Thirteen years ago, back in 2004, I wrote a musing for parashat Vayigash which I entitled Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories. It’s a good read, so do so, but this isn’t a revision or updating of that musing, but rather an expansion of an idea I had challenged myself with in that musing. I considered writing this last week, but it didn’t seem to quite fit with where I wanted to go with Vayigash, so I saved it for this week and Yayekhi instead.
In that musing for Vayigash thirteen years back, I spoke of the lost opportunities that come about due to the strong teleological massaging of the Yosef story to make it a setup for the next book. In that musing, I pondered what would happen if the Yosef story had taken a different path. This could have been a truly great opportunity and PR coup for G”d. Instead, it becomes a lost opportunity, and as I wondered in that musing:
I don’t know about you, but I look at this lost opportunity and scratch my head. Once again a stubborn, capricious and ineffable G”d chooses to go from Ur to Jerusalem by way of China. And generations of Israelites must suffer under the oppressive yoke of Egyptian slavery.
I posited an alternate history that (potentially) obviated centuries of Israelite slavery before we received the Torah and our promised land. This whole story of the Torah could have come to an end much quicker.
So let’s imagine that lost opportunity redeemed. I’m not quite ready to write and complete that alternate history here, but lets’ explore things anyway.
Before I go and lay all the blame at Yosef’s feet, lets’ consider Yaakov’s role. Was he, too, a willing pawn in G”d’s plans? I’m not so sure.
After “confusing” Ephraim and Menashe (and if you need yet another blazing neon sign arrow pointing to the text and saying “later interpolation/redaction to fit the agenda of the interpolators/redactors,” this story, along with almost all of chapter 49 and Yaakov’s prophecies about his sons and their descendants, ought to do the trick) Yaakov says:
וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־יוֹסֵף הִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי מֵת וְהָיָה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּכֶם וְהֵשִׁיב אֶתְכֶם אֶל־אֶרֶץ אֲבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם: וַֽאֲנִי נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל־אַחֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי מִיַּד הָֽאֱמֹרִי בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי
Then Israel said to Joseph: “I am about to die; but G”d will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers. And now I assign to you one portion more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow.”
Now, the commentators tend to read this as Yaakov’s acquiescence to the Divine plan. Might I humbly suggest a different interpretation? I believe Yaakov is subtly saying to Yosef “OK, enough of the Egyptian shenanigans. Get your ass up to Canaan along with the whole mispocha, and starting holding G”d to those promises made to us. You think G”d intended for us to become prosperous and numerous in a foreign land? My impending death will give you the perfect opportunity to get the whole clan back home. You’ve done more than well enough here it shouldn’t be a problem. Why should we stay here when we know how the Egyptians really feel about us shepherds?”
Now, you can counter my thesis by arguing that G”d could have made it clear if G”d wanted Yosef to take the Israelites back up to Canaan because it wasn’t what G”d had planned, but G”d didn’t do that. Perforce, this was G”d’s plan. To which I would counter, yet again, who needs a G”d that insists we go through 400 years of suffering before promises made to us by G”d are kept? The flood, and the destruction of S’dom and Gomorrah already give me enough to really wonder about this G”d. I need another?
To me, it seems Yosef didn’t seem to catch Yaakov’s hints – even with the sweetening of the offer with an extra portion of land. (Scholars argue whether or not this means Yaakov was giving Yosef the status of of firstborn, making Yosef de facto leader of the family, or if this is a misreading of the words sh’khem ekhad, and it actually relates to the actual land of Shekhem. (Remember the Dinah story.) Did Yosef learn of what had transpired there? There are huge philological issues with the standard translation of sh’khem ekhad as “extra portion.” Not to mention the apparent inaccuracy. There is no record of Yaakov having engaged in such a battle with Shekhem. This whole verse smacks of sloppy, careless editing and redacting to fit an agenda (and it even fails at that.) If this verse really does refer to the land/town of Shekhem, and if Yosef really did learn what had transpired there with his sister and brothers, was there an even deeper meaning to Yaakov’s use of this reference in sharing these words with Yosef? Was this a veiled threat to his other sons? It’s like an onion, as always.
Skipping ahead to the end of chapter 49. Yaakov insists he be buried in the cave at Machpelah. To me, that’s another neon-sign arrow. Hint! Hint! Yosef – go home to Canaan and stay there.
But something’s not right about what follows. We can overlook the embalming. That was simply practical, and as some commentators have pointed out, the text distances this embalming from the religious practices of Egypt because it wasn’t performed by Egyptian burial specialists, but by Yosef’s own physicians. (Egyptian embalming and mortuary practices were usually practiced by specialists due to the very religious nature of them.)
וַיַּֽעַבְרוּ יְמֵי בְכִיתוֹ וַיְדַבֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶל־בֵּית פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר אִם־נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם דַּבְּרוּ־נָא בְּאָזְנֵי פַרְעֹה לֵאמֹֽר: אָבִי הִשְׁבִּיעַנִי לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי מֵת בְּקִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרִיתִי לִי בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן שָׁמָּה תִּקְבְּרֵנִי וְעַתָּה אֶֽעֱלֶה־נָּא וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת־אָבִי וְאָשֽׁוּבָה: וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה עֲלֵה וּקְבֹר אֶת־אָבִיךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר הִשְׁבִּיעֶֽךָ
…and when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court saying: “Do me this favor. and lay this appeal before Pharaoh: ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die. Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now, therefore, let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.” And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath.”
But why did Yosef make sure to promise to Pharaoh he would return to Egypt after burying his father? To me that suggests that things weren’t entirely great between Pharaoh and Yosef. (Also, just to be clear, notice that Pharaoh doesn’t appear to verbally insist that Yosef return or even respond to that part of the appeal.)
In Exodus, we will read of how Moshe played shrewd with Pharaoh, asking only that he and his people be allowed to go out a few days journey into the wilderness to worship their G”d. We know this was a ruse, that the objective all along was to take all the Israelites out of Egypt. We might consider that Yosef was offering up to Pharaoh his own ruse, but subsequent details disprove this. Yosef dutifully came back. After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, and his brothers, and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
What a lost opportunity. After thinking it over, I’m not gonna lay any blame at Yaakov’s feet (he has enough baggage already.) No, Yosef just plain blew the chance here. If, indeed, things with Pharaoh were dicey, this was the perfect chance to make their escape. Yosef surely had some delusions of grandeur – well, they weren’t even delusions. He was vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. He had saved Egypt from the famine. Yet he had done so at the expense of the Egyptian people, so they were not likely all that well disposed to the Israelites.
Yes, Yosef and the family had some comforts in Egypt, but it wasn’t home. Why did Yosef and all his family become lulled into a false sense of security when the handwriting was already on the wall? why did Yosef pass up this opportunity to go back home, and become an even greater ruler than Pharaoh. Yosef knew that G”d had shown him favor. Why doubt that G”d would allow Yosef to become an even greater ruler than Pharaoh back in Canaan? What did Yosef fear? Or had G”d revealed the plans to Yosef? (And there is support for this in Yosef’s earlier words to his brothers about it all being for the best in the end.)
Perhaps G”d was frustrated with Yosef that he wasn’t getting the hint that it was time for the Israelites to go back home? As the joke goes “I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter…) Perhaps it wasn’t G”d’s plan at all to have the Israelites suffer for 400 years in Egypt. Perhaps, frustrated with Yosef’s failure to step up and be the leader of his people, and instead prefer to remain in Egypt, G”d threw up G”d’s hands and said, “Fine. Let them stew in their own juices for a while.”
Yaakov tricked his brother into selling his birthright for a bowl of stew. Is it karmic that the Israelites wind up in a stew for Yosef’s sellout to Pharaoh and a more comfortable and safe lifestyle? Thanks Yosef. That’s one pot of stew our people could have avoided.
What are the opportunities that G”d is trying to reveal to us that we are missing, ignoring, or defying? Here, in our own time, the handwriting is on the wall. The storm clouds are gathering. We must not ignore the opportunities that G”d and life present to us in order to prevent, fight, or remain safe through the coming storm. Have we, like perhaps Yosef did, become complacent, mesmerized by our own level of personal comforts?
Yosef’s missed opportunity led to 400 years of hardship for the Israelites. What would be the price of our own failure to miss such an opportunity in our own time? Can we summon the courage that Yosef appeared unable to muster? G”d help us if we can’t. We know the values that G”d wants us to live by. If we fail in that obligation, might G”d look away again and put us though more centuries of hardship? Those of us who have sensed G”d’s message or hints, who have sensed the handwriting on the wall – it is our obligation to bring this message to those around us who cannot or choose not to hear it. Seems we (or perhaps some of us) let one opportunity slip away last November (and let’s not argue the finer points of our electoral system here.) We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the hints. It’s our stew now.
Khazak, Khazak, V’nitkhazeik.
©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayekhi 5776 – Beyond the Threshold
Vayekhi 5775 – Which Last Words?
Vay’khi 5774 – The Puppet’s Unritten Lament
Vayekhi 5773 – The Wrong Good (Redux and Updated 5762)
Vayekhi 5772 – A Different HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayekhi 5771-Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)
Vayekhi 5770 – Musing Block?
Vayekhi 5769 – Enough With the Hereditary Payback Already!
Vayekhi 5767-HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayechi 5766-Thresholds (Redux 5764 with Reflections
Vayechi 5761/5-Unethical Wills
Vayechi 5763 – I Got it Good and That Ain’t Bad (Redux 5760)
Vayechi 5759-Trading Places
Vayechi 5762-The Wrong Good