Presented by David P. Stern 26 December 1998 in Greenbelt, Maryland

Dvar Torah before the reading of the weekly portion.
A separate discussion "The Dark Side of the Story of Joseph,"
further below, was presented at the end of the services.


      Our reading today is Vayigash, the end of the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph is the hero of the hour--his impossible dream, the cause of his banishment, has come true. Now, he who was cast into the pit is a powerful prince in Egypt, and the pride of his family.

      But there is a second hero here, right at the beginning of our reading. He is Judah, who speaks up and offers himself in place of Benjamin: he is the leader, the spokesman of the family. He isn't the eldest--that was Reuben; but Reuben lost his rank for failing to save Joseph, and for other misdeeds as well. So Judah now has the responsibility.

      The family of Jacob thus has two very different leaders, Judah and Joseph. And as we know, that duality persisted up to the time when the bible enters verifiable history, as the division between Judaea and Israel, the northern kingdom of the ten tribes .

      Judah and Judaea, both stayed close to the roots; Joseph and the kingdom of his descendants, both strayed into other spheres, and although for a while they seemed to be a great success, ultimately they did not last.

      The haftarah of Vayigash is from chapter 37 of Ezekiel, where the prophet foresees the re-unification of the lost 10 tribes with Judaea. That prophecy was unfortunately not fulfilled--at least, it hasn't been until now.

      Vayigash, by the way, was my own Bar-mitzvah portion. I had studied Ezekiel in school, and when told that my haftarah was from chapter 37, I said to myself--oh, great! That is the famous vision of Ezekiel, in the valley of the dry bones. It turns out there are two haftaroth in chapter 37. The famous poetic part, the first half of that chapter, is reserved for a rather special occasion--for the Sabbath of Passover. Today we read the second half, which is less distinguished.


The Dark Side of Joseph's story


      This Parashah tells the end of the story of Joseph. He reveals himself to his brothers, his father joins him in Egypt, and the Jews weather the famine in great style.

      Not so the Egyptians. Sure,they too survive, thanks to the grain Joseph had ordered stored during the seven years of plenty. But they pay a stiff price--in return, they give up--first all their money, then all their animals, and finally the land they own, becoming serfs of Pharaoh.

      To us this looks like a crooked deal. We believe in what the US declaration of independence states, that all governments are instituted for the welfare of their citizens. If a government collects grain from its farmers during the fat years--isn't it duty-bound to give it back, no strings attached, when the lean times arrive? After all, it was their own grain to begin with!

      But the world isn't just--it wasn't then, and still isn't. This sort of process still happens, even now. After the fall of Communism, many Russian factories transferred part of their ownership to their workers--but when those workers get hungry, they sell their shares for a pittance, and the shares end up in the hands of just a few people, often the former party big-shots.

      The way Joseph deals with the Egyptians, if you will, is the dark side of his story. He rises to great power, saves the Egyptians from starvation--but he also enslaves them. Is this a job for a nice Jewish boy? And you may further ask--isn't it a bit far-fetched that Pharaoh would elevate an outsider like Joseph to such a high rank?

      Maybe it isn't. Let me digress here for a moment to another story, that of Marco Polo, a young Italian who left his country with his father and uncle around 1270, traveling east. He came back, many years later, a grown man with a fantastic story: his family had reached China, and the emperor of that country appointed him to a high posts in his government, for a while he even was the governor of a province.

      China! It was the end of the known world in those days, and a country known to be unfriendly to foreigners. Would a Chinese emperor appoint an Italian to a high position? During Marco Polo's lifetime, his story was scarcely believed. Today we know that China at that time was a conquered country, having just fallen to the Mongols. Would a Mongol emperor trust his new subjects? Wasn't it much safer to trust a foreigner from distant Italy, who had no local ties and who depended only on the emperor?.

      If Joseph's story is more than a legend, something like that could have happened here, too. Joseph was safe, an outsider, completely beholden to Pharaoh. And we know many more cases, throughout history, where Jews rose to high positions, because they were vulnerable and therefore likely to be loyal. From Samuel the Prince (Shmu'el HaNagid) in the Kingdom of Granada in the 900s--or if you wish, from Mordechai in the book of Esther, if you take that story literally--to "Jud Suess" (Yood Ziss), the "Jew Suess" in the 1700s, there have been quite a few "Josephs."

      Let me expand here on "Jud Suess", whose name was also Joseph--Joseph Suesskind Oppenheimer, confidential advisor to the German prince who ruled the state of Wuerttemberg. The two stories are remarkably parallel--except for their ending, perhaps. Let me read here what the Encyclopaedia Judaica has to say about this latter Joseph.
          When Charles Alexander, who in 1733 became duke of Wuerttemberg, decided to introduce an absolute and mercantile form of government within the territory under his control, Oppenheimer was appointed state counsellor and was made responsible for the direction of financial affairs. In order to free the duke from his dependence on the allocation of the states he endeavored to establish new economic foundations for the state income. ...

          Through his supervision of the division of private property in cases of marriage or inheritance, and his control over appointment of government officials, Oppenheimer sought to enrich the state treasury and concentrate governmental power in the hands of the duke.

          Excercising authority in autocratic fashion, he imitated the life of a contemporary nobleman, dwelling in luxury and splendor; accusations of licentiousness seem to have had some foundation. With the support of the duke, he even made two unsuccessful applications for noble status to the emperor. His efforts to establish an absolute rule based on a system of mercantile economy aroused the fierce opposition of the conservative elements in the country, an opposition that was fanned by the fact that the duke was Catholic while the country was Protestant.

          On March 19, 1737, the duke died suddenly, before his projects could be executed. On the same day Oppenheimer was arrested and charged, principally with having endangered the rights of the country and embezzled the incomes of the state. Although the charges were not adequately substantiated, his property was confiscated and he was condemned to death. Oppenheimer was hanged on April 2, 1738, and his remains were publicly exhibited in an iron cage.

So there you have it. The biblical story of Joseph ends more happily--or does it? Because, remember, when (I quote) "a new pharaoh who knew not Joseph" rose to power, the Jews there were enslaved. If that story is more than a legend--couldn't it be that this was the reaction of the Egyptians to the memory of the upstart Jew who helped Pharaoh enslave them all?

      "Jud Suess" died reciting the "Shma", and we read that the last wish of Joseph was to be buried with his ancestors, in the old land. In the end, both came to remember their roots. But there is a lot more to both stories--and it's not all a sunny memory.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 4 July 2002