Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Va-yiggash 5759Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
December 26, 1998 7 Tevet 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
It is the subplots which make the Joseph saga a work of great literature. Had the Torah focused solely on relocating Jacob from Canaan to Egypt it would have left us with a piece of wooden theology and boring prose. But the author is too much the artist to have Joseph reveal his identity when his brothers first arrive. Yet what is accomplished by the delay? Joseph's dreams, which cost him their love, have surely been fulfilled.
The subplot concocted by Joseph on the spot is not about dreams, but character. He manipulates his brothers into a situation where now they can dispose of Rachel's second son, Benjamin, without the slightest sense of guilt. After all, it was Pharaoh's vizier who forced them to bring him to Egypt, and who knows if Benjamin had not actually purloined the goblet?
But history does not repeat itself. Joseph's brothers are not the same men who sold him into slavery 22 years before. Evidently transformed by the inconsolable grief of their father at the death of Joseph, they are mortified by the prospect of losing Benjamin.
As our parasha opens, the spotlight turns on Judah, the very brother who first proposed selling Joseph to the caravan of traders heading for Egypt. In one of the most dramatic scenes in all of the Torah, Judah steps forward to address Joseph in a dazzling display of moral courage. Benjamin was his responsibility. He, and not Reuben, had persuaded Jacob to allow Benjamin to accompany the sons to Egypt as Joseph had demanded (Gen. 42:37, 43:9). This time, Judah offers himself in Benjamin's stead. He cannot bear the thought of witnessing the anguish that would overtake his father were he to return without him. This is hardly the same man responsible for Joseph's tragedy. Judah's words and action reduce Joseph to tears and the drama of reconciliation begins.
The Joseph narrative thus culminates in an unforgettable instance of teshuvah. Judah grows from a callous and self- indulgent man into a leader of compassion and courage. To my mind he is the more interesting of the two main characters. Joseph is graced with God's favor from the beginning. Whatever the setbacks, he is destined to triumph. But his character remains relatively static.
Judah, on the other hand, starts out a villain and ends up a hero, evincing the human capacity to mature and change in all its glory. For Judah, as for the rest of us, virtue is not a gift but a goal. Disciplining ourselves can remove the sediment of sin; remorse has the power to restore ties that were ruptured. With this view of life, the Torah has moved well beyond the stories of No·ah and Abraham where the balm of teshuvah is still missing. Judah points to Jonah and the prophets.
Hence, as Jacob's clan is about to settle in Egypt, it is blessed with two men equally worthy of national leadership. But how does one found a new community? What institutions are vital to sustaining group identity? This is the question the rabbis pondered in an age of proliferating Jewish settlements outside Palestine. Are separate quarters like the land of Goshen enough? The discussion erupts over the following enigmatic verse (like a pearl, a midrash is the creative response to a textual rub): "He (i.e. Jacob) had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to point the way before him to Goshen (Gen. 46: 28)." The verse gives no clue as to the purpose of Judah's solitary trip. Prosaically, one rabbi comments that the text means little more than that Judah preceded the family in order to buy a house. We too would be reluctant to move without some idea of where we were going to live.
More profoundly, a second rabbi ventures the opinion that Judah had another mission entirely: to buy a school, a facility for teaching Torah to children. The trigger for this opinion is the verb "lehorot" (to point the way) which shares the same root as the noun "torah". In other words, the unusually verb "lehorot" suggests the reason for Judah's trip and, of course, allows for the articulation of the rabbinic strategy for Jewish survival. The study of Torah is the only atmosphere in which Judaism as a living organism stands any chance of flourishing.
I wouldn't cite this midrash if I didn't believe it. Jewish history is testimony to the power of the mind to shape reality, even in America, the most open of societies. A recent study published by the Cohen Center at Brandeis and the Jewish Education Service of North America provides the first empirical data of a striking correlation between the length and intensity of a youngster's Jewish education and the quality of his or her Jewish commitment as an adult. For example, in the age cohort between 25 and 44, 80% of those who had six or more years of day school education married born Jews as compared to 51% of those who had only six or more years of supplementary Hebrew school. For synagogue membership, the breakdown is 59% as compared to 44%. Those with less Jewish education (i.e. 3-5 years of Sunday school or 3-5 years of Hebrew school) scored significantly lower on every criterion of Jewish identity.
The combined weight of this research and the traditional order of Jewish priorities should dictate our response to the continuity crisis. There is no substitute for serious Jewish education. Within our own movement, we must help parents acquire the knowledge and love of Judaism to make of the home once again an effective setting for the inculcation of Jewish values and praxis. We must deemphasize the fixation on bar- and bat- mitzvah to counter the widespread misconception that they are the end point of Jewish education. We must strengthen our synagogue schools and increase the number of Schechter schools, especially high schools. And, finally, we must expand the reach of United Synagogue Youth and Camps Ramah as proven venues for experiencing the exhilaration of living Judaism in community.
The Passover Haggadah celebrates the tenacity with which Jacob's descendants preserved their identity under the most adverse of conditions. For us to do less in freedom would be a historical travesty.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,