Parshat Vayigash   Genesis 44:18-47:27                                                   

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, tells of Joseph’s reconciliation with himself, his brothers, and his father. It raises timeless questions about the human potential to change. “Vayigash aylav Yehudah … And Judah drew near to Joseph …” to plead for his brother Benjamin’s freedom. Not knowing that he was really addressing his own brother, Judah begged to be taken as a slave in Benjamin’s stead, so that his father Jacob would not die from the shock of losing another son. What a change from the Judah who had once convinced the other brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan of merchants!

Upon hearing Judah’s passionate concern for his father’s feelings, Joseph could no longer control himself. After ordering all Egyptians out of the room, he revealed his identity to his brothers – who were flabbergasted. Joseph cried so loudly that his sobs were heard even in Pharaoh’s palace! Joseph told them not to feel guilty for having left him in the pit, and reassured them that their selling him into slavery was part of God’s plan to save the whole family from starvation. He embraced Benjamin and the rest of his brothers. He told them to race back to their father Jacob with gifts and food, to tell him that he was alive, and to urge him to bring the entire family down to Egypt. Pharaoh reiterated Joseph’s invi- tation that Jacob and his family should come down to Egypt. As the brothers prepared to return to Canaan, Joseph warned them not to quarrel on the way. (According to Rashi, he realized that his brothers were ashamed of selling him, and that they might quarrel as to who was originally at fault.) Jacob is predictably overjoyed to hear that Joseph is alive. In Chapter 46, he goes to Beersheva and offers sacrifices to the “God of his father, Isaac.” In a night vision, God tells him that it’s all right to take the family down to Egypt. A full genealogy of the seventy Hebrews who go down to Egypt is given.

Meanwhile, the famine continued in Egypt and Joseph kept selling grain to the Egyptian people. When they ran out of money, Joseph agreed to trade food for their livestock. When the livestock was depleted, Joseph traded bread for their land – and finally, their very persons. In this way all the money, flocks, people, and land in Egypt came to be owned by Pharaoh. In other words, Joseph systematically enslaved all the Egyptians to Pharaoh, creating a permanent feudal state (except for the priests). By the end of the famine, Joseph was providing the Egyptian people with seeds to plant; and had decreed that in return one fifth of all that they grew would belong to Pharaoh.

Joseph and Israel meet. Joseph advises his father and brothers to emphasize to Pharaoh when they meet him that they are shepherds because Egyptians hate shepherds and will isolate them in the pasturing area of Goshen to keep the flocks away from their people. In Chapter 47, Pharaoh meets Jacob. Jacob states that his years have been short (only 130!!) and difficult. Pharaoh orders the Hebrews to be settled and cared for in Goshen.


In Genesis 46:28, we read that Jacob had sent Judah ahead of the family “to point the way before him to Goshen.” Rashi comments that the Hebrew expression le-horot le-fanav can also be understood to mean “to establish for him a house of study from which teaching might go forth.” This commentary is based on the fact that the Hebrew word hora’ah (teaching, instruction) and Torah are related to the verb used in Genesis. The word for parents (horim) is also related. How might establishing a house of study help create a climate in which Jacob’s family was discouraged from assimilating into Egyptian society? Who serves the function of a Judah for you in your life, le-horot le-fanav (walking before you to point the way)?

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. According to the Torah, it was only after Joseph hugged his brothers and cried, that his brother’s were able to say even a word. How did Joseph’s actions free them to speak? Why might the brothers have been silent after Joseph told them who he was?

  2. Joseph was concerned that once his family settled in Egypt they would totally assimilate into Egyptian culture. To maintain their identity, Joseph settled them in Goshen and encouraged them to continue shepherding. Are there aspects of Joseph’s plan that might be adapted to help preserve Jewish identity in modern America?

  3. When the Torah first introduces Joseph, he is wearing a rainbow-colored coat and flaunting his personal dreams. In this portion, he is managing the welfare of an entire hungry nation and saving his family from starvation, both physical and spiritual. What has happened to cause Jo- seph to change? Think about a significant way in which you have changed. What external fac- tors contributed to your change? What internal things inspired you?

  4. Jewish law and lore regards a person who has effected teshuva, who has demonstrated the cour- age to change behavior, as greater than someone who has not had to make that change. What do you think? Why?

  5. Approaching someone when you have an important request (as Judah did) or setting the re- cord straight, after having been untruthful for a long period of time (as Joseph did) can be very awkward and frightening. Think about a time when you have been in a situation like Joseph or Judah – when, perhaps, you had to “reveal the truth” to someone whom you misled. What did you do? How did you feel as you approached the moment of truth? How did you feel after you revealed the truth? What would you do if you had the chance to do it over again? What advice would you give to someone else facing these circumstances?

  6. The Torah does not record what the brothers told their father about Joseph, whether they con- fessed about their role in Joseph’s disappearance. It is Ramban’s conjecture that the brothers never told Jacob that they had sold him for they did not want their father to curse them. Are there times when it is better to remain silent about a wrongdoing? Is it better or more hurtful to the person whom you wronged to specify all the details of your wrongdoing? Consider the burden of guilt that the brothers carried. Would it have been better for them to have cleared the air and confessed?

  7. What do you think about Joseph’s economic dealings with the Egyptians. Can you justify his actions? (How did his terms compare with those imposed on modern-day sharecroppers in the third world or the American South?)

  8. In October, 1960, Pope John XXIII greeted a group of United Jewish Appeal leaders with the words, “I am your brother, Joseph.” Aside from the fact that the Pope’s personal name was Giuseppe (“Joseph” in Italian), Pope John was one of the first papal leaders to attempt to change the Catholic attitude of anti-Semitism to one of tolerance and understanding. Thus, his choice of words on this occasion was very significant. In the light of your understanding of the history of Jewish-Christian relations, do you feel that it was appropriate to cast himself in the role of the biblical Joseph?