For the week ending 15 December 2007 / 6 Tevet 5768

Parshat Vayigash

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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With the discovery of the goblet in Binyamin's sack, the brothers are confused. Yehuda alone steps forward and eloquently but firmly petitions Yosef for Binyamin's release, offering himself instead. As a result of this act of total selflessness, Yosef finally has irrefutable proof that his brothers are different people from the ones who cast him into the pit, and so he now reveals to them that he is none other than their brother. The brothers shrink from him in shame, but Yosef consoles them, telling them that everything has been part of G-d’s plan. He sends them back to their father Yaakov with a message to come and reside in the land of Goshen. At first, Yaakov cannot accept the news, but when he recognizes hidden signs in the message which positively identify the sender as his son Yosef, his spirit is revived. Yaakov together with all his family and possessions sets out for Goshen. G-d communicates with Yaakov in a vision at night. He tells him not to fear going down to Egypt and its negative spiritual consequences, because it is there that G-d will establish the Children of Israel as a great nation even though they will be dwelling in a land steeped in immorality and corruption. The Torah lists Yaakov's offspring and hints to the birth of Yocheved, who will be the mother of Moshe Rabbeinu. Seventy souls in total descend into Egypt, where Yosef is reunited with his father after 22 years of separation. He embraces his father and weeps, overflowing with joy. Yosef secures the settlement of his family in Goshen. Yosef takes his father Yaakov and five of the least threatening of his brothers to be presented to Pharaoh, and Yaakov blesses Pharaoh. Yosef instructs that, in return for grain, all the people of Egypt must give everything to Pharaoh, including themselves as his slaves. Yosef then redistributes the population, except for the Egyptian priests who are directly supported by a stipend from Pharaoh. The Children of Israel become settled, and their numbers multiply greatly.


The Prose and the Poetry

“So Yisrael set out with all that he had and came to Beersheva where he slaughtered sacrifices (Zevachim) to the G-d of his father Yitzchak.” (46:1)

It’s not by coincidence that the Jews are a middle-Eastern people.

The Middle East was the cradle of civilization; the major history of the world seems to have been played out around the shores of the Mediterranean.

The further you travel from the center of something, the more deviation creeps in from that central point; the further you travel from the nodal point of the Middle East, the more pronounced become two diametrically opposed worldviews.

To the East you will find the asceticism of India, the rejection of the physical, and the aspiration to escape the material world completely by fasting, meditation, and the abnegation of the body.

In the other direction (geographically and spiritually) is the West. While giving a nod to the world of the spirit, the West is heavily invested in the body and its agenda; ‘the good life’, a life of ease and toys that please.

East is East and West is West - and the genius of Judaism is that it unites these two extremes.

Judaism sees the body neither as a sworn enemy nor as a temple, but as a wayward child in constant need of cajoling, supervision, and encouragement.

It was not only the Jewish People who brought offerings in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple); non-Jews could, and did bring sacrifices. However, their korbanot were only of one type. They were all olot. An olah is translated as a “burnt offering” so called because it all goes ‘up’ (oleh) in fire; nothing remains. The non-Jewish mindset is that spirituality demands the total negation of the physical; the physical must go up entirely in a blaze of fire.

The idea that the kohen, together with the one who brings the offering and his or her family, partake of the offering is foreign to the non-Jewish mindset; it seems to smack of a kickback. In fact, the eating of the offering by the kohen and the one who brought the offering were no less important to the process than the parts that fire consumed.

“So Yisrael set out with all that he had and came to Beersheva where he slaughtered sacrifices (Zevachim) to the G-d of his father Yitzchak.”

The zenith of Yaakov’s happiness was this journey to Yosef in Mitzraim. After a life beset with troubles, Yaakov finally was about to experience yiddishe naches (parental satisfaction) from all his children.

In Beersheva, the last town before the Egyptian border, he brought zevachim to Hashem.

It seems that none of our ancestors brought zevachim; they only brought olot.

A zevach is a shared family experience, an offering in which the entire family partakes. With Yaakov’s family circle complete, the stage was set for the Children of Yisrael to become the nation that would proclaim the service of G-d through the uniting of the body and the soul. Thus Yaakov could experience the higher level of Divine service in which even the prose of physical existence - eating and drinking - could be elevated into the Divine poetry of serving G-d.

  • Based on Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch

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