Imagine yourself before a critical committee for a job interview, perhaps going up to the bima for your Bar Mitzvah speech, or waiting for a contest to begin. Everything hinges on this one moment! Everybody is staring at you! You can feel the butterflies in your belly, your voice is quivering a bit, but then, though you’re still somewhat scared, you lift your eyes, ready to meet the challenge.
The Torah, in this week’s parsha Vayigash, starts exactly at that pivotal point. Last week, Joseph finally “discovered” who’s the “real thief”. He gave the brothers an easy out: leave Benjamin with me and you all travel back to your father. He recreated the situation of a couple of decades earlier, when the brothers sold him. Once again, the brothers can get rid of the youngest, beloved son of the favorite wife. Will they take up this opportunity and repeat the same act, or have they done their tshuva?
It is Judah who steps up, facing Joseph in this dramatic and moving encounter, and if we carefully look at both of them, we can see how more than their own plea is at stake. In fact, two completely different ways of being Jewish are represented here.
Judah is the shepherds who works the land, wanders in search of water and pasture, trusting the flow of the seasons as an expression of Hashem care; thus he is the one who focuses on the spiritual and in addition, he is the one who still lives in the Land of Israel. Joseph, dressed in fancy clothing, portioning out rations for each person in Egypt, a super “man-made” empire where even the Nile’s water are under control, is the one who made it big in the Diaspora. He is ambitious and not shy about it. He enjoys the company of people and goods. Joseph doesn’t forsake his identity and believes it is possible to be Jewish in this kind of environment too. He doesn’t hesitate to invite his family to come and join him, and yet, when he does that, he invites his brother to “come down”: “Hurry, go up to my father and say to him… come down to me, do not delay” (45:9).
“Come down”? The brothers are poor; Joseph is rich. The brothers are nobodies in a land that isn’t always hospitable towards them (as seen in the Dina story, Genesis 34); Joseph is second only to the Pharaoh. We would think that going to Egypt is going “up”. However since time immemorial – going to Israel – is “aliya”, going up, and going away, like Jacob and his sons, is going down.
Joseph knows that it’s not easy to be Jewish outside of Israel. The brothers know it’s not easy to make it in Israel. Joseph knows there are great advantages to living in Egypt which now are crucial to the family’s survival; The brothers accept that sometimes one has to leave the Land for greater purposes, but it’s a “down” and only temporary.
Their conversation continued through the Talmud to our own days when it is as contemporary as ever. We all know Josephs who left Russia hundred some years ago and came to America, the Golden Medina, only to find their grandchildren making aliya; we know Judahs who immigrated to Israel decades ago to dry the swamps and build the early kibbutzim, only to have their grandchildren relocate with a great high-tech start-up to the U.S. In a way, we are all part of the meet-up between Judah and Joseph.
Is one better? Is more “more right”? We’ll further explore this fascinating topic in this Shabbat’s chamin & chavruata (rsvp welcome here!) Hope to see you and continue the conversation!