Thoughts on parashat Vayigash. 

Since the early 1900’s average life expectancy has been constantly growing, particularly in the Western World, but not exclusively. The average life expectancy in the US today is 78,9 years, compared to 47 in the year 1900. Today, life expectancy increase is a world-wide phenomenon, despite obvious differences in this matter in the different countries. Our times have seen an unprecedented progress in medical science, thanks to which we are much more in control of matters of life and death than our ancestors were. 

However, our control of this matters is not ultimate, and most probably it will never be. Despite all the developments, death still affects the people who expect it the least – the young. This has always been a tough, theological problem in Judaism (as well as in other religious traditions), and it generated a variety of responses. One of them can be found in in the tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud:

Why do a person’s sons and daughters die when they are young? They die so that he will cry and mourn over the death of an upright worthy person. The Gemara asks: They die so that he will cry? Is security taken from him in advance to ensure that he fulfills his obligation? Rather, amend the statement and say: It is because he did not cry or mourn over an upright person who died, as anyone who cries over an upright person who died, they forgive him for all his transgressions because of the honor he accorded to the deceased. (Shabbat 105b)

I am completely aware how difficult and controversial this passage might be for modern people, especially the idea that the death of a child is a kind of punishment for not mourning the death of righteous ones.  But there are some important ideas in this passage. First of all, the connection between being young and righteous: inexperienced, young people, especially if brought up in an environment of wisdom, care and love, will not be stained with “various evils of this world”. They may have an idealistic and “naive” approach to life, which may make them suffer but it may prevent them from going astray and engaging in clearly not-ethical types of conduct. Another important idea in this passage is that the death of a child (or any other beloved relative or friend) can be an impulse to straighten our life paths and strive to become more righteous: this means strengthening our connection to true values and focusing on what is really important in our life. 

All of this might have been the experience of Jacob when he was told that one of his youngest sons, Joseph, was killed:

Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him. (Gen 37:34-35)

This might have been a painful impulse for Jacob to repent, and perhaps to change the trajectory of his and his family life. The characters of the Torah all have their flaws (even Moses) and are often far from being morally perfect. So was Jacob (we know a little about his past sins) and so were his sons. We should remember that almost all of them were born and raised together with the family of Laban, who was a liar, greedy trickster and idol worshiper. Growing up, they were all exposed to the corrupt patterns of his behavior and they might have been significantly influenced by it. Their later behavior proves that point. 

Except Joseph and Binyamin. Immediately after Joseph is born, Jacob decides to leave Laban. (Gen 30:22-26) We don’t know precisely how much time had passed between this decision and Jacob’s family departure, but we can rightly assume that Joseph was still a toddler when they were leaving. Binyamin was born after they already left Laban, on the way to Canaan, and this childbirth caused his mother, Rachel, to die. Thus, both of the youngest sons weren’t raised in Laban’s environment, they didn’t learn the corrupt patterns of this environment, they didn’t inherit them. Joseph and Binyamin were saved from it and thus they were the most righteous among the brothers. 

The story of Joseph is a great illustration that probably everything we do has (at least) two levels of meaning: the “ordinary” meaning of the actions we consciously undertake and the deep, divine meaning of our actions, which we are often unaware of at the time of taking the action. Joseph brothers were utterly unaware that by selling Joseph they were fulfilling a divine plan and making their way through the very hard times yet to come. But the deep, divine meaning of the act selling Josef did not end at Israel’s survival. It was also about making them repent, cleansing them spiritually and perfecting them morally. In other words, it was about forgetting Laban’s heritage.

Throughout the biblical narrative we observe the spiritual transformation of Joseph’s brothers, who at the very beginning decide to kill him and it does not happen only because the eldest of them, Reuben, keeps them from doing so (Gen 37: 20-22). So, selling their brother was not the worst thing they were capable of doing. We also observe, in particular, the transformation of Judah, who came up with the entire idea of sale of Joseph (Gen 37: 26-27) and in his ruthlessness planned to put his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to death (Gen 38: 24-26). We see them all repenting and becoming more humble throughout the story of impending famine – well, hard times foster regret and repentance – but Joseph also played an active role in it, orchestrating the entire repentance process. (Gen 42-44)

This process comes to an end in this week’s Torah portion, when Joseph forgives his brothers and the entire family reunites:

You can see for yourselves, and my brother Benjamin for himself, that it is indeed I who am speaking to you. And you must tell my father everything about my high station in Egypt and all that you have seen; and bring my father here with all speed.” With that he embraced (lit. fell on) his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him. (Gen 45:12-15) 

It also opens a new chapter in the history of Israelie forefathers, which has a manifestation in two sons being born to Joseph: Menashe and Ephraim (Gen 46:20), the first two brothers that did not fight with each other. 

Many of us are like Joseph’s brothers: we were born and raised in an environment that taught us things we shouldn’t do and patterns we shouldn’t follow. It usually requires considerable moral consciousness and a lot of courage to get out of that kind of “bubble”; it is partly because our human environment often blinds us morally: the majority of people, by default, believe that things commonly done in their community are just ‘normal’. Unfortunately, sometimes things need to reach their bottom to bring us an intellectual and spiritual awakening. Our wrongdoings, on a deeper level, often have the same goal – the goal of spiritual and moral transformation. The only thing we need to do is to help this deeper meaning to emerge. We do that through repentance. 

The “death” of Joseph was a turning point in the life of Jacob and his entire family that brought a spiritual and moral change to them. 

“Enough!” said Israel. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.” (Gen 45:28)

Shabbat shalom!

This d’var Torah was commissioned by Beit Polska 

– Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland.

It would really be appreciated if you could share this article and spread the word. Toda raba