Parashat Vayigash: Only human

The motivations of our patriarchs are personal, psychological, maternal, historical and cosmic.

vayigash 88 (photo credit: )
vayigash 88
(photo credit: )
The towering personalities of the Bible - and especially of Genesis - must be seen on two levels: On the one hand, they were living, breathing, flesh-and-blood human beings who lived, loved, failed and succeeded, and on the other they are symbols of the nation which will descend from them and direct the course of history. This is what Nahmanides teaches when he says "The deeds of the patriarchs and matriarchs adumbrate and reverberate through the subsequent history of their descendants." This is what Professor Nechama Leibowitz (and Rabbi Elchanan Samet) often emphasize as "the double track" biblical message. I would add a third element, which involves the psychological motivations of our biblical personalities. Let us investigate four seminal incidents in the stories of Jacob and Joseph which will more than justify our analysis. When Jacob leaves his parents' home and sets out for Haran, the Bible provides a number of motivations: * "Behold Esau your brother is ready to mourn for you by killing you"(Genesis 27:42,43). * "You shall not take a woman from among the daughters of Canaan" (Genesis 28:1,2). * "And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out toward the western sea, toward the east, toward the north and toward the south" (Genesis 28:13,14). What makes Jacob actually move to Labanland? Initially the Bible is telling us that Jacob the individual must flee to Laban in order to escape his sibling, who wishes to destroy him. Additionally, Israel the Patriarch must father children from the proper family background, children who will be worthy to found the 12 tribes of a nation guaranteed by God to bring blessings to all the families of the earth (the covenant between the pieces); for this, he must go to his mother's family in Aram Naharayim. And third, from a psychological perspective, Jacob wants to be more like the glib Esau ("And Isaac loved Esau because entrapment was in his mouth" - Gen. 25:28 ) in order that he might thereby gain his father's love. And the master of the Esau-like personality is none other than Jacob's uncle Laban. Twenty years later, Jacob decides to leave Haran and return to his birthplace, Canaan. The Bible records, "And Jacob saw that the face of Laban was not sympathetic toward him as it had been one and two days before" (Genesis 31:1,2), but then continues to inform us that God Himself tells Jacob to return to the land of his fathers - a message reinforced by an angel who comes as part of a dream (Genesis 31:3,11-13). Jacob the individual sees that he no longer has a future with Laban Enterprises, possibly because Laban's younger sons apparently expect to be their father's inheritors. Israel the Patriarch realizes that his destiny can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. And from a psychological perspective, the fact that he initially dreamt of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, but dreams of speckled, striped and spotted cattle (material wealth) after 20 years in Laban's employ inform him that he must return to the dream-vision of Abraham's family. Jacob must experience further wanderings in the land of Canaan before he returns to Beth-El and his father's home. He first stops off in Shechem, where his daughter Dinah is raped and his sons Simeon and Levi rescue her and then kill all the male inhabitants. He shouts at his two sons: "You have muddied me to cause me to stink among the inhabitants of the land… I and my household will be destroyed" (Genesis 34:30). God then tells him to "go up to Beth-El and build there the altar…" (Genesis 35:1). Jacob the individual is afraid of retaliation by the nations bordering on Shechem, and so he finally sets out for Beth-El and his father's house. Israel the Patriarch knows he must fulfill the oath taken 22 years earlier in order to realize his birthright. And Jacob's reaction to Simeon and Levi likewise demonstrates the change in his personality: his success in having exorcised the aspect of Esau-Laban which had invaded his character. No longer Jacob the deceiver, he abhors the fact that his sons were not forthright with Hamor and Shechem. Now the new Jacob-Israel is ready to return to his father's home, having shed any proclivity toward deception. Finally, in our Torah portion, Jacob makes the difficult decision to leave the land of Canaan-Israel, descend to Egypt and re-unite with his beloved son Joseph. After all, he is being summoned by the Grand Vizier, who is his own flesh and blood, "Come down to me… and I shall support you there… lest you, your household and all that is yours become impoverished… And he saw the wagons which Joseph sent to transport him, and the spirit of Jacob their father was revived" (Genesis 45:9-11,27,28). Jacob the individual requires food for his family; Jacob the bereaved father likewise yearns to see his beloved son after an estrangement of 22 years. Psychologically Jacob is also smitten with guilt over the manner in which he has led his family. He understands that it was his blatant favoritism for Joseph that caused the sibling rivalry and even enmity which almost resulted in Joseph's tragic death. The sign of the wagons, or agalot, is reminiscent of the heifer, egla, which the elders of a city wherein a murder has occurred must bring as expiation for their faulty leadership. Jacob feels he has been forgiven by his son, the symbol of the agala (wagon) egla (heifer), and so his spirit is revived. And Israel the Patriarch goes down to Egypt in order to further realize the vision of the covenant between the pieces, which called for a black and frightening exile to teach an emerging nation the value of freedom. From this cosmic perspective, the rapprochement between father Israel and son Joseph reflects the ultimate reunion between our Father in Heaven and His beloved first-born son Israel in the era of redemption. The motivations of our patriarchs are personal, psychological, maternal, historical and cosmic. In just such a magnificent manner, human free will merges with Divine Providence to redeem the world. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.