Parashat Veyehi: The mark of majesty

As we conclude the Book of Genesis - fraught with tense, traumatic and triumphant moments of alienation and rapprochement between brother and brother, parents and children - two issues require further analysis.

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January 3, 2007 11:16

As we conclude the Book of Genesis - fraught with tense, traumatic and triumphant moments of alienation and rapprochement between brother and brother, parents and children - two issues require further analysis. First, with all the illustrious personalities of Genesis, why does Joseph alone merit the "surname" of "the Righteous One"? Secondly, if indeed the eldest son of Jacob and Rachel is the "righteous one" in the family, why does the ultimate prize of kingship, whereby "the sons of your father shall bow down to you… the scepter and lawgiver shall not depart… from between his feet" (Gen. 49:8, 10) go to Judah? True, material prosperity is bequeathed to Joseph (Gen. 49:22-26), including a double inheritance of land in Israel (Gen. 48:22), but the majesty of kingship and the ultimate Abrahamic vision of the future Ingathering from all nations is reserved for Judah (Gen. 49:8, 10)! What has happened to Joseph's dreams, according to which all his brothers and even the cosmos bow down to him? Despite the conventional wisdom that Joseph is called "the righteous one" because he withstands the seductions of Potiphar's wife, I believe he deserves the sobriquet for another reason: he demonstrates an almost superhuman ability to forgive and forget. Among the most generous words of the Bible are those of the Grand Vizier when he reveals his true identity: "And Joseph said to his brothers: 'Come close now to me,' and they came close. And he said, 'I am Joseph your brother whom you sold unto Egypt. But now do not be aggrieved and let there not be anger in your eyes [against yourselves] because you sold me here, because it was God who sent me away from you in order that [the family] be sustained for life.'" (Gen. 45:4, 5) What gives Joseph the amazing capacity to rid himself of all natural feelings of revenge and behave with such graciousness? Undoubtedly, part of the reason lies in his new-found understanding that neither he nor any other human stands at the center of the universe; God Almighty directs everything, even if He operates from behind the curtain. Remember that it was the "old" Joseph who saw himself as an object of obeisance, but it is the "new" Joseph who stood before the Egyptian ruler and declared: "It has nothing to do with me; God will give the answer [dream interpretation] in accordance with the welfare of Pharaoh" (Gen. 41:16). The trials and tribulations of Egypt have not contributed to his feelings of self-importance or his resentment toward his family; on the contrary, they have made him realize that his family's destiny is guided only by God! It also stands to reason that the mature Joseph understands that he too contributed to the dysfunctional family dynamic; yes, his father ought not have so blatantly demonstrated his favoritism, but Joseph should not have "played it up" by informing his father of every detail of his brother's religious infractions, and running to tell his brothers of the dream in which they all bow to him. He recognizes the arrogance of his youth, and so is aware that he was not an innocent victim, but an active accomplice in the crime of his siblings. But Joseph's greatness - his uncanny ability to rise to leadership in Egypt and even refine his personality there - takes place in Egypt. Despite his final wish to be buried in Israel, he dedicated his life to Egypt. And so his dreams were fulfilled in Egypt; the King Messiah must teach the Word of God to the entire world from Zion and Jerusalem. It is Judah - the proud son who saved his brother from death in the pit but understood that self-centered dreams of Egyptian agriculture and cosmic domination are not Abrahamic or Jacobean dreams - from whom the Redeemer will arise. This and more: kingship demands that one understands one's enemies well enough to transform them into friends. Judah and Joseph had been locked in adversarial combat; at stake was the future of Benjamin, and the final years of Jacob/Israel, the last of the Patriarchs, who was yet to reveal the destiny of his descendants. At first Judah thought that he and his siblings were being punished by God for having sold their brother into slavery - and so he suggests that the innocent Benjamin be set free and all the others remain enslaved to the Grand Vizier. When this is rejected (Gen. 44), he must change his conception. If it wasn't God who was out to get them, who could it have been? There was only one other possibility which could explain their suffering: the Grand Vizier, second-in-command to Pharaoh, must be Joseph. Only then do all his actions against the brothers make sense - and this explains why he would choose to remain alone with his only "true" brother, Benjamin. Now there remained only one question which troubled Judah: Why hadn't Joseph contacted his beloved father? Perhaps Joseph thought, as suggested by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, that his father had "set up" the sale, that it was his father who was responsible for his being in Egypt. After all, hadn't his father rebuked him after he reported his dream of cosmic domination (Gen. 37:9, 10) - a rebuke which stunned him to the core? And was it not his father who sent him on a "mission" to find his brothers and check on their welfare, a mission on which he almost died? If his father had not been implicated, he certainly would have sought out his missing son. No wonder, thought Judah, that the Grand Vizier acted so heartlessly toward his family. And so he crafted a speech which - provided his understanding was correct - would melt the Grand Vizier's heart and return him to the family. Judah pictures the old and loving father who believed that Joseph had been torn apart by wild beasts; and he, the one who suggested the sale, is now willing to sacrifice himself for the second son of Rachel. The Grand Vizier is overcome. His father indeed always loved him; the unfolding of events had been orchestrated not by Jacob - who thought Joseph was dead - but by God. The Grand Vizier had misjudged the situation, and must take at least partial responsibility for what happened. Judah, who saw into the mind, and even the sub-consciousness, of the Grand Vizier in order to restore Joseph to the familial bosom, is indeed the most worthy of majesty. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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