Sidra Vayigash:the reassurance of God’s presence in dark times

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said: ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ And God said: ‘I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.’ And Jacob rose up from Beersheba; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had got in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob, and all his seed with him; his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into EgyptGen 46:1-6

Jacob has a number of meetings with God during the night – the first was the dream on the road out to Haran when he was running away from Esau, and a ladder appeared to him that joined heavens to earth, and God delivered a reassuring message to him. The second the dream at the ford of Yabok, when he was returning home to Canaan, wealthy and secure but also anxious about the reception he would get from Esau.  And now here, at Beersheba, God appears in order it seems to reassure him that he will return from Egypt and will become a great nation. It reads to us a little strangely – for we know that Jacob will die in Egypt, and that as a nation they will only leave in over 400 years’ time, having survived a long period of slavery, yet one might read into it that the time in Egypt will be a short respite during the famine. Why? Does God think that Jacob will not cope with the reality of what his descendants will face? Is this vision one that emanates from Jacob’s need for support rather than being a real meeting with God? Is God responding more to the Jacob God first met, the frightened young man who yet was confident enough to tell God that only if God fulfilled the promises made in the dream would he finally believe, rather than to the older man whose world is shaped by the loss of his older son by his beloved wife Rachel; who has been frozen in grief since that time.

Or is the story added into the narrative later as a story to support the enslaved Israelites and ameliorate their suffering?

We have no answers, just as we have no answer for the interchangeable use of the two names Jacob and Israel, so powerful yet so cryptic in this passage. Yet as with all the encounters Jacob has with God during night time journeys, the vision is one we are able to hold on to today – providing reassurance in times of uncertainty, reminding us that we are one link in a chain that goes back into history and will go forward into a future we cannot know.

We are most definitely the children of Jacob rather than those of Abraham or Isaac. Abraham had a stern and all-encompassing faith which seemingly left no room for doubt or anxiety, Isaac lived in the shadow of that faith and his own encounters with God are clearly shaped by it. But Jacob was his own self, a mixture of self-assurance and anxiety, wanting to believe but not being too sure about it, prepared to do a deal with God when it seemed an expedient action.  It is given to few people to believe with certainty, and to fewer still to come to belief through their own experiences, rather than to have it bred into them. Doubt is a colourful strand in the Jewish character, it threads through our narratives and our prayer. Indeed we pray in an aspirational way – hoping to be able to believe rather than asserting that we hold such a conviction.  Whether God ever speaks to Jacob in the night or whether Jacob creates the experience for himself becomes an irrelevant question – what is important is that Jacob is able and willing to create such an encounter (or to believe it when it comes). It is all that is asked of us too – to be able and willing and open to the presence of God when times are at their darkest.

Vayigash: making peace is a process with which we have to keep faith, however unlikely it may seem

Making peace between two hurt and damaged parties must be one of the hardest activities in the world. Often, simply the absence of war must be enough for us, something which may look like peace but which is a far more shallowly rooted plant than we would like to acknowledge.

Sidra Vayigash tells the story of the making of peace between brothers – not a new story in the book of Genesis, and when one looks closely not even a real and complete peace – but at least it is more than the simple absence of war.

The sidra opens with the encounter between the powerful Egyptianised Joseph and his distraught and powerless older brother Judah. Judah cannot bear having to return to his father to tell him that Benjamin, only remaining son of Rachel, is held hostage in Egypt. With an impassioned speech he offers himself as hostage instead. This has an unexpected result – the man before him cries loudly and reveals himself to be the long lost boy who had been so hated by his older brothers they had thrown him into a pit to die a slow and pitiless death, but who had been rescued from that fate and sold into slavery instead. Now he stands before them, the second most powerful man in Egypt, and he is weeping and embracing them and forgiving them and even suggesting that everything had been God’s plan – they bear no fault for what they did.

This is the third meeting of the brothers with Joseph, and one has to ask – what finally prompted him to reveal himself and to effect reconciliation with them? Up till now he had treated them quite cruelly – accusing them of being spies, demanding that Benjamin be brought to Egypt, framing Benjamin as a thief and in an act of summary justice ruling that Benjamin must remain in Egypt, leaving his father totally bereft.

What is the riddle enmeshed within the story for us to untangle here? Is it about revenge? About justice? About the ongoing quest for repentance and forgiveness? And if so, is there real repentance and can we say that there is real forgiveness?

The whole of the book of Genesis speaks of rivalry between siblings, of the terrible situations such jealousy can cause; about the ways that people can continue to live with a partial resolution, and about the quest for a real resolution.

Here in Vayigash comes the resolution par excellence – but even this is not some fairy tale ending, but a qualified and measured response which is part of a longer process.

Joseph meets his brothers three times before he reveals himself to them. Each time he ends in tears which he sheds privately. In the first encounter the brothers have come down to Egypt for food and Joseph is the man in charge of rationing. We are told “when Joseph saw his brothers he recognised them, but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them.” (Gen. 42:7). He accused them of being spies, confined them to jail for three days and then demands that they return to Canaan and bring back Benjamin to Egypt. He is completely unaware of them as human beings – they are objects for his anger and revenge, and tools for him to contact his full brother Benjamin – nothing more. He does not trust them, he does not care about them, he knows nothing much about them and doesn’t try to find out whether they feel bad about what happened to him, or whether they have felt remorse about what their father had suffered with Joseph’s loss.

When he meets them for a second time, Joseph is brought a step closer towards reconciliation. This time he asks some questions which bring him into a connection with his family – he asks about his father’s health. When he sees Benjamin he is overcome by emotion – but he takes care that no one shall see his tears and hurries out of the room to weep in private, then washes his face and returns composed. (Gen. 43:30). It is through Benjamin, his full brother, the one who had not conspired to murder him that Joseph begins to reconnect with his past. But he controls himself and his emotions enough to set a test – in effect he recreates the same scenario that had him sent into slavery as a young boy – he puts the older brothers in charge of the fate of the younger one, what they do will determine his life or death. So he puts his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, sends his steward to retrieve the men and discover the stolen goblet – and now how the brothers respond will be crucial – will they let Benjamin be taken into Egypt and lost to his father, or will they try to save him

And so to the third encounter – Judah, wholly repentant and distraught, pleads with Joseph on behalf of his father who has already lost a child dear to him. He offers himself in place of the boy – and Joseph sees that the brothers really have changed, they have made teshuvah and when given the opportunity to sin again they set themselves against it.   Joseph finally gives way to his feelings and sobs so loudly he can be heard all over the palace. He confronts these Canaanite strangers as brothers and forgives them. There is reconciliation and the book of Genesis is able finally to witness a sibling rivalry that is resolved, to show that with repentance comes forgiveness, and so it is possible to move on in one’s life into new and different places.

But there is more to this story than a happy ending – we know that life is no fairy tale, and neither is bible. The reconciliation between the boys is certainly more than we have ever seen before, but we should not forget that it took over 20 years to achieve, that during it there was much pain and anger, thoughts of revenge and retribution, a clear denial of what had gone on and long term suppression of guilt and responsibility. We know that Joseph did not contact his family – not even his father or his beloved younger brother – who lived with the knowledge that he had gone to his death in a horrible way, that there was no certainty however, no possibility of complete and completed mourning. We know too that Joseph had to struggle with his own feelings about his brothers. A gap of 20 years did not automatically resolve the pain and the animosity – just because time had passed it did not mean that time had healed, and anyway there had been such hostility between them for so long that even before they had placed him in a forsaken pit they were unable to even speak civilly with him.

Having forgiven them he set them up in Goshen, far away from the palace where he continued living. When their father lay dying they had to send for Joseph – evidently he was not a frequent and dutiful visitor to his resettled family, and he waited till his father lay dying before introducing his own two sons to him.

The narratives about rivalry between siblings, begun with the murderous anger of Cain against Abel, finally end here with the tears and embraces of Joseph and his bothers. There is forgiveness and some limit to the ongoing anguish, but all is not sweetness and light. It never is and we would find the bible unbelievable if, after all that had gone on, there would be no hint of the shadowlands of pain left as a result of those relationships over so many years. As Ishmael and Isaac could never fully reconcile, as Jacob and Esau were able to weep and kiss and then go their separate ways, so too there is a boundary to this rapprochement. What makes this story different is that it is enough – there is repentance, there is forgiveness, there is insight, there is an element of acknowledgement of wrongs on both sides.

Making peace is never easy, it doesn’t simply happen, it takes time and it takes insight and it takes some unqualified repentance and some unqualified forgiveness. There will be the urge to punish, to take vengeance, to hide one’s tears in private and present a tough and intractable face in public. There will be the urge to accuse the other of all sorts of crimes, to see them as less than valuable. All this is normal and natural and part of the process, but for peace to come about – even for this curious state of cold peace that we are so used to in our modern world – there has to be a willingness to keep faith with the process, to meet the other side again and again, to keep trying.

The person who broke the impasse between Joseph and his brothers was not Joseph, it was Judah, one of the brothers who had been central to the plot to destroy him years before. Judah, who is our named ancestor, from whom the word Jew is derived. It was Judah who put himself on the line for a more important principle, who offered himself as hostage if it would free Benjamin from slavery and return him safely to the old man who was their father. Judah was the one who took the risk, who took the initiative and approached the harshly judgmental and uncompromising Egyptian potentate if front of him. He is our ancestor and he is our role model. He shows us that even in the most unlikely of situations our insight and our willingness to act upon it, will save us. May we continue his work in our own generation, and help to bring about some form of peace in our own time.