> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

The Power of an Idea

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The tension which has been building up in the text finally reaches its crescendo. Joseph can no longer contain himself:

Then Joseph could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried, "Remove every man from before me." And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph, does my father still live?" And his brothers could not answer him; for they were panic-stricken by his presence. (Genesis 45:1-3)

While his brothers stand in shock Joseph continues:

And Joseph said to his brothers, "Come near me, I beg you." And they came near. And he said, "I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves that you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For these two years has the famine been in the land, and there will be yet another five years without plowing or harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me an advisor to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. Hurry back to my father, and say to him, 'Thus said your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt, come down to me, delay not. And you shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you, and your children, and your grandchildren, and your flocks, and your herds, and all that you have. And I will sustain you there, for there are another five years of famine; lest you, and your household, and all that you have come to poverty.' And, behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. And you shall tell my father of all my glory in Egypt, and of all that you have seen; and you shall hurry and bring down my father here." (Genesis 45:4-13)

While the initial burst of speech -- the incredible disclosure -- seems to be an explosion of emotion,1 the second part of Joseph's talk sounds more measured, perhaps rehearsed. Here Joseph speaks, not merely in practical, human or personal terms,2 but as the visionary that he is. Furthermore, Joseph's words are peppered with references to God.

While his first words inform his brothers that he, Joseph, still lives, the second message conveyed is that he is still spiritually intact.


* * *



This is part of the brothers' shock: Perhaps Joseph, with great resilience and ingenuity, could have remained alive. But he could not possibly survive the depravity of his sojourn in Egypt.

Part of the brothers' problem vis a vis Joseph was their constant and continued underestimation of him. They never thought they would bow down to him, nor did they think that anyone else would prostrate themselves before Joseph. Joseph as lord of Egypt was an idea beyond their wildest dreams. But if there was a more bizarre suggestion, it was that Joseph would survive spiritually.

The path toward the highest echelon in any society is fraught with spiritual landmines.

The path toward the highest echelon in any society is fraught with spiritual landmines, all the more so in ancient Egypt. If Joseph survived, and indeed flourished, then the brothers surmised that his soul would have been bought and sold numerous times, retaining no sanctity. Joseph would surely be a corrupt shell of his former self, whom the brothers did not particularly respect in the first place.

Now we understand Joseph's numerous references to God. He speaks in theological terms, indicating that he has, indeed, survived. The brothers need not fear: Joseph continues to speak the language of his youth. The boy who sat on Isaac's knee, the boy who was closest to their saintly father Jacob has survived. It is Joseph who lives, not some Egyptian despot. And from Joseph's words we see that not only has he survived, Joseph has thrived.


* * *



Such references to God were not always a part of Joseph's speech. In Joseph's first dream (and indeed, in his first words in the Torah) we find his vision, but no Divine perspective.

And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. And he said to them, "Hear, I beg you, this dream which I have dreamed; For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood around, and made obeisance to my sheaf." And his brothers said to him, "Shall you indeed reign over us, or shall you indeed have dominion over us?" And they hated him even more for his dreams, and for his words. And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, "Behold, I have again dreamed a dream; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me." (Genesis 37:5-9)

Joseph tells of his dreams, but we do not know if God plays a part in his worldview.

But two chapters later, after he has been sold into slavery, Joseph speaks of God when confronted by the advances of the wife of Potifar:

And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, "Lie with me." But he refused, and said to his master's wife, "Behold, my master knows not what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. There is none greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:7-9)

The next time we see Joseph is in his prison cell, where he again makes references to God.

And they said to him, "We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it." And Joseph said to them, "Do interpretations not belong to God? Tell them to me, I beg you." (Genesis 40:8)

After he interprets the dream, he asks the butler to intercede on his behalf and get him out of prison.

The sages perceived in this request a sin on the part of Joseph:

Happy is the man that has made the Lord his trust. [This verse] alludes to Joseph ... Because he said to the butler, "think of me ... and make mention of me," two years were added to his sufferings. (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 89:3)

Joseph, who speaks of God's dominion over all things, including dreams, has sinned in the eyes of the sages, by not trusting sufficiently in God.

Indeed, when the butler recalls the conversation and remembers Joseph's power to interpret dreams, God is not in his (butler's) vocabulary either.

"And there was there with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret. And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored to my office, and him he hanged." (Genesis 41:12-13)


* * *



Over the next few years we discern a change in Joseph. The ideas which he spoke of earlier become solidified. When Pharaoh approaches it is no longer either a personal God, nor a passing reference. Now Joseph succeeds in affecting others with his belief.

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have dreamed a dream, and there is none who can interpret it; and I have heard say of you, that you can understand a dream to interpret it." And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, "It is not in me; God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer..." And Joseph said to Pharaoh, "The dream of Pharaoh is one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do ... This is the matter which I have spoken to Pharaoh. What God is about to do he shows to Pharaoh... And for that the dream was doubled to Pharaoh twice; it is because the matter is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass..."

And Pharaoh said to his servants, "Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom is the spirit of God?" And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "For as much as God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are." (Genesis 41:14-39)

The impossible seems to have transpired. Now not only does Joseph speak of God, but his belief is infectious. The corrupt, self-made deity, Pharaoh, speaks of God. Joseph was not changed by Egypt, Egypt was changed by Joseph.


* * *



This idea is critical in understanding a later chapter in the Torah. When the time for the Exodus had arrived, Moses was instructed to ask Pharaoh for permission to leave for three days:

"...and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him, 'The Lord God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now let us go, we beseech you, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.' And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, if not by a mighty hand." (Exodus 3:16-19)

And afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, "Thus said the Lord God of Israel, 'Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wilderness.'" And Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, nor will I let Israel go." And they said, "The God of the Hebrews has met with us; let us go, we pray you, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice to the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword." (Exodus 5:1-4)

I once heard Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik pose an intriguing question regarding these passages: What would have happened had Pharaoh allowed the Jews to leave for three days? Would they have returned afterward? Would the promise of the Land of Milk and Honey have gone unfulfilled? Would they really have returned to Egypt? Of course, the question is moot: God had already stated that Pharaoh would not acquiesce. Why, then, ask for three days' leave, especially when the object of the Exodus is complete, permanent liberation?

After receiving the Torah, the Jews could have returned to Egypt to reform the pagan country.

The purpose of the three-day sojourn would have been to receive the Torah. After receiving the Torah, the Jewish people would have returned to Egypt. After teaching the Egyptians and impacting, even revolutionizing Egyptian society, they would have continued their march toward destiny, to the Land of Israel. Such a march would have been qualitatively different from the circuitous path they eventually took.


* * *



Had the Egyptians, the greatest nation in antiquity, been sufficiently theologically mature to encourage the Jews to worship God, the path to the Messianic age would have been inestimably shorter. But how could the Egyptians possibly have reached such spiritual heights? The answer is that the prototype for influencing the local population was Joseph.

Just as the name of God reverberates from Pharaoh's lips after one meeting with Joseph, the entire nation should have been spiritually invigorated after interfacing with the Jewish nation over a period of hundreds of years.

This is part of the reason for the exile to have been specifically in Egypt. This corrupt, twisted society would have to be either healed or obliterated in order for a Messianic age to flourish. Our tradition has no illusions about Egypt:3

Do not do the actions of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and do not do the actions of the land of Canaan, where I bring you; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. (Leviticus 18:3)

Similarly when Israel were in Egypt the Egyptians practiced whoring, as it says, Whose flesh is as the flesh of asses (Ezekiel 23:20). When they entered the land of Canaan, the Canaanites practiced whoring and witchcraft, as it says, Because of the multitude of the harlotries of the well-favored harlot, the mistress of witchcraft (Nachum 3:4). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: "My children, be careful that you not act either in accordance with the practice of these or in accordance with the practice of those." Hence it is written, Do not do the actions of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and do not do the actions of the land of Canaan, where I bring you; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. (Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus 23:7)

We have learned that these ten species of wisdom came down to this world, and all were concentrated in Egypt, save one which spread through the rest of the world. They are all species of sorcery, and through them the Egyptians were more skilled in sorcery than all other men. (Zohar, Vayikra, Section 3, Page 70a)


* * *



If Egyptian society could be spiritually healed, the entire world would surely follow suit. Egypt was the epicenter of the ancient world. Unfortunately, the Jews as a people did not rise to the challenge. They were not successful in reaching out to the surrounding culture in any meaningful way and did not reach the spiritual stratosphere, which was Joseph's domain. After Joseph's death, a new Pharaoh arises who knows neither Joseph nor the God of Joseph:

And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation ... And there arose a new Pharaoh over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:6-8)

And Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, nor will I let Israel go." (Exodus 5:2)

With Joseph gone, the possibility of influencing the Egyptians seems to evaporate. By telling the Jews that they are to ask for three days, God is saying that this is the way it should have been: a three-day journey, following the two-hundred-year exile, should have been enough to revolutionize Egypt.

If this seems impossible, they, and we, should remember that Joseph changed Pharaoh's outlook in but one conversation.

The crux of the matter is never to underestimate the power of the idea of God, or for that matter, never to underestimate the power of the Jewish people to convey that idea. The power contained therein is sufficient to change the world, and Joseph's greatness lay in his awareness and use of this power.


  1. The question "Is my father alive?" seems illogical. If Jacob were dead, why would Judah risk his neck to save Benjamin? (return to text)



  2. Joseph speaks twice without response. It sounds as if the two times the verse says "And Joseph said" indicates a change in tone. Similarly in Genesis 20:9-10 Avimelech speaks, and speaks again. The shift there, may be attributed to a change in tone, from cynicism to curiosity. (return to text)



  3. See the Sifra Achari Mot 8 (cited in Rambam Issuri Beah 21:8), where a number of the offenses of the Egyptians are enumerated, including lesbianism, and other sexual rebellions and peccadilloes. (return to text)



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