These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Appreciate the Question!

Posted on December 11, 2010 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

I hope you are all recovering from the oil-filled foods from Channukah. I know that I’ve had more than my share of those miraculous treats!

Late last week, I was learning the parsha with a dear friend of mine, Chippy, and we were reading small sections and asking questions, reading further on and asking more questions — about the narrative, the psychology of the characters involved, the ideological implications of the text — without really coming to any solid conclusions. And now, as I sit down to write this weekly blog piece, I think to myself: Why do I always feel compelled to share an idea or an interpretation of a difficulty or question in the parsha? Why do I always jump to finding an answer?

Therefore, I’d like to invite us to follow the teaching of my beloved teacher Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and “APPRECIATE THE QUESTION”.

[Disclaimer: I will attempt to list a number of questions that arise in Parshat Vayigash, but you’re welcome (and encouraged) to choose one or two and mull over them.]

  • What does the verb ויגש (vayigash) mean? Why does the root of this word appear so many times in the parsha?
  • Why does Judah describe his youngest brother, Benjamin, as ילד זקונים קטן (yeled zkunim katan)?
  • Is there any literary or ideological connection between Joseph being described as בן זקונים (ben zkunim) and Benjamin being described as ילד זקונים קטן (yeled zkunim katan)?
  • What’s the significance of Judah’s description of Benjamin and Jacob’s relationship as נפשו קשורה בנפשו (his soul was bound up/connected to his soul)?
  • The language Joseph uses to ask the question העוד אבי חי (Is my father still alive?) is strikingly similar to a popular Jewish song “עוד אבינו חי”? Is there any connection between the two? If so, what is it?
  • Why does the Torah suddenly refer to Jacob as Israel in the middle of the parsha? And why does it go back to Jacob later on?
  • In the list of genealogies of Jacob’s descendants, each of his children are listed in relation to their mothers. But each of these clauses which describes Jacob’s wives is different. For example, the Torah says “these are the sons of Leah whom she bore to Jacob” versus “these are the sons of Zilpa whom Lavan had given to Leah his daughter”. What accounts for this difference?
  • How does Benjamin’s relationship with his father and his brothers compare to that of Joseph before he was sent down to Egypt (and now)?
  • Why does the Torah bother telling us that Benjamin was the child who “alone is left from his mother, and his father loves him”?
  • Why is Judah so concerned with his father’s well-being and specifically how taking Benjamin away from him will affect his father’s health?
  • Why does Jacob say that his son was taken away and “he hasn’t seen him since”? Isn’t that a weird way to describe someone who’s presumably dead?!
  • Why does Joseph ask if his father is alive? Clearly he knows from the brothers that Jacob is still living!
  • When Joseph finally breaks down in front of his brothers and reveals himself to them, why does he say “I am your brother Joseph — it is me, whom you sold into Egypt.”?
  • And why does Joseph continue to say to them: “Don’t be distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider (?) that God sent me ahead of you”? Is this a guilt trip? Or some kind of psychologically validating moment for Joseph? What does the word למחיה (“provider”) mean here?
  • What does the Torah mean when it says that once Jacob saw the wagons Joseph had sent to transport Jacob to Egypt, Jacob’s “spirit was revived”?
  • Right after Jacob decides to go see Joseph, he receives a reassuring message from God that everything will be okay, despite his leaving Canaan. Why does Jacob need this message? Or why does God communicate this message to him altogether?

And the million-dollar questions….

  • What does this saga of Joseph and his brothers tell us about our own familial relationships? How they are or how they should/not be?
  • And how does this family’s story relate to others in the book of Genesis?

As we say in the Haggadah, צא ולמד – go out and learn!

As always, I welcome further questions and/or your interpretations and resolutions to these queries.

Shavua tov,