak as never before. Although there is nothing “new,” adds the Izhbitser, “nonetheless, he manifests in his words an awesome inner strength such that, without any doubt, there will now be the sprouting forth of salvation.” Where did this strength come from, and what can we learn from the particular shape that salvation takes in the Torah here?

The kabbalists speak of three dimensions as definitional to any reality: olam (space), shanah (time), and nefesh (soul). What does it mean to declare nefesh a fundamental aspect or dimension of reality? Nefesh is a dimension which must be included to perceive the truth of a specific situation. A description of matter located in space and time (though it may suffice for certain purposes) is not yet full if the dimension of nefesh is neglected. We must ask not only where and when but also who in order to grasp a situation in its lived reality. Now, Yehudah’s speech does not contain revelations of the order of events in time and space. But it is a revelation of who! Yehudah’s inner voice is pouring out through his words, and he is pleading, on behalf of himself and his brothers, to be seen and recognized anew as having gone through all the events that he recounts. He also implicitly asks the powerful Egyptian official who stands before him, “Who are you? Can’t you see us in our situation—and how can you not be moved? What kind of person are you?”

Yehudah could not have known just what a dramatic form this revelation of the Egyptian’s true identity would take. Yosef—moved by the revelation of his brother’s voice and identity—“cannot hold back” any more. Earlier he had removed himself to a private chamber to cry alone (Gen. 43:30). Now he sends others away so that he is alone with his brothers—he and they are in a private chamber, but now it is a place of intimacy rather than isolation. And in that royal room, now become a sanctuary, Yosef “makes himself known” to his brothers, and he raises his voice in weeping before them. “I am Yosef,” he tells them (Gen. 45:1-3). This revelation of the official’s actual identity changes not only the present and the future. Rather, with new insight, the brothers can begin to see that the true meaning of all that has happened in space and time, the tricks with their money and the insistence on bringing Binyamin down to Egypt, have an entirely new significance now that Yosef is revealed as the who behind all this.

“I am Yosef your brother…” The Izhbitser sees the brothers’ struggles and predicaments prior to this moment of revelation as the archetype for our own, whenever God’s face is hidden from us. In such a time, God seems concealed behind a mask, much as Yosef’s true identity is obscured from his brothers. Nonetheless, just as Yosef is still guiding the brothers toward eventual revelation, so too God always sees and guides us, even when we do not recognize God’s presence. There is a parallel in the words of revelation—“I am Yosef your brother” and “I am Y-H-W-H your God.” The moment of revelatory encounter consists of three Hebrew words—the saying of “I,” the name, and finally—crucially—a relational term: “your brother,” “your God.” With such a designation, the other is welcomed into the very place of self—this is the formerly isolated crying room becoming a shared place of intimacy.

Though “I” could theoretically be spoken by anyone, the speaking and hearing of the “I” is crucial. The who of the moment of revelation is not simply that Yosef is there, but also that Yosef is being self-revealing, self-sharing—and the same is true for the Divine in the infinite moment of Mt. Sinai. The first verse of the Decalogue has no new “information”—the Israelites know “about” God, and that God has freed them from Egyptian slavery. Yet hearing this in the first person is transformative, as the Divine “I” is given and shared—and a deeper entering into the ever-mysterious Who of God is initiated.

In Parashat Vayigash, Yosef explicitly seeks to share with his brothers the face of God that he has come to see in the events that transpired between them in his youth. He sees that it was God who sent him to Egypt le-mih’yah, to give life, when the brothers sold him into slavery. He hopes that this new dimension of nefesh, when brought to bear on the events in time and space, will relieve them of their profound distress. Note that Yosef states this only after he has heard from Yehudah’s own lips his confession that God has uncovered the brothers’ sin.

This is crucial. For we sometimes present God in this way, as the ultimate agent guiding every act, in an attempt to evade taking responsibility for our own actions and their effects. The true revelation of this face of God–who can even work in and through our mistakes–comes only in the wake of real repentance. Yehudah has the inner strength that comes from being vulnerable in others’ presence, from admitting wrongdoing and dropping all pretense of self-justification. The self-revelation that pours forth following this comes from a special inner strength which is God’s gift for the penitent who, left without any strategies, at last reveals his or her true face.

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Rabbi David Maayan is a PhD candidate in Comparative Theology at Boston College, and is currently serving as Maurice and Douglas Cohn Visiting Chair in Jewish Thought and Assistant Director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University in Florida. He received an MA in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College, with a focus on Hasidism, in 2017. He has also taught courses in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and for the Me’ah learning program.

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