The Life and Death of Relationships

Vayiggash By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Dec 14, 2002 / 5763

Family reunions come in several varieties. They might be occasions of joy — or sadness. Relationships are revived — or neglected. Change is the only constant.

Jacob’s meeting with his son Joseph, in this week’s parasha, is a reunion. The patriarch’s older sons have brought him from Canaan down to Egypt to be reunited with his younger son, now ruler of the land of the Nile. Upon seeing Joseph for the first time in more than twenty years, Jacob might have said how happy he was to be able to live together with him again. Instead, Jacob says:

Now I can die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive. (Genesis 46:30)

Why the emphasis on death rather than life? Joseph Kimhi (12th Century, France) refers us back to the opening scene of the Joseph story; Jacob sends Joseph away to the pastureland to join his shepherd brothers. He does this even though he knows that his older sons are jealous of Joseph. (Genesis 37:11—12) According to Kimhi, Jacob’s statement about death is an expression of relief. He will die an earthly death only. He will not have to suffer eternal death in the next world for having caused the death of a son through negligently sending him into danger.

David Kimhi, son of Joseph, and the better known Bible commentator, remarks on Jacob sending Joseph off to his brothers and suggests that Joseph thought he had nothing to fear in joining his brothers — that the fear of their father would keep them from doing him any harm. Nor did Jacob think any harm would come to Joseph; otherwise he would not have sent him.

The reunion of Jacob and Joseph marks a turning point in their relationship and in Jacob’s own story. The multiple and boomeranging ironies of Jacob’s career come to a climax — and then recede. The young Jacob experienced a mother’s favoritism and a brother’s murderous fury. The mature Jacob favored a son, but in doing so, provoked the anger of his other sons and thus harmed the one he wanted to favor. Yet Joseph, precisely because of the harm his brothers did him — and that his father had set in motion — has ultimately benefited. Not only has he become lord of Egypt, but has gained the power to save and protect his family. Joseph at the same time both rejoins his family and rises above their background of preferences and jealousy. Jacob, now much older, cannot transcend the thought of death — the death his son almost suffered, and his own end. He can no longer teach life to his sons. Joseph takes up that task; when he discloses his identity to his brothers, he assures them that he is breaking the old pattern of injury and revenge. He excuses them for selling him into slavery, and infuses his story with divine purpose:

It was to save life that God sent me on before you. (Genesis 45:5)

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.