Multiple Meanings in Texts, Multiple Dynamics in Power Relationships: D’var Torah for Parashat VaYiggash

Published Dec 25, 2020
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward

Parashat Va-Yiggash (Bereishit 44:18-47:27)

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, Avodah National Jewish Educator

For the past week, we have dwelled in the strange and tense pause between the beginning of Yehuda’s speech to Yoseph, at the end of last week’s parasha, and the conclusion of his speech, at the beginning of this week’s. This oratory tour de force is the climax of the drama of Yoseph and his brothers; nevertheless, we interrupted it in the middle to wait a week. The odd editorial move of breaking up the two Torah portions in the middle of a conversation invites us to look closely at the power and relationship dynamics unfolding between these two brothers.

The backdrop is that the brothers, on their way home, have been arrested and Yoseph’s royal goblet has been “found” in Binyamin’s sack, after Yoseph’s aids planted there clandestinely to frame him. The brothers, especially favorite child Binyamin, now stand accused before Yoseph, the Egyptian Prime Minister, still unrecognized by his dependent brothers.

Last week’s parasha closes as follows (Genesis/Bereishit 44 and following): 

“Yoseph said to them, ‘What is this deed that you have done?’ Don’t you know that a man like me practices divination?’ Yehuda replied, ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has found the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, servants of my lord, the rest of us as much as him in whose possession the goblet was found.’ But [Yoseph] said, Far be it for me to do such a thing! Only the one in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my servant; the rest of you should go back up in peace to your father.”

[New parashah here.]

“And Yehuda approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, for you are the equal of Phara‘oh.” 

For the sake of brevity, I will not record the sixteen gut-wrenching verses of Yehuda’s telling of their story, emphasizing their father’s suffering, inducing Yoseph to break down and reveal himself to his brothers, but I encourage you to read them on your own

The simple meaning of these verses is that Yehuda, filled with trepidation, pleads desperately and eloquently for mercy on their suffering father, begging the Prime Minister to release Binyamin. The midrashic tradition, however, sees confrontation in Yehuda’s words and tone, as expressed in the following passage in Rashi‘s commentary, explaining Yehuda’s words, “For you are the equal to Phara‘oh” (44:18):

“‘You are as important in my eyes as the king’ – this is the plain meaning. The midrashic reading is: “You will, in the end, be afflicted with leprosy, as Phara‘oh was, when he kept Sarah, my great-grandmother, for one night in the palace.’ Or, another reading: ‘Just as Phara‘oh decrees and does not fulfill his decree, promises and does not perform, so do you. Is this what you meant when you promised to keep your eye on Binyamin?’ Or, another reading:  ‘You are just like Phara‘oh: if you provoke me, I shall kill both you and your master.'”

Rashi includes two different genres of interpretation, the plain meaning (p’shat), reading Yehuda as begging for mercy, and midrash, reading Yehuda as threatening and taunting Yoseph. What does it mean for Rashi to record both interpretations? What does he really think? What is the true meaning of the verse?  

Beneath every text are numerous subtexts. An author creates a text, but does not control the subtexts readers will see through their various pre-existing lenses. The midrashic readings Rashi proposes are voices that Yoseph could have (must have?) heard in Yehuda’s speech. “And Yehuda approached him”: As Yehuda draws near to make his words hit home more personally, whom does Yoseph see? Yehuda is the charismatic leader of the brothers (37:26-27), who showed unanimous hatred for Yoseph when he was a teen (37:4). Yehuda was the one who proposed throwing Yoseph into the pit. Yoseph was not there when Yehuda was humbled by Tamar (38:25-26), so what is aroused for Yoseph when he sees Yehuda approaching him? Despite Yoseph’s awesome power now, has he shaken the fear and trauma of childhood menaces?

When Yehuda speaks, he is begging for mercy from an international monarch. What does Yoseph hear, though? Last week, he named his first-born son Menashe, “because God has made me forget (Nashani) all of my hardship and my parental home” (41:51). One who has genuinely forgotten cannot make a statement like that. Now, the leader of his family comes and tells him that he is like Phara‘oh. Yehuda means to defer humbly to Yoseph’s great stature and authority.  This is the p’shat, the plain, contextual meaning. It is authorial intent. What is triggered for Yoseph, though, when he hears his older brother tell him that he’s just like Phara‘oh?  A shared association for Yoseph and Yehuda with the word “Phara‘oh” is the story they grew up with about God smiting an earlier Phara‘oh with leprosy for holding their great-grandmother Sarah in his house (12:17). To be called Phara‘oh reminds Yoseph where he comes from and how foreign his current identity is; in an Israelite household, “you’re like Phara‘oh” is an accusation. Another subtext is specific to the situation at hand, the question of Binyamin’s future. Yoseph was emotionally stirred seeing his only full brother, Binyamin, the other favorite of their father (43:29-30). When older brother Yehuda approaches and says, regarding Yoseph’s conduct with Binyamin, “You are like Phara‘oh”, Yoseph hears a belligerent subtext of, “You are not a brother, who must be loyal and loving and responsible; you are a whimsical, ruthless Phara‘oh.” Yehuda’s words enter the lens of Yoseph’s ambivalent, conflicted thoughts, to arouse other “texts”. This is Midrash. If, above, I analogized Yehuda to an “author”, then Yoseph, here, is the “reader”. Yehuda’s speech is delivered in conciliatory tones, but heard in combative undertones. Both the p’shat and midrash are “true” and present in the text and this is what Rashi is telling us.

The dynamic between Yehuda and Yoseph goads us toward literary sensitivity, reading texts thickly. It also goads us toward interpersonal and political sensitivity, reading the texts of life thickly. Power dynamics are complex; in any interpersonal dynamic, in the workplace, in communal living, in family, in organizing, in politics, there are multiple power imbalances between parties, often in tension with each other. One person’s p’shat, intended dynamic, is not the other party’s midrash, experience of that dynamic via impact subtexts. All parties must always be reading and living midrashically. 

Shabbat Shalom.


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