Parshah Vayigash covers Genesis 44:18 to 47:27. It involves the reunification of Joseph with his brothers and his father, the immigration of Jacob’s entire family to Egypt and Joseph successfully leading Egypt through famine. In other words, the parshah provides the backdrop for how the Israelites become slaves in Egypt.
Any mention of women is confined to verses 46: 14-26. They are not active participants, but are remembered as mothers and (a few) daughters and help explain the size and development of Jacob’s family. It is most striking that they are mentioned at all as the text is heavily preoccupied with sons. Nonetheless, according to the account, Jacob’s family has 70 members and a seemingly very small number are women and daughters.
Clearly it comes as no surprise that this text is highly influenced by its patriarchal roots and we could dismiss it for that reason. Nonetheless, it has become a project of mine in this blog over the past few months to find redeeming qualities and food for thought within these texts. In other words, despite its sexist pitfalls, there are still holy insights and life lessons as my previous blogs attest.
In regard to Vayigash then, there are three lessons. First, after years and years of separation, Joseph forgives his brothers for their poor treatment of him. Second, the text highlights the difficulties and joys of families. Finally, there is famine in the land, and Joseph invites his family to seek refuge in Egypt.
The theme of forgiveness is quintessential material here. If Joseph had continued to hold a grudge, the Israelites would have never moved into Egypt, their slavery wouldn’t have happened, there’d be no Exodus, there’d be no Moses and most importantly there’d be no Torah. Connecting the dots, it could be argued that Joseph’s choice to forgive makes way for the birth of the Jewish people.
There are aspects of power and possibility then in the act of forgiveness. First, forgiveness is powerful because it can renew relationships just as Joseph was reunited with this brothers and father. In other words, it can reconnect people to each other. It allows for growth. In this growth is possibility. The growth of love, trust, shelter, care and commitment can come from an act of forgiveness even it is seems impossible at first. Once the family settles in Egypt, Joseph is committed to the care, love and shelter of his family. He even allows himself to trust them again.
Of course, there are times and reasons in which forgiveness wouldn’t bring about these fruits. Likewise, there are also actions in which forgiveness is impossible. This parshah does not advocate forgiveness as an act of self-denial, but as an act of self-fulfillment. Joseph and his family’s lives were clearly enriched by his ability to forgive in this case. At the same time, he forgave out a place of strength and clarity, not because he had to or because it was time. Nothing of the sort. He forgave only after knowing they had changed. In addition, he forgave them out of love and concern for himself (he missed his father).
Clearly then this parshah highlights the importance of family but it’s not all roses. In fact, the family reunion first comes more out of a sense of responsibility than love. In 45: 5-8, Joseph says that he is acting because the Divine has bigger plans for the family. The family member that seems most happy about the impending reunion is Joseph’s father, and the text highlights the words of Jacob as he learns that his thought-to-be dead son is actually alive (see Genesis 45:28). The joy in Jacob’s heart must have been inexplicable!
Nonetheless, the brothers take some convincing to listen to Joseph. In the end, perhaps Joseph’s position in the government and his offer of protection reunites the family more so than love does. How true is that in so many family situations! Yet, Joseph is also quite sincere in his yearning to be reunited with his father once again. That is something. And, that something may be enough.
Finally, in the background of these happenings is the famine that has been devastating the land and its inhabitants for two years. Knowing the famine will last another 5 years, Joseph asks Jacob and his family to move to Egypt to protect them. It is this move that casts Jacob’s descendants as (environmental) refugees.
Jacob’s family was lucky to be invited to settle in a foreign land. Not only that, for many years, Joseph looked after them. Eventually what Joseph did for Egypt was forgotten, and the fate of Jacob’s descendants changed. Those vulnerable refugees became slaves. Only after years of torment and the persistent cries of those who suffered did the Divine with the help of Moses free the slaves.
The Torah is full of memories of being welcomed as refugees, being forced into slavery and then eventually being freed. Yet, as free persons, the descendants of Jacob are reminded time and again to act justly towards refugees and slaves (see Exodus 22:21, 23: 9, Lev. 19:34, Deut. 23:7) because they were once slaves and refugees themselves. Just like what was said about forgiveness and family, this too has a modern application: how do we treat the refugee in our midst? Do we welcome them? Do we care for them? Do we work to free them from their situation?
We should. We should because we remember what it was like to be in their situation. We should because it’s the right thing to do. We should because repairing the world and a higher sense of justice demand it of us.
In summary, Vayigash still has lessons to teach us about furthering justice in this world despite its obvious patriarchal context. For example, families are complicated, but often worth it. Forgiveness has the power to affect the future in unforeseen ways. As past refugees and slaves, we have a responsibility to care for refugees and liberate slaves. The question becomes: how are we incorporating these lessons into our lives?
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.