Saturday, December 08, 2007

Parshat Vayigash 2

Throughout his stay in Egypt, Yosef has shown himself to be a master politician. From his meteoric rise to the head of Pharaoh’s court. to his amassing the wealth of Egypt for the monarchy he has shown that he is firmly in control, and able to deal with the politics of each situation. So much so that at the end of this week’s portion he is able to move the population around, to make it easier for his family to “fit in” to Egyptian society. His brothers, on the other hand, have shown a dazzling ineptitude at knowing how to relate to Yosef as viceroy. To every question they respond with honesty and total naïveté. This is the reason that they are humbled before him, having admitted to having a younger brother, Binyamin, and thus being forced to bring him before Yosef. They are also at a complete loss to understand how the money they spent on buying grain, and later Yosef’s goblet appear in their bags after they leave his presence. It never occurred to them to take precautions so that nothing could be surreptitiously placed in their bags. And even as Yehuda approaches Yosef at the opening of the Torah reading, he speaks in an exceedingly honest and forthright manner. The brothers play straight into Yosef’s hands, and he is able to plan and predict their every move.

Yet even after Yosef has revealed himself, and he instructs his brothers on how to speak to Pharaoh, they ignore his advice and don’t deviate in any way from the bare truth. Yosef tells his brothers “When Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you must say ‘We and our fathers have dealt in livestock all our lives’. You will then be able to settle in the Goshen district”1. Yosef wants them to present a position of power. They are not “shepherds”, which was considered the most abominable profession by the Egyptians, rather they are dealers in livestock; they are not refugees fleeing from famine, but have come with all of their sheep, cattle and possessions to settle in Egypt. Yosef is concerned that Pharaoh not think that they are just poor vagrants dependant upon his mercy. Yosef has also planned the conversation so that they will not need to request that they be given Goshen to live, but that Pharaoh should offer it to them. In this way, Pharaoh will not be in a position to refuse them.

The brothers choose to ignore all of his expert advice, and instead tell Pharaoh “We are shepherds, we and our fathers before us. We have [only] come to stay in your land awhile, because there is no grazing for our flocks, so severe is the famine in Canaan. If you allow us, we will settle in the Goshen district”.2

Pharaoh cannot believe that these are the brothers of Yosef, his skilful counsellor. These men are so tactless, and worse, they are shepherds. Instead of replying to them Pharaoh completely ignores them, instead turning to Yosef to continue the conversation. He pretends that he has not heard that the brothers are shepherds, but tells Yosef that if any of his brothers are livestock officers they can be appointed over Pharaoh’s cattle.

Yosef is known as “Yosef the Tzaddik”, Yosef the righteous. He has passed the tests of faith with Potiphar’s wife, and in jail, and has succeeded in raising his sons as Torah observant Jews, despite being in a foreign environment. He has shown that he can survive and remain strong in his faith regardless of the people he is constantly in contact with. Therefore he is also able to play their game, and survive in the dog eat dog world of politics and diplomacy. His brothers, however, are more susceptible to outside influences. When Yehuda left his other brothers and set up in business, he was faced with the story of Tamar, and having to admit that he behaved wrongly while she was right. Reuven is punished for acting rashly to defend the honour of his mother. Their strength is that they can admit when they have made a mistake, and do T’shuva, but they can’t risk putting themselves in challenging situations. That is why before they even go to Egypt, Ya’akov sends Yehuda ahead to set up a suitable Torah environment3. Therefore, even when faced with the most powerful men in the known world, Pharaoh, or his viceroy, they have no option but to stick totally to the truth. They are prepared to risk humiliation, and even death, rather than risk falling into the trap of assimilation into Egyptian society. Even though Yosef only asks them to colour the truth a little bit, they realise that even changing their identity, and the way that they are perceived, slightly could be enough to cause them to lose sight of who they are and how they must remain, in order to withstand the coming 210 years in Egypt.

1Genesis 46; 33
2ibid. 47; 3
3Genesis 46; 28 and Rashi’s commentary there

No comments: