Our parasha for today is VaYigash, a Hebrew word that means, “and he drew near.” It covers Genesis 44:18 through 47:27.
When Rabbi Erez invited me to speak this week on this parasha, I was pleased to be given the opportunity. First, because it is a portion I’ve taught on before, two or three years ago, before I moved here to Sh’ma Y’israel. And second, because it is a portion of Torah that I felt I could teach on better than I had the first time.
The most important theme I drew from the Torah portion this week is that of surrender. Now, in the eyes of the world, surrender can only mean one thing: defeat. An inability to overcome the odds against you and succeed in spite of them. In essence, and put in the simplest way possible, surrender in our culture means giving up, losing, ceasing all struggles and accepting one’s fate.
The question this week’s Torah reading forces us to examine is, is surrender always a bad thing? What I’d like to suggest is that the quality of life that follows surrender depends upon the nature of who one is surrendering to.
If you are surrendering to one who is merciful and generous in victory, one can expect a life of ample provision and cheerful service. If you are surrendering to one who is, by contrast, harsh and without concern for the well-being of his newly-won subjects, then life can become quite difficult.
The first surrender we witness in this week’s Torah reading is that of the sons of Israel to Yosef. Now, to this point, Yosef’s brothers have not recognized him for who he is and Yosef himself has not yet revealed his own identity. So when Judah steps forward to speak with Yosef and surrender to the court of Pharaoh, Judah has no reason to expect a tender response. This potential for fear is reflected in Judah’s words, when he acknowledges that Yosef could have easily decided to have him and all his brothers killed if he wished.
Now, in the text of the Torah, Judah is both complimentary and immediately submissive in his surrender. However, some sources of Jewish tradition suggest this was not immediately the case.
I’d like to share part of such a tradition preserved for us in the Aramaic targum known as Neofiti B’resheet. For those of you who are unfamiliar, allow me a moment to explain. The targumim were a set of spoken paraphrases, explanations, and expansions of the Jewish scriptures that a rabbi would give in the common language of the listeners, which during the time of this practice was often, but not exclusively, Aramaic. This become necessary near the end of the last century before the Common Era, as Aramaic grew in usage among the people of Israel. These renderings were at times very loose translations because the rabbis of that day felt it was more important to get the meaning and common understanding of the Torah across to the listener, rather than preserving an exact, word-for-word representation.
For example, if the Torah verse said, “A star shall rise out of Ya’akov,” and the rabbis agreed that the intent of the verse was a reference to Messiah, in the Aramaic targum, they would translate that verse very directly as, “Mashiach will rise out of Ya’akov,” so that the true meaning and intent of the verse was preserved in the translation, even if the exact phrasings were not.
Also, as is the case with this week’s portion, sometimes a targum would preserve an entire midrash, an interpretive teaching that helps shed light on the understanding of the text that the rabbis of that era held to. So, while the Aramaic targums are not as reliable as the Torah itself, they are useful for capturing a snapshot of how the Torah was being taught in the century leading up to the birth of Yeshua. This, in turn, helps us understand the Torah in the light of the first-century Judaism that was commonly understood by Yeshua and his Talmidim.
Does that help? Good.
Now, returning to our portion, in the Targum Neofiti, a midrash expanding on Judah’s confrontation with Yosef is preserved, and it suggests Judah was not immediately submissive. Remember, Yosef has just ordered them to surrender Binyamin, the last living son of Ya’akov and his favorite wife, Rachel… as far as Ya’akov knew, because he believed Yosef to be dead. It reads, in part, like this:
Targum Neofiti – B’resheet 44:18
And Judah approached him, raging in words and contrite in tongue. He roared like a lion and said, “I beseech, my lord, let your servant now speak a word; and, my lord, let not your anger be enkindled against your servant. Did you not say to us from the first time we came to you, “From before the L-RD I fear’? And now your judgments have turned to become like to the judgments of Pharoah, your master.” … Perhaps it has not been said to you, and perhaps it has not been heard by you, what my two brothers, Simeon and Levi, did in the fortress of Shechem, that they entered into it and killed every male in it, because within it they defiled our sister Dinah, who is not of the number of the tribes and who has no portion and inheritance in the division of the land. How much more for the sake of Binyamin, our brother…?”
The passage goes on with Judah basically threatening to kill every male in Egypt, starting with Yosef and ending with Pharaoh, if Yosef does not relent. Eventually, toward the end of the passage, Judah calms down and becomes more contrite as the Torah narrative resumes.
Why would the targum preserve this tradition? To show that Judah is not a person to meekly surrender; to further illustrate how passionate he is about not wanting to bring on his father the grief of losing his beloved Binyamin.
Now, whether this tradition about Judah is accurate or not, we know what the Torah says happens next. Judah finally lays out the truth before Yosef; that the demand they leave Binyamin behind because of the apparent theft of an object belonging to the court, which Yosef had had planted there to bring matters to a head—to abandon Binyamin to Yosef would mean the death of their father Israel.
Judah then offers up his own life in place of Binyamin’s, demonstrating a selflessness that has not been present before this in the actions of the sons of Israel. He is surrendering himself to an uncertain fate, and in doing this, Judah, in the eyes of Yosef, is also demonstrating repentance; he is showing by his actions that he regrets being the cause of his father losing one of his sons, and does not want to be the cause of him losing another.
Remember, through all this, Judah has no idea he’s speaking to his brother Yosef. So this surrender tells Yosef a lot.
It tells him his brothers regret their past actions which took Yosef out of their lives. It tells him they are not treating Yosef’s closest brother, Binyamin, with the same kind of jealousy with which they treated Yosef, because they are now willing to give up their own lives to preserve the lives of Binyamin and their father Ya’akov.
And it tells him that they are not doing this for show, because at this point they know Yosef only as Zephaneth-Paneah, second in authority in all of Egypt only to Pharaoh himself. Since they do not recognize him as Yosef, the surrender is more meaningful, because they have no assurance of mercy.
Yosef’s response also confirms our suspicions of how time and The L-RD have healed his wounds as well. Yosef no longer holds any bitterness toward his brothers, because no one could hold bitterness in their heart and live before God and man as Yosef did. In this week’s reading, that suspicion is confirmed by Yosef’s actions; in response to the surrender of his brothers to the power and authority he holds over them, Yosef meets his brothers with mercy and forgiveness. We read this in the Torah, in:
So no one else was with him when Yosef revealed to his brothers who he was. He [Yosef] wept aloud, and the Egyptians heard, and Pharoah’s household heard. Yosef said to his brothers, “I am Yosef! Is it true that my father is still alive?” But his brothers couldn’t answer him, they were so dumbfounded at seeing him. Yosef said to his brothers, “Please! Come closer.” And they came closer. He said, “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t be sad that you sold me into slavery here or be angry with yourselves, because it was God who sent me ahead of you to preserve life … God sent me ahead of you to ensure that you will have descendants on earth and to save your lives in a great deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Imagine the shock and relief that must have gone through the sons of Israel! For well over twenty years, they had lived with the regret that comes from the foolish actions of their youth. They had carried the shame so heavily that they could never bring themselves to share the truth of their actions with their father.
Instead, they had maintained the lie of Yosef’s death. And now, after years of not being sure if he was alive or dead themselves, before them stands the very brother they had thought they’d rid themselves of forever. Yosef is not only alive, but is second in authority to the most powerful ruler in the entire region, the Pharaoh of Egypt.
Furthermore, when Yosef reveals himself, he does not meet them with accusations of betrayal, rage, and bitterness, but instead is humbling himself before them, asking them not to be upset, because ultimately it was God who had wanted Yosef in Egypt, to preserve the lives of Ya’akov and his sons.
Consider for a moment just how powerful a portrait of Messiah that Yosef now is. Yosef had been figuratively put to death, while Yeshua was literally put to death. For a time, Yosef was concealed among the nations; similarly, Yeshua has also been concealed among the nations.
When Yosef stands before his brothers, they fail to recognize him until he reveals himself to them. And in the same way, many of us today have Yeshua standing before us through the teachings of both the Torah and the Ha’Brit Ha’Chadasha, and yet can so easily fall short of recognizing Him for Who He truly is.
Zechariah 12:10, 13:1
“and I will pour out on the house of David and on those living in Yerushalayim a spirit of grace and prayer; and they will look to me, whom they have pierced. They will mourn for him as one mourns for an only son; they will be in bitterness on his behalf like the bitterness for a firstborn son. When that day comes, a spring will be opened up for the house of David and the people living in Yerushalayim to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”
Just as with Yosef and his brothers, when Yeshua reveals Himself, both to us and to the Jewish nation as a whole, we mourn that we did not recognize him sooner. We grieve for all we have done to him. Yet, as the passage indicates, a fountain for cleansing from all sin and impurity has been provided, and that fountain is His Ruach HaKodesh, his Holy Spirit.
We can draw confidence in Yeshua’s forgiveness of us by the shadow of messiah cast by Yosef in this Torah portion. Although his brothers never fully forgave themselves, and therefore never trusted in Yosef’s forgiveness of them, what do Yosef’s actions reveal? He moves his entire family to Egypt, arranging with Pharaoh to have them stay not just anywhere, but on the best, most fertile land Egypt at that time had to offer, the land of Goshen.
In the same way, Messiah is preparing a place for us to dwell with him, as He says in:
“In my Father’s house are many places to live. If there weren’t, I would have told you; because I am going there to prepare a place for you. Since I am going and preparing a place for you, I will return to take you with me; so that where I am, you may be also.”
Just as Yosef met his brothers with forgiveness and restoration, so Yeshua meets us. Just as Yosef prepared a place for his family, so that they could all be together, so Yeshua is doing the same for us. For as long as we draw breath, we have time and opportunity for Yeshua to uncover His face and make Himself known to us.
Now, that is often the main emphasis of this parasha; the story of Yosef revealing himself to his brothers. It’s powerful. It’s moving. It’s a clear picture of Messiah in the Torah.
But before I wrap up, I want to draw your attention to the last chapter. After Yosef is restored to his family, the Torah relates how he went on to govern Egypt for Pharaoh.
We are told that at first the people came to Yosef and bought grain with money; when they ran out of money, they begged Yosef for mercy and Yosef agreed to accept their livestock in exchange for grain. When their livestock ran out, Yosef accepted their land as payment, and when they had nothing left, he made them servants of Pharaoh, purchasing their loyalty at a price.
At first glance, such behavior does not seem very Messiah-like, and it does not seem to fit in with Yosef as a shadow of the Messiah. After all, these people are starving, and Yosef seems only interested in accumulating assets for Pharoah.
Yet, on the contrary, I believe the Torah is giving us a very clear picture of the Messianic kingdom. Like Yeshua, Yosef’s mission is to do what? To build the kingdom. What Yosef does is that he gives people a choice; surrender all they have and live, or hold on to their possessions and perish.
Ironically, once they have surrendered all they have, and have put Pharaoh in his place as their ruler, they receive all they have surrendered back to them, with Pharaoh keeping only a fifth of their produce as a direct asset for the kingdom.
If one saw this purely on the human level, it would seem like the act of a ruthless man in pursuit of the things of this world; a man gathering money, livestock, land and the loyalty of the people because he had them over a barrel, their only other option being death by starvation.
And yet remember the words of Yosef to his brothers.
“It was God who sent me ahead of you to preserve life … God sent me ahead of you to ensure that you will have descendants on earth and to save your lives in a great deliverance.”
Consider how much that is reflective of Messiah’s purpose, as we find this in the words of:
The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, life in its fullest measure.
The shadow of Yosef echoes here in the words of Messiah Yeshua, just as the words of Messiah Yeshua are seen in Yosef’s actions in this week’s Torah portion. Yosef was sent into Egypt to preserve life. Yes, that includes the life of Ya’akov and the rest of his family, but the last chapter of this parasha makes clear that it also includes all life in Egypt and the surrounding territory.
The kingdom of Pharaoh expanded greatly under Yosef’s influence, because he worked to build and strengthen and expand his master’s kingdom. In the same way, Yeshua has done likewise, raising knowledge of the God of Y’srael from the borders of Y’israel out to the entire world.
And while many assume that the “grace of God” is free or at least cheap, this week’s Torah portion reminds and corrects us on that false assumption. Too often, we look at our lives and what we have and grudgingly, if at all, hand a tithe back to the community we’re a part of. But what this passage illustrates is that we don’t “owe God a tenth” anymore than the Egyptians “owed Pharaoh a fifth.”
Because, like those in Egypt, we were bought by God. Not just ten percent of ourselves, not just a fifth of ourselves… we give up all we have and become the sole property of haShem. All we have, all we are, all we ever will be… belongs to haShem.
We read this in:
Then Yosef said to the people, “As of today I have acquired you and your land for Pharoah. Here is seed to sew your land.”
This is a very accurate and telling picture of how things would be in the time in the desert, as well as how things would be in the land of Y’srael, how they ought to be in our Messianic communities, and how things will be in the World to Come. In the world as God desires us to live in it, no one goes hungry… and everyone belongs completely to the L-RD.
This sentiment is reflected in the teachings of the Talmidim of Yeshua. As Rav Sha’ul writes in:
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Or don’t you know that your body is a temple for the Ruach HaKodesh who lives inside you, whom you received from God? The fact is, you don’t belong to yourselves; for you were bought at a price. So use your bodies to glorify God.
This is the second instance of surrender in this week’s Torah portion. And again it shows that when we surrender to the right people … to God, who is merciful and kind, generous and full of forgiveness … surrender doesn’t have to be a death-knell of defeat.
When we surrender ourselves to HaShem, and the living Torah, Messish Yeshua, it means nothing less than life to us… life in its fullest measure, and life in the World to Come.