Why is Pharaoh’s Court Happy? – Vayigash 5782

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.

Connecting the Dots – Vayigash 5773

We would expect Joseph to be furious with his brothers. Several parashiyot ago we hear them say “come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!”*1*

It is only thanks to Reuben and Judah’s desperate intervention that Joseph is sold into slavery instead.

Even though things eventually turn out pretty good for Joseph, just try, for a moment, to imagine what it must have been like for him when his brothers threw him into that pit so many years ago. Imagine the insults they must have shouted. The taunts. The hatred.

Even if, physically, Joseph comes out on top, I can’t imagine the emotional trauma that a younger brother would experience when his older siblings abuse him like that. We would expect that rejection to stick with Joseph throughout his life.

That is why his reaction to his brothers in this morning’s Torah portion is so remarkable.

When he finally reveals himself, listen to what he says: “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth… it was not you who sent me here, but God…”*2*

Just contrast Joseph’s attitude to the brothers’ attitude years before. They are extremely short-sighted. They are thinking only in the moment. Here is this annoying little brother of ours. He thinks he’s so great. Just look at that ornamented tunic that he is always prancing about in. Father loves him best.

The brothers are stuck in their own anger, in the moment. When they act, they don’t consider the repercussions.

Not so Joseph. He is focused on the big picture. If there are any leftover emotions of anger, or desire for revenge, we do not see them.

Instead of his brothers comforting him and apologizing to him, it is Joseph who is doing the comforting! They don’t even have a chance to apologize. He absolves them of guilt, explaining their horrible behavior as God’s plan. It had to happen that way so that Joseph could be brought to Egypt, become vizier to Pharaoh, and save their lives.

The entire Joseph story is marked by peaks and valleys. Joseph rises to the top, and then is cast down, only to rise again in most remarkable fashion. We see this pattern repeat itself in his father’s house, Potiphar’s estate, and Pharaoh’s court. Throughout, Joseph sees the active hand of God in his life. We, the readers, do not see God’s direct intervention in Joseph’s life at any point in this story.

It is Joseph himself who connects the dots. He chooses to see a pattern in the random events that befall him. That pattern points to a Divine purpose. A purpose that is first foretold in his boyhood dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. Now we discover that those dreams have been fulfilled, in the most extraordinary way.

Unlike the rest of the Book of Genesis, in which God’s hand is much more apparent, the Joseph saga is like the world we know. We, like Joseph and his brothers, choose how to see the peaks and valleys of our lives.

Are they a series of random dots, ultimately patternless and meaningless. Are we alone to make decisions by ourselves? When outside forces impinge on our lives for good or for bad, are they essentially random and unpredictable?

Or, do we connect those dots in a way that points to a purpose for our existence? Do we see the things that happen to us in the context of Jewish history? Do Jewish beliefs, traditions, and practices help us contextualize the blessings and tragedies that we all face? In short, is God involved in a purposeful way in our lives?

*1*Genesis 37:20

*2*Genesis 45:4-8

I got some ideas from a D’var Torah called Unanticipated Consequences, by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Vice Chancellor and Director of Community Engagement for the Jewish Theological Seminary