Posted on December 21, 2012 by The Director of Digital Media
Parshat VaYigash has for a long time been a parsha that I have a special connection with. Not only is it my bar mitzvah parsha (20 years ago this year), but it was also the parsha the week following my wedding. After our wedding in Los Angeles, Aviva and I, who had met in Jerusalem the year I spent studying at Pardes, decided to finish out our week of sheva brachot in Israel. As such, we arranged Shabbat morning services in the Beit Midrash of Pardes, where we would be able to gather our friends together to celebrate and I would also be able to read the entirety of my bar mitzvah parsha. I mention this also as some of the insights I will attempt to share below were inspired by the words of my dear friend, Aharon Horwitz, who gave a dvar torah on a similar topic that very Shabbat morning in honor of our week of sheva brachot.
At this point in Sefer Breishit, we are nearing the end of the personal stories of the avot and imahot, soon to transition to the national narrative of the Israelite people. The past number of chapters have been focused on the story of Yosef and his brothers, culminating in this week’s parsha, during which Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers after putting them (and, knowingly or unknowingly, his father) through tremendous emotional upheaval. With the reunification of the brothers complete, the spotlight then returns to Yaakov (by now renamed “Yisrael”), the last of the forefathers. Before this reappearance, Yaakov had virtually disappeared from the narrative after the tragic disappearance of Yosef, the first and treasured son of Yaakov’s beloved wife, Rahel. In fact, after being informed and finally convinced of the living and breathing existence of his son Yosef, the text informs us “ותחי רוח יעקב”, that Yaacov’s spirit (vigor/sense of purpose/motivation for living) was reestablished. This is where we will pick up the story:
[expand title=”Genesis 45, 46 (בראשית מה, מו)”]
כח וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב עוֹד יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת
א וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָּׁבַע וַיִּזְבַּח זְבָחִים לֵאלֹהֵי אָבִיו יִצְחָק
ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאֹת הַלַּיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי
ג וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה כִּי לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם
ד אָנֹכִי אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה וְאָנֹכִי אַעַלְךָ גַם עָלֹה וְיוֹסֵף יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ
|28 “Yisrael said: Enough! My son Yosef still lives! I will go to see him before I die”.
1 Yaakov set out with all that was his. He arrived at Be’er Sheva and offered offerings to the God of his father Yitzchak.
2 The Lord said to Yisrael through visions of the night, ‘Yaakov, Yaakov.” He (Yaakov/Yisrael) responded, ‘Here I am.’.
3 He (God) said: ‘I am the God of your father; Do not fear of descending to Egypt, for a great nation I will make you there.
4 ‘I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will surely bring you back up, and Yosef will lay his hands upon your eyes.’”
A number of questions arise amongst the commentators concerning these verses. The first major question is: What prompts Yaakov to stop along his journey to Egypt? In other words, after learning that his beloved son Yosef was not lost to him but was indeed still alive, why does he stop at all?! He has even stated, emphatically, that he must see his son before he dies of old age—how can he delay?! And, why does he choose to stop specifically in Be’er Sheva, to offer offerings to the God of, specifically, his father Yitzchak (as opposed to “God of my fathers” or simply “God” as is frequently seen elsewhere).
In order to answer this question, the Radak (R’ David Qimchi), reminds us that Be’er Sheva is a spiritually significant location for Yaakov’s father Yitzchak. In fact, Yitzchak had similarly set out towards Egypt in response to a famine in the Land of Canaan, only to be told by God in Be’er Sheva (according to Radak, near the southern border of Canaan before crossing into Egypt) to turn back and remain in Canaan. So, following in his father’s footsteps, Yaakov similarly stops in Be’er Sheva to, as it were, “check in” with God to see if he should turn back like his father, or, rather, continue on.
Sensing a much deeper and forward-looking reason for the stop-off in Be’er Sheva, the Ramban (Nachmonides) suggests that Yaakov hesitated in Be’er Sheva because he saw that his family’s relocation to Egypt would be the beginning of the exile, culminating in generations of slavery. From a place of anxiety and fear, then, the Ramban sees Yaakov as offering offerings to the God of Yitzchak, tapping into “פחד יצחק” (“the fear of Yitzchak”) that Yaakov had previously sworn over in the pact with his father-in-law, Lavan (Breishit 31:53). Ramban also reminds us that Be’er Sheva is a meaningful location to Yaakov, as it is the place Yaakov camped during his journey to Haran and received the vision of the ladder and an assurance of protection from God. So, Yaakov purposefully makes a stop in Be’er Sheva, a place where he knows he has had access to divine inspiration before, to “check in” with God, fearing that his self-serving journey to see his long-lost son would be the cause of generations of suffering for his progeny.
Whether seeing this stop-off in Radak’s more local, practical lens or Ramban’s more far-reaching, foretelling lens, it strikes me as a model of a situation of cross-roads that many of us have felt at points in our lives. Yaakov is overcome with passion and emotion upon hearing that he can see his son Yosef again, and feels, very deeply, that he must pick up and move himself (and his entire family) to a completely unfamiliar place, far away from the land to which he feels immensely connected. Yet, Yaakov has hesitations, anxieties, and fears about this life-altering decision, a decision that carries much risk and will affect the trajectory of his life and potentially the lives of those who come after him.
God, very attuned to Yaakov’s fears and anxieties, immediately appears to him to tell Yaakov that God will “personally” be with him and with the generations after him as a blanket of reassurance and protection. Essentially, God sees the purity and love contained in Yaakov’s desperate desire to embrace his son and to reunite his entire family once again, and affirms that the other considerations holding him back, while very real, must be pushed aside. As an indicator to Yaakov that God is relating to him on a very intimate level, God calls him by the name he, as an individual, has always had since birth. While Yaakov has a new name, Yisrael (the label that is used to name him in the surrounding context), a name that denotes his role as the father of an embryonic nation, the responsibilities associated with that name need to take a backseat to Yaakov’s very personal need to see his family put back together before he dies.
Every year, the week leading up to Vayigash, I naturally begin to reminisce, thinking back to both my bar mitzvah and wedding, two signposts for my responsibilities to myself, to my family, and to the Jewish people. When I encounter these few pesukim, I am annually re-inspired to envision a God who is by my side when I may doubt or question the path I’ve laid out for myself. I think about a God who helps give me the strength, encouragement, and resolve to follow my passion and continue on that path.