Vayigash takes its name from the “approach” of Judah to Joseph– as he pleads with the Egyptian governor for mercy. To approach someone when there is such a power differential is an approach that demands careful consideration. Too hasty, too obsequious, too brash, too cautious – any of these may cause the person who is the power-that-be to consider negatively that which is being asked. Just where to pitch the “ask” is the stuff of many an ad agencies nightmares – and many an educator’s planning of class materials. What is too much – and what is too little?! When is it “just right?” Perhaps Goldilocks was taking her cue from Judah.
Sometimes even rabbis and religious leaders are assumed to be in the “ask” business. We are selling a product. Bums in the seat = dollars in the kitty – all of which enable programming and purchasing which is deemed necessary to the continuity of the shul. But it is a tough sell sometimes. One cannot be seen as selling a product – Judaism seeps well beyond those lines, and one cannot be assumed to be selling with guilt – guilt was never a great motivator. One needs to consider all circumstances – all the time. So when Judah asks a favour of the grand ruler in front of him, his language is peppered with phrases beseeching Joseph’s understanding of his familial circumstance.
The twist, of course, is that when Judah makes his ask of Joseph, he is not yet aware that his brother Joseph has recognized him and his brothers. Joseph’s questions and responses are all carefully calibrated – perhaps even calculated – to allow for an opening of Judah’s heart, a reckoning of shame as the brothers might acknowledge their nefarious behaviour from what is now decades ago. But instead Judah uses passive language, “We have an old father and a young child of his old age; his brother is dead.”
At this point Joseph cannot restrain his tears. I mentioned last week that there are seven instances of Joseph weeping in this saga of teshuvah, of return and forgiveness. Here in chapter 45 verse 2 the text reads, “He gave forth his voice in weeping, Egypt heard and Pharaoh’s household heard.” As Joseph reveals his identity to Judah and then to all his brothers, they are overcome. Who was once left for dead, is now not only alive, but holds real power over life and death, over all the world they know, which at this point is degraded by drought and starvation. Joseph’s first question, once his identity is revealed, is to immediately inquire after the life of his father. “Is my father alive?” he begs of his brother. Not our father. My father. In that claim, Joseph states both the totality of his absence from his father and his faith that has kept him alive.
Later in Vayigash, Pharaoh and Ya’kov meet. One can picture them together, two old men, reflecting on their aged bones, and the imminence of the end of their days. Pharaoh asks of Ya’akov, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” and Ya’akov answers with bluntness. “…few and bad have been the days of the years of my life,” and then he continues to further embellish this limitation, as his days do not number those of his forefathers. Their conversation ends with Pharaoh being blessed by Ya’akov. Much as Ya’akov had experienced abundance, much as he holds his capacity to give blessing, he seems unable to know the blessing of his own life. The shadow of death has coloured the story of his life. “Few and bad.” Such sadness in this summation of his life.
This week, as we learn about some of the practices around shiva, the seven days of mourning, we might bear these words “few and bad” in mind. Would that we never have to sum up a life so tersely and so negatively. One of the practices when we sit shiva is to learn Mishnah – the letters of Mishnah recalling the neshamah, the soul, of the deceased. We try to bring a small aspect of this soul back into the room of mourners. Shiva takes us from the rawness of the gravesite back into a home, back into comfort, even as that home is minimized by loss. Shiva allows our hearts to heal, story by story, as we shift from tears perhaps to rueful quiet laughter. As the taut, hard legal text of Mishnah opens, it opens us, and allows us to well-consider the life of the deceased.
When Joseph asked if his father was still alive, we can only imagine his feelings. This person, who as a young man was left for dead in a pit, and then sold, was only alive through his capacity for understanding dreams. Jacob might have thought his days were few and bad, but the days of Joseph were many and good. Perhaps his seven weepings were like the seven days of shiva; day by day, handful by handful, just as grain was gathered for the seven lean years, he was able to finally forgive his brothers, and now was consoled and restored. His dreams came true. His father was alive. All was just right.