Parashat Vayigash continues the story of Joseph and his brothers. While Joseph recognizes his brothers when they first appear in his court in Egypt, he only reveals himself to them after he is reassured by the sincerity of their teshuvah. It is Judah’s passionate appeal for Benjamin’s life that pushes Joseph over the edge.
In a bewildering scene, he cries out to his Egyptian advisors, “Clear the room!” Then he begins sobbing so loudly that the Egyptians, now outside his chambers, can hear him. Word even reaches Pharaoh.
It is only then that Joseph speaks, “I am Joseph your brother. Is my father still alive.” They are shocked into speechlessness, sSo Joseph continues talking, informing his brothers that he is not going to punish them. Instead, he invites them to move with the entire family down to Egypt, where he will take care of them. He then embraces Benjamin and the others. It is a moving, emotional scene.
But suddenlty, the scan shifts, and the turns to what is going on outside the chamber. “The news reached Pharaoh’s palace: ‘Joseph’s brothers have come.’ Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased.”
Why? Why should they be so thrilled about this family reunion? Could it be that they really love Joseph, and they are just so happy for him?
I don’t think so. The Egyptian court is full of intrigue and duplicity. Remember Joseph’s first encounter was with the court wine steward and baker, who after doing something to displease Pharaoh are sent to prison. This is a place of scheming and backstabbing.
In fact, even though we hear numerous times that Joseph is second in Egypt only to Pharaoh, he is himself in a particularly precarious position. Think back to the moment when Joseph first gains his position. He has just interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as foretelling seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He suggests appointing someone to stockpile the excess produce so that their will be enough to last through the years of scarcity.
Pharaoh and his court immediately recognize both the accuracy of Joseph’s dream interpretation and the wisdom of his plan. Rather than appointing Joseph on the spot, however, Pharaoh turns to the rest of the court and asks, “Could we find another like him?”
Why should Pharaoh have to even ask? He is Pharaoh, after all.
Because Joseph is a foreigner and a slave. Pharaoh astutely realizes that for Joseph to have any authority, the rest of the Egyptian court must be involved in his appointment. So he arranges a pro forma confirmation hearing.
Then Pharaoh tries to raise Joseph’s status. He gives him his royal robes and his signet ring. He places him in charge of the entire court and the entire land. He changes Joseph’s name to an Egyptian one, Tzafenat Paneach, and he gives him a high born wife, Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest.
But it seems that the Egyptians never forget who Joseph is and where he comes from.
This brings us back to our question. Why are Pharaoh and the court so pleased when they learn of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers?
Nachmanides, the thirteenth century Spanish Rabbi, suggests that this news answers the question about Joseph’s station. From the perspective of the Egyptian court, Joseph rose to his exalted position from the lowest rungs of Egyptian society. He was literally an imprisoned slave. It can’t get much worse than that.
How can such a low class person even step foot in the courtroom, much less rule?
With the arrival of the brothers, however, they discover Joseph’s pedigree. He comes from an honorable, respected family. Such an aristocrat is surely fit to appear in the royal court. “We can take orders from this guy,” they must have been thinking.
Pharaoh is overjoyed because it helps solidify Joseph’s position.
Sforno, a sixteenth century Italian rabbi, sees a different kind of bigotry informing the Egyptians’ response. Until this moment, Joseph is suspected of not being fully loyal. As a foreigner, he cannot be trusted to always have Egypt’s best interests at heart.
Now that he has been reunited with his brothers and has inititated plans to move the entire family down to Egypt, Pharaoh and his court see Joseph as a citizen whose first loyalty is to the nation. They can trust his motives now that he is establishing roots.
According to both interpretations, the appearance of Joseph’s brothers resolves lingering questions in the Egyptian court as to Joseph’s bona fides, whether his low social status or his foreign origins.
As the story develops, however, the bigotry reemerges. When a new Pharaoh arises several generations later. The Israelites are still perceived as “other,” having grown so numerous that they now fill the land.
This Pharaoh resurrects the charge of disloyalty. “In the event of war,” he tells the court, “they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:10) This provides the pretext by which to enslave the Israelites, or I suppose we could say, re-enslave them.
Charges that Jews have dual loyalty or are of subhuman status are among the classic antisemitic tropes that persist to this day. As we see in the story of Joseph, they are nothing new. But even if the Egyptians never get to a point where they fully trust and accept the Israelites living among them, the Israelites themselves manage to stay united. This is the first generation in which the family stays together.
Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau – they went their separate ways. But the twelve sons of Jacob stick together. I would suggest that it was Judah’s courage, and Joseph’s willingness to forgive that made it happen. For both of them, it came from a deep, sincere belief that change was possible and that things could be better.
We have inherited that sincere belief. That is why we are still here, thousands of years later. It is the Jewish people’s belief that things can get better, that we can improve, that relationships can be fixed, that the world can become worthy of being saved. We are a fundamentally hopeful people, despite the many challenges that we have and continue to face.