Parshat Vayigash 5780
By way of background, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had two consecutive baffling dreams, which even his wise men could not satisfactorily interpret. Pharaoh’s butler then recalled having two years earlier been in prison with Yosef, who had accurately interpreted the dreams that he and the baker had had. The butler told Pharaoh about Yosef and that Yosef would surely know the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams. Sure enough, Yosef interpreted the dreams in a way that made sense to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh was so impressed with Yosef that he on the spot made him his second in command.
Pharaoh’s first dream concerned seven healthy, beautiful cows that came out of the Nile followed by seven scrawny, ugly cows. The scrawny cows devoured the healthy ones, yet remained as scrawny as before.
In Pharaoh’s second dream, seven healthy ears of grain were consumed by seven thin and beaten ears of grain. Once again, the thin and beaten ears looked the same despite having just consumed the healthy ones.
Yosef explained that the two dreams were really one, and that the seven healthy cows and ears of grain together symbolized seven years of plenty. Egypt would experience unprecedented prosperity for the next seven years. After that, however, would come seven years of extreme famine, so severe that the seven years of plenty would be forgotten. The reason for the double dream was that these events were imminent.
Having the king’s ear, Yosef advised him to store all the extra bounty during the plentiful seven years so that it would be available for sale during the seven years of famine. Because Pharaoh did not know how to preserve grain for so long without it rotting or being eaten by mice, he would need to rely on Yosef to do so. The Midrash tells us that Yosef knew the secret of mixing some of the earth in which the grain grew with the grain. This would preserve it for many years.
Pharaoh realized that he was speaking with a very wise person, and put him in charge of storing and selling the wheat.
This miraculous turn of events symbolizes Jewish history. In a split second, Yosef went from a forgotten prisoner to a ruler, second to the king, over the greatest empire. HaShem’s salvation can happen in the blink of an eye. This is possible with the nation as a whole, and with each of us.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabah 89:1) gives us an insight into the process.
“קֵץ שָׂם לַחֹשֶׁךְ” (איוב כח, ג): זמן נתן ליוסף כמה שנים יעשה באפילה בבית האסורים. כיון שהגיע הקץ, חלם פרעה חלום”
The Midrash quotes a verse in Job 28:3, “HaShem sets a limit to the darkness.” Yosef was to be in prison for a limited time; when that time was up, Pharaoh had his dreams.
Before the darkness even sets in, there is a limit to how long it will reign. We may not know exactly what time sunrise will be, but we do know that the sun will come up at the end of the night. Additionally, it gets darker just before the sun rises. Similarly, when HaShem puts us in a difficult situation, there is a limit set beforehand as to how long it will last.
The stage was now set for Yaakov and his family to come to Egypt for the slavery that had been foretold to Avraham.
Yosef had become Egypt’s ruler, and the seven-year famine had begun. Egypt now had enough food stored up to sustain the entire region thanks to Yosef. And because Yaakov and his family were going to need food at some point, they would have to venture to Egypt to get it.
When Yosef’s brothers came to Egypt to purchase food, he recognized them but they did not recognize him. Yosef immediately saw that something was amiss. In his dream, he saw eleven stars bowing down to him, but there were only ten brothers here. Binyamin was missing. To bring Binyamin to Egypt, Yosef accused them of being spies. To prove to him that they were not spies, they would have to bring their brother Binyamin back with them to Egypt when they next came. To guarantee their return, Yosef imprisoned Shimon, and sent the rest of them home with food and, unbeknownst to them, their money.
During the seven plentiful years, Yosef stored the grain in government warehouses, where it was carefully guarded and rationed. All food in Egypt was under government control. No individual, especially foreigners, could access the food without permission and payment. When one came to purchase food, he would deposit his donkeys with the officials, see Yosef, pay his money, and receive the donkeys back loaded with the purchased food per Yosef’s instructions. For his brothers, however, Yosef commanded those in charge of loading up the donkeys to secretly return their money to their saddle bags with the food. The brothers were dumbfounded when they discovered the money, and on their next trip to Egypt to purchase food, they brought the money back, thinking that it had been a mistake.
They returned home without Shimon, reporting to Yaakov how the difficult ruler of Egypt had accused them of being spies. To prove their innocence, they would need to return to Egypt with Binyamin. Hearing this made Yaakov very unhappy. He had only two children from his beloved wife Rachel. Yosef was gone, and now, Binyamin, her remaining son, would be in danger. This was initially unthinkable to Yaakov, but after much deliberation and discussion with his sons, when they were desperate for more food, Yaakov finally relented to let Binyamin go, but only after Yehudah took responsibility for his safe return.
The brothers returned to Egypt with Binyamin, and everything went well with the ruler. Soon they were on their way home with Shimon and Binyamin and their new ration of food. They didn’t get very far, however, when they heard the sound of horses galloping after them. Who was this chasing them? None other than the ruler’s men! “What could they possibly want from us?” they said. They quickly found out. The ruler’s horsemen had a very serious allegation against the brothers: “How did you have the gall to steal the ruler’s goblet?”
“The what?” came the response. “We would never do a thing like that! The one with whom you find the goblet will be put to death, and the rest of us will be slaves to your master!”
After a thorough search of their saddle bags, the goblet was discovered in Binyamin’s. The brothers were brought back to Yosef who scolded them for stealing something so precious and dear to the ruler. “How could you think that I wouldn’t notice it missing?”
Something is very perplexing here. The brothers knew that they had no control over their donkeys. They were deposited, and retrieved with whatever the workers put into their saddle bags. They knew this from the money that they found in their bags the first time that they came. So how did the brothers so passively just accept the guilt and agree to be slaves to Yosef? It would seem that they would be able to easily prove their innocence. How could they have gained access to their donkeys? They were under government control!
Yet, the brothers were prepared to accept the idea that they would be slaves for a crime that they did not commit, because they understood that nothing could happen to them if HaShem did not want it to happen. Even though someone had falsely framed them, it was HaShem’s will, and there must be a valid reason for it. It must be a punishment for a crime that they had committed.
The brothers did not have to look far for the source of the problem. They had already identified it. Yehudah explains this to Yosef when he said,
“הָאֱלֹקים מָצָא אֶת עֲוֹן עֲבָדֶיךָ”
“HaShem has found the sin of your servants.”
Yehudah acknowledged that they were guilty of a crime. “We understand that it is not you who is doing this to us. It is our problem because we are in need of atonement for not having had mercy on our brother. You are just the stick that HaShem is using to hit us.”
Yehudah, the brothers’ leader and spokesperson, tried to clear Binyamin of the crime by telling Yosef that if Binyamin had stolen it, he would not have put it in his own saddle bag. Binyamin is the least likely person to have stolen the goblet, so he should go home to his father, and the rest of us will remain as slaves to pay out the sentence.
Yosef would not hear of it, saying, “That would be unjust! Just the one who stole it will be my slave and the rest of you can go home to your father.”
Yosef’s not responding to the logic of Yehudah’s argument, insisting that only Binyamin remain as a slave, threw a monkey wrench into their thinking. Binyamin was not a party to the sale of Yosef! He could not possibly need atonement for not having mercy on Yosef. How is it possible that he is the only one targeted? There must be a different idea at work here.
The brothers realized that HaShem was giving them the opportunity to correct the sin that they had committed with Yosef. Here they were being given the chance to save Binyamin and restore him to his father, the antidote to what they did to Yosef. They would not squander this opportunity. They would spare no efforts to secure Binyamin’s release, even if it meant that they would have to fight against the entire country.
This is where our Parshah, Vayigash begins, and it begins with the words:
וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה
“And Yehudah approached him.” (Genesis 44:18)
Yehudah is the brothers’ leader and spokesman. They all recognized him for his superior leadership qualities. Even when Yaakov later blessed each of his sons, he singled out Yehudah as the king of Israel, stating that all royalty must come from his lineage. What characteristic of Yehudah qualified him to all as a natural leader?
The secret to his special quality lies in his name ‘Yehudah’, which comes from the word “הודאה”, which has two meanings, to acknowledge and to give thanks. Yehudah had the innate ability to acknowledge HaShem’s goodness and thank Him for it, even under the most difficult conditions. When things seemed impossible, Yehudah would inherently acknowledge that this was the Divine plan, and that the situation is exactly what was needed to be to bring forth the next step in his growth.
This is why his mother named him Yehudah. When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she said:
“וַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת ה’ עַל כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה וַתַּעֲמֹד מִלֶּדֶת”
“She conceived again, and bore a son and declared, “This time let me gratefully praise HaShem.” She therefore named him Yehudah; then she stopped giving birth.”
Rabbi Yochanan quoted Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Talmud, Berachot 7b, to say:
“ואמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי, מיום שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו לא היה אדם שהודה להקדוש ברוך הוא עד שבאתה לאה והודתו שנאמר. “הפעם אודה את ה'”
“From the day that HaShem created the world, no one praised HaShem until Leah came and praised Him when Yehudah was born.”
Our Sages ponder this statement’s meaning. We know that Noach, Avraham, and Yaakov all praised HaShem. What could be the meaning of the statement that Leah was the first person to praise HaShem?
Rabbi Shimon Schwab זצ”ל (1908-1995) presents the following explanation.
Yaakov saw Rachel as his soul mate, his Bashert. Lavan tricked Yaakov into marrying Leah, but she was only wife Number Two. Leah was always striving to become more beloved to her husband Yaakov. This is clear from the names that she gave to her children. When Leah gave birth to her first son, she was convinced that HaShem had seen her plight and therefore blessed her with a child to remedy the situation. Surely, after giving Yaakov his first son, he would love her more. The name ‘Reuven’ she gave him, comes from the two words “ראה” and “עניי” which mean “HaShem saw my affliction.”
Leah named her second child Shimon. This is derived from the two words “שמע” and , “שנואה” which mean: “HaShem heard that I am hated.” Apparently, nothing changed in her status after her first son, but now, that she had given Yaakov a second son, this she hoped would remedy the problem.
She named her third son Levi, from the word “ילוה” which means “become attached to me.” Leah thought that now that she had bore Yaakov three sons, Yaakov will have to help her with them. This would attach him to her and bring forth the love that she was seeking from him. We see that Leah is still hoping that this third son will accomplish what the first two did not.
When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she realized that if after giving Yaakov three sons nothing had changed, the likelihood is that it never will change. Thus, Leah made peace with her fate; she would always be wife Number Two. And then, after realizing that, Leah gave heartfelt thanks to HaShem for the undesirable situation she was in. Leah suddenly realized that this was her lot in life and that she needed to thank HaShem for it. This was not the life she wished for herself, but it was the life that HaShem wanted her to have. Therefore, she accepted that this was the very best thing for her, and gave forth a heartfelt “Thank you” to HaShem.
Explains Rabbi Schwab, this is what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai meant when he said that no one thanked HaShem before Leah came along. It is normal to thank HaShem when all is going along swimmingly well, but no one had ever thanked HaShem when things were not the way he wanted them to be. Leah was the first person to do that, and that was the source of the name for her fourth son, Yehudah.
This special ability, to thank HaShem for every situation no matter how dire, became the essence of Yehudah and what equipped him to be the leader of his brothers and the king of the Jewish people. This ability stems from the realization that each situation, no matter how difficult, is not the product of chance or someone else’s mistake; rather, it is the exact prescription that HaShem has prescribed for the next step of growth.
The Sfas Emes explains that this is why we are called “יהודים”, Yehudim, Jews. We all have this trait inherently within us.
“וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה”. מלשון הודאה והוא כל איש ישראל”.
He then quotes his grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim, who provides the strategy for someone in trouble to approach HaShem about it.
“שמעתי מאא”ז מו”ר זצלה”ה שנקראו יהודים על שם שמודין להשי”ת על כל דבר קטן וגדול שיודעין שהכל ממנו ית’ כו’. ועי”ז יכולין ליגש. וזה עצה בכל שעה צר והסתרת פנים לכל איש ישראל. העצה להתבטל לרצון השי”ת ע”י שמברר האדם אצלו שגם בתוך ההסתר יש חיות מרצון השי”ת.”
“I heard from my grandfather that we are called ‘Yehudim’ because we acknowledge HaShem in every matter, big or small, understanding that everything is from Him. And with that understanding, we can approach HaShem. This is the best advice in times of difficulty and when HaShem is hiding Himself from us. The idea is to humble oneself to the will of HaShem, and to bear in mind that within this darkness you will find the will (the light) of HaShem.”
There is a very deep concept hidden here. The light is hidden in the darkness, and the only way to discover the light is to first sit in the darkness. The source of the light is the darkness.
As it says in the verse in Michah 7:8, “Though I sit in darkness, HaShem is a light unto me”.
On this the Midrash (Midrash Tehilim 5) comments,
“כִּי אֵשֵׁב בַּחֹשֶׁךְ ה’ אוֹר לִי”: אלולא שישבתי בחשך לא היה אור לי.”
“Had I never sat in the darkness, I would never have seen the light.”
The darkness is the source of the light.
This was Yehudah’s strategy when he approached Yosef to release Binyamin and accept Yehudah as a slave instead. He accepted HaShem’s decree and appealed to Him to bring forth the light from the darkness.
This is exactly what happened.
Yosef was so touched by the brothers’ efforts on Binyamin’s behalf that he was convinced that they had properly repented for having sold him. He could not hold back, and with flowing tears he revealed himself to his brothers.
This concept also applies to the Chanukah holiday we just celebrated. When the Greeks sought to make us forget the Torah by darkening our eyes with their decrees, and all looked lost, a handful of holy people took on the powerful Greek army. Through their miraculous victory, they revealed HaShem’s hidden light in the world. This hidden light was eternalized through the miracle of the oil of the Menorah, which miraculously lasted for eight days.
Had we never had this battle with the darkness, we would not have experienced the light of Chanukah that illuminates the darkness of our exile and represents the eternity of the Jewish people. Thousands of years later, we, the Jews, are still here, lighting our Menorahs, and singing about how the Greeks tried to destroy us, while the Greeks are nowhere to be seen. Once again, the darkness was the source of the light.
We need to always remember, that the dark and difficult times are not designed to defeat us, rather they provide us with an opportunity to bring forth from the darkness a greater light.