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Vayigash 5779 / 15 December 2018

December 19, 2018

When I was a kid we would spend a week each summer at Gulf Shores, Alabama; it’s a beautiful spot with quiet beaches, although the July weather leaves a lot to be desired. We would drive the eight hours each way from Atlanta, and it seemed like the only tapes we ever had in the car were Willie Nelson Sings Kris Kristofferson (truth in advertising there), Safam’s Greatest Hits, and the complete set of The 2,000 Year Old Man. A few years ago, remembering this experience, I picked up a CD boxed set of The 2,000 Year Old Man for our own family vacation. One of my favorite parts comes when the interviewer asks the 2,000 Year Old Man about his family. “I have over 42,000 children,” he replies, “And not one comes to visit me.”

I thought of that bit when I considered one of the most troubling parts of the Joseph story: how is it that, over the course of twenty-two years, Joseph never tries to contact his father – not even once. How can this be?

We can give Joseph a pass on the first decade or so – perhaps as a slave, even one placed in charge of his master’s house, he might not have been at liberty to communicate abroad. Certainly his years in prison would not have afforded him the opportunity to send word. But what about the last nine years? There are seven years of plenty in Egypt, during which time Joseph was second only to Pharaoh. Surely he had the means to contact his father during that time. Then, when the famine started, people from all over the region – including Canaan, where Joseph’s family dwelled, were coming and going in Egypt. Not only could he have sent word with some of them, but they surely must have brought him news of Canaan’s plight, and along with that a clear picture of his father’s suffering. Why not alert him that Joseph was alive, and bring his father – even if not the rest of the family – down to live in Egypt, where supplies were plentiful?

Perhaps most damning of all, when Joseph’s brothers finally come – two years into the fanine – not only does Joseph hold back from revealing his true identity or alerting his father, but actually drags out the process, keeping his brothers at arm’s length. How could Joseph possibly justify holding back like this?

Or HaHayyim considers two possibilities, both of which I find only partially satisfying.[1] At first, any attempt to contact his father would also have alerted his brothers, not only to his survival, which would not have completely surprised them, but to his attempts to reestablish contact with their father – which would expose their betrayal and the plot to deceive their father. Faced with that risk, Joseph might have feared that his brothers would move against him – like Michael Corleone against Fredo – to keep him quiet.

Recognizing that this risk would drop to essentially zero once Joseph became Viceroy – figuring his brothers might arrange to have an incarcerated slave killed but wouldn’t dare assassinate a key Egyptian official – Or HaHayyim then suggests that Joseph held back out of concern for his brothers’ feelings. This might sound strange – after all, they were the ones who started all of this mess when they sold him into slavery in the first place. But Or HaHayyim, following the midrashic assumption that the Ancestors studied Talmud in a kind of prophetic yeshiva, quotes the gemara’s teaching that “It is better for a person to throw himself into a burning furnace than to embarrass another in public”[2] as the basis for Joseph’s decision to refrain from notifying his father and, in the process, expose his brothers’ malfeasance. Faced with two unpalatable options, Joseph chose to let his father continue suffering his loss rather than create new pain and family drama by bringing his brothers’ misdeeds to light. I’m not sure I would make the same choice, but I can see the arguments on both sides.

Still, we are left to reckon with the final phase: once his brothers come down to Egypt, and he learns of his father’s state, how can he justify dragging out the revelations rather than immediately announcing his return? Here we must consider how Jacob would react to this news, now that twenty-two years have passed. Stop and think: how would you feel, how would you react, if you received news like this? Even if we focus only on the good-news side of the equation – Joseph is not dead! He’s alive! And he’s rich and powerful! And we’re going to go live with him! – even then, it’s not hard to imagine Jacob suffering shock or worse at the suddenness of the news. Indeed, the verse tells us that when he hears of Joseph’s position וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ, “his heart stopped.”[3] Some commentaries read the strange manner in which the brothers share their news with Jacob as their beginning to hint and suggest, and allowing Jacob to come to understand on his own that his beloved son Joseph is still around.[4]

Their suggestion brings to mind a little-known but beautiful midrash:

[Jacob’s sons] came to the boundary of the Land, and one person said to another: “What shall we do about this in front of our father?  For if we come to him suddenly [with the news that Joseph is alive] he will be very disturbed by our words and will be unable to hear us.”

They went until they drew near to their homes and they found Serah bat Asher who was coming out to meet them; and the young girl was extremely good and wise and knew how to play the harp.  And they called to her and she came to them and kissed them.  And they took her and gave her a harp and said: “Come before our father and sit in front of him and play the harp and speak and sing these things in front of him.”

And they instructed her to return to their home, and she took the harp and hurried ahead of them and went and sat before Jacob.  And she played the harp well and sang in a pleasant voice, “My uncle Joseph lives, yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt,[5] truly.”  And she continued playing and singing and saying these things, and Jacob heard her words and they soothed him.

And he heard her words more, a second and a third time, and the joy entered Jacob’s heart from the pleasantness of her voice; and the Divine Spirit rested upon him and he knew that all her words were correct.  And Jacob blessed Serah bat Asher for saying these things before him, and he said to her: “My daughter, death shall have no power over you forever; for you have revived my spirit.  Now speak again before me as you have spoken, for I am gladdened by all your words.”  So she continued to play things like these, and Jacob listened and he was soothed and happy and the Divine Spirit rested upon him.[6]

This midrash suggests something startling but true: even good news can, potentially, prove disturbing or unsettling. No matter what information we might need to relay, it is important to consider how it will be received; how we speak is at least as important as what we have to say.

This midrash is only the beginning of Serah bat Asher’s saga. As Jacob’s blessing suggests, she has a long life with many adventures still ahead of her, and this is far from the last time that she will prove to be a savior. But those are stories for another time. Here, she offers us a simple but powerful example of communication that manages to be direct and compassionate at the same time. Her gift, for which her grandfather rewards her, was to understand his needs and shape her message accordingly. Just as Serah went on in eternal life, her lesson proves as true and valuable today as it did in the time of our ancestors.

[1] Or HaHayyim, Gen. 45:26.

[2] Berakhot 43b.

[3] Gen. 45:26.

[4] Haamek Davar, Gen. 45:26; Kerem HaTzvi, Vayigash p.130.

[5] Gen. 45:26.

[6] Sefer HaYashar, Vayiggash. Click here for the Hebrew text.