Parasha Vayigash: Only ourselves to blame

Logic as well as filial respect suggests that the child make the effort to meet the parent.

jacob joseph 88 (photo credit: )
jacob joseph 88
(photo credit: )
Why doesn't Joseph travel up to Israel to see his aged father? And why does Jacob even agree to Egyptian exile in order to meet his son? Logic as well as filial respect suggests that the child make the effort to meet the parent. The narrative style of the Bible is extremely terse, employing a minimum of words to imply a maximum of emotions and leaving it to the reader to sense the drama - and conflict - which lies between the lines. Undoubtedly when first hearing the mind-boggling news that his beloved Joseph was not only alive but was the powerful Grand Vizier of Egypt, Jacob must have been bowled over with gratitude to God. But as the reality began to take root, many thoughts and emotions must have raced through the patriarch's mind. How did Joseph get to Egypt? Had he run away, opting to abort the journey to check on his unfriendly brothers and pursue his ambition to acquire those very sheaves of grain - products of the more sophisticated but less spiritual Egyptian civilization - which he had dreamed about? But it was the brothers who had brought the bloody cloak of many colors, seemingly the only remains of a son who had been devoured by wild beasts. Had Joseph purposefully left the cloak behind to indicate his wish to forsake the family in favor of the lifestyle for which he was pining, and somehow it had become soaked in blood? Might it even be - Heaven forbid - that the brothers had sold their own flesh and blood into Egypt, and then covered up their unthinkable deed? And as the old man pushed aside this latter possibility - confronting his sons with such a suspicion would only bring about an irreparable tear in the family fabric precisely when his sons were finally on the brink of coming together - the patriarch's questions began to center on Joseph. How could the beloved heir to his family fortune and function act so callously? However Joseph got to Egypt, couldn't he have sent some word (if a visit had been impossible) to inform his father that he was still alive? He certainly knew how much his father doted on him. Jacob's elation may well have turned to disappointed anger at Joseph: "I am overjoyed that you are alive, but how could you have neglected to contact me earlier?" From this very human perspective, we can better understand the biblical text as well as Rashi's commentary. Immediately after informing us that the brothers told Jacob all that the Grand Vizier had revealed to them, the verse concludes: "And when [Jacob] saw the wagons [Hebrew: agalot] which Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of Jacob their father was revived" (ibid 45:27). Rashi (ad loc) comments that the wagons (agalot) were a sign from Joseph reminding his father that the last biblical portion they had studied together concerned the beheaded heifer (the Hebrew for heifer is egel, a play on agalot or wagons, which were usually heifer drawn) The connection, however, is much deeper than the linguistic. The Bible (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) ordains that if a corpse of someone murdered by an unknown assailant be discovered between two cities, the elders of the closest city must bring a heifer sacrifice, declaring "our hands did not shed this blood" and requesting atonement. Clearly, the elders themselves did not commit the heinous crime; nonetheless, they were apparently not sufficiently sensitive to the needs of their citizenry - the lack of services for the poor, the addicted, the unstable - to have prevented the tragedy. Joseph was gently reminding his father that he - as the elder of the family - should have been more sensitive to the tragedy which can arise from a father's blatant favoritism (B.T Shabbat 10b); the son is hinting to his father that he harbored resentment toward him, that he never contacted him - despite his lofty position - because (not unlike the elders in the incident of the beheaded heifer) Jacob's faulty familial management almost led to Joseph's death in the pit, and did lead to his enslavement in Egypt. But the beheaded heifer is also a symbol of atonement. Built into the "wagons-heifer" (agalot-egel) is Joseph's message that he forgives his father's insensitivity, that he (now that he's a father himself) understands the difficulties of parenthood, that his father's transgression is especially forgivable because it emanated not from too little love but from too much, and that it was also a function of the special feelings his father had for his deceased wife Rachel, and therefore for her eldest son. But most of all Joseph forgives his father because he has learned from his elder brother Judah the importance of taking responsibility. Judah will do whatever needs to be done to discharge his responsibility to see to it that Benjamin returns safely to Jacob, even if it means that he, Judah, will become the slave. From this perspective, Joseph realizes that he acted arrogantly toward his brothers, that he only exacerbated their jealousy by telling them his patronizing dreams, that despite his father's almost vulgar favoritism, he himself - in the final analysis - must take full responsibility for their hatred. Indeed, maturity begins when we stop blaming our parents, our teachers, our friends, our circumstances, and take only ourselves to task for whatever shortcomings we might have. And so when Jacob saw the wagons, his spirit was revived. He understood the message; he accepted the responsibility for his son's resentment, and fully understood why he had not contacted him earlier. "It is enough that my son is alive," he says, and I shall no longer waste time apportioning blame and standing on ceremony as to who should go to whom. After all, no parent can divorce himself from his child, and no child can divorce himself from his parent or siblings. A child who severs relationships with a parent is cutting him/herself off from his/her essence, and a parent who severs a relationship with a child is cutting him/herself off from his/her existential future. Parents, children and siblings are inextricably bound together. This is what Jacob and Joseph both learn from this magnificent epic. And since in the nature of things it is the father who will die before the son, Jacob goes to Joseph to make certain that they see and embrace each other before Jacob dies. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.