This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is one of the most profound and meaningful readings of the year. It continues the Joseph cycle and, in a dramatic scene, Joseph confronts his brothers and reveals his true identity. For a while Joseph has played his brothers, almost toying with them, refusing to reveal who he was. At the end of last week’s reading (Genesis 43:27), Joseph even casually asks about the brothers’ father “of whom you spoke”. But in this week’s portion, it is time for truth. Imagine what he must have felt. Here were his brothers who cast him aside, rejected him, thought and wished him dead. Here they stand before him, bowing to him and his position, offering gifts, pleading for food. Who could blame the story for taking a revengeful track!But in a most powerful scene we read:
Joseph could not longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out “Have everyone withdraw”, so there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear and the news reached Pharoah’s palace. The Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well? But his brothers could not answer for so dumbfounded were they on account of him. (Genesis 45:1-3)
You can almost feel the emotion leaping from the page. Look at what Joseph says. Of all the questions he could have asked, of all the things that he could have said, the first words are about his father. How is my father?
The Hebrew and its various translations are interesting. In some versions, the Hebrew Ha Od avi chai? is translated as “Is my father still well”, seeming to refer back to that question from last week’s portion (Genesis 43:17) However, if we look at the more literal translation, it seems to ask “Is my father still alive?” I think this latter approach is the more powerful. But remember, Joseph’s first concern is his father. Despite all the trappings of power and fame, success and influence that he has achieved, Joseph’s concern is his dad!
There are a myriad of interpretations about this story and the fact that Joseph’s reunion and his story was part of a Divine plan for the Jewish people. We alluded to this a few weeks back. All of that is great and worthy of much discussion. Yet, for me and for our generation, I think it is a powerful statement that the immediate reaction upon this revelation of identity is to restore that family relationship. Joseph has grown from that narcissistic teen to a mature man. Life has tested him and molded him onto a man of power and influence. But still, in his soul, was that void, that loss of family and “home” and so maybe we should not be surprised that when the time came to “settle the score”, so to speak, he rushed to try and fill that relational void. How many of us, as we journey through life, still yearn for those basic relationships of parents and family. We often still hear their voices, even if they have died. How often have we wished “they” could be with us to share a moment. I suggest Joseph’s question “Is my father still alive” I suggest, is much more than a simple question. It is, for many of us, that internal and intimate pull to belong, to be “home”, to feel part of family.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a regional director and then, beginning in 1997, as founder and director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011 to 2014.