The Saga of Family Life: Vayigash
By Joel M. Hoffman
Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, opens with the nearly final stages of the drama of the misery and anguish of our ancestors’ family lives. But amid the sorrow we also find the promise of better times.
We read of Judah in Egypt as he begs for life-saving food from a man who will turn out to be his brother Joseph. Joseph, now the second most powerful man in Egypt, looks back at the man he knows to be his long-estranged brother Judah.
Both Judah and Joseph were victims of their father Jacob’s atrocious parenting skills, as evidenced, for example, by Jacob’s decision to give Joseph a fancy coat but to give nothing to any of Joseph’s brothers. (“Here’s a Hanukah experiment you can try at home,” Rabbi Larry Kushner teaches in this regard. “See what happens if you give an expensive present to only one of your children….”) So back in Canaan, Judah had helped sell Joseph to their cousins, the Ishmaelites, as a slave. Jacob was distraught at the loss of his son, Judah seemed not to care, and for a while slavery was too good for Joseph. He spent time in an Egyptian jail.
It is perhaps not Jacob’s fault that he never learned to be a good parent. His mother and father fought over which child they loved more, and Esau was always Daddy’s favorite. Jacob’s mother was conniving and devious. Jacob’s father quickly grew so senile that he couldn’t tell the difference between his son and a sheep.
Isaac, of course, learned from his own father, Abraham, the father who took him on a father-and-son outing where he almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah.
In addition, Jacob inadvertently married the wrong woman. We can only imagine the sibling rivalry that results when your sister is also your husband’s favorite wife.
Jealousy, pettiness, and sibling rivalry seem to be the only family dynamics Jacob knew. So perhaps we understand why Jacob was unable to keep his family together. If Genesis is about families, it is about dysfunctional families, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make abundantly clear, along with Ishmael, Hagar, Esau, and so forth. Not one of them lived a particularly happy life.
Still, never one to learn from his mistakes, Jacob gathers all of his remaining children together when the family is faced with famine:
“I want all of you to go down to Egypt to try to get us some food,” he instructs his children. But then he clarifies what he wants: “All of you except Benjamin, that is.”
Why not Benjamin?
“Because I love him,” Jacob tells his children.
The message is clear.
Eventually, Benjamin must join his brothers in Egypt, and that brings us to this week’s installment of “what else can go wrong.” Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, demands that Benjamin stay behind and not return to their father.
But that’s not an option, Judah knows. “If my father sees that Benjamin is gone, he will die,” Judah tells the powerful Egyptian leader.
Judah has understood the situation fully. Daddy will die if Benjamin doesn’t return. But Daddy doesn’t care about him. “Let me stay in his place,” Judah offers. “Daddy won’t even miss me,” he knows.
In offering to stay behind instead of Benjamin, Judah recognizes his father’s failings, and, more importantly, he accepts them. This is the moment he breaks the cycle of family dysfunction that plagued the first four generations of our ancestors’ lives.
Genesis, of course, is about us. For we are Abraham, sometimes angry at our children, and we are Rachel and Leah, jealous of our siblings. We are Judah, still trying to understand why our parents cannot be perfect. We are all of them.
Let us not forget that things turned out very well for Judah, a fact we mark at every wedding when we quote the prophet Jeremiah: “Once again there will be heard among Judah the sounds of joy and happiness, the sounds of the bride and groom.”
Let us pray that God give us the courage to learn from Judah and accept reality. And let us look forward to the joy and happiness that await when we do.