Bereshit Reflection

I’m officially done with the first book of Tanakh. I feel accomplished (50 chapters down!) and also like I’m definitely still at the beginning of a long journey (879 to go!). This experience has been wonderful so far. I’ve enjoyed rereading familiar stories, and learning new ones. So much of my previous study of Torah has been influenced by commentaries and midrash, so it’s been interesting to read the text on its own and to see what’s actually in it, as opposed to what we’ve added in our minds. Many of the main characters have a presumed status of being good or bad, but so much of that comes from later commentators, rather than what I saw in the text itself.

Writing my own reflections on each chapter has required me to think about how I feel about Tanakh in a way that I haven’t previously. I’ve found parts that disturb me, and parts that inspire me, all in the first book. I’m excited to see what comes next as I move into Shemot (Exodus). There, the majority of the stories are still familiar to me, which makes it a nice way to keep easing into this project.

I believe that the first book of Tanakh is full of dysfunctional families that are supremely real. In Judaism, our heroic ancestors aren’t ideal supermen. They’re inherently flawed, growing, changing individuals, just like the rest of us. It’s been eye-opening for me to see how deep some of the flaws are, and I appreciate each story for its humanness. So much of this book has set up the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and between the people and the land. Reading this chapter as part of a project for Israelis has been even more meaningful based on that, because every day that I’m living here, it’s a fulfillment of the promise that the people would inherit this land. Being part of a distinctly Israeli project in this way has been empowering, in that I, a new immigrant with imperfect Hebrew, who proudly identifies with secular Jewish culture and Jewish pluralism, am able to engage with people all over the spectrum on the book that is our shared heritage and history. I’m excited for the next book, when we transform from a family into the nation that we are today.

Bereshit Fifty: The End of The Patriarchs

Jacob has died, and Joseph is mourning him. All of Egypt joins him in this mourning, and Jacob is embalmed in accordance with Egyptian practice. “And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh, saying: ‘If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying: My father made me swear, saying: When I die; in my grave which I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, there you will bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I pray you, and bury my father, and I will come back.’ And Pharaoh said: ‘Go up, and bury your father, according as he made you swear.’ And Joseph went to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt (Genesis 50:4-7).” It sounds like there’s a major procession from Egypt up to Canaan, which is being done both for Joseph and Jacob’s honor.

Jacob is buried in Machpelah, in accordance with his wishes. Then, having kept his promise to his father, Joseph also keeps his promise to Pharaoh, and returns to Egypt. His brothers, who have come along on the journey to bury Jacob, also return to Egypt. “And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did to him.’ And they sent a message to Joseph, saying: ‘Your father did command before he died, saying: So shall you say to Joseph: Forgive, I pray you now, the transgression of your brothers, and their sin, for that they did to you evil. And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Joseph wept when they spoke to him (Genesis 50:15-17).” It is understandable that the brothers are worried about how Joseph will treat them now that the link that they all shared through their father is no longer present. However, it seems to be inappropriate to make up a deathbed plea in order to negotiate for themselves. Knowing the close bond that Joseph and Jacob had, it’s praying on the deep pain of Joseph’s mourning for their own gain.

Joseph reassures his brothers. “And Joseph said to them: ‘Fear not; for am I in the place of God? And as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear you not; I will sustain you, and your little ones.’ And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:19-21).” It seems that at this point, Joseph is truly content with the actions of the past that lead him to his present status. He is at peace with the idea that it was all meant to be, and while he hasn’t forgotten the past, he has clearly forgiven his brothers.

Joseph lives to the age of 110. “And Joseph said to his brothers: I die; but God will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land into the land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Genesis 50:24).'” Like his father before him, Joseph makes his family promise not to bury him in Egypt, but rather to bring him to Canaan as well. Therefore, when Joseph dies, he is embalmed, but not buried.

With the death of Joseph, Bereshit, the first book of Tanakh, ends. It’s the end of an era, with the time of the patriarchs over, and the people left in Egypt. Now, instead of one family, the children of Israel will truly become the nation that God promised to the patriarchs.

Bereshit Forty-Nine: Blessings and Curses

Jacob, knowing that he is dying, calls together his sons so that he can bless them and share his prophecies about their futures. He goes in each order, and for the first time, we hear specific things about each son. While the more dominant ones are the ones with more detailed blessings and curses, each son still gets called upon by his father in this pivotal moment.

“Reuben, you are my first born, my might, and the first fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it. He went up to my couch (Genesis 49:3-4).” Here, we have an allusion to Reuben’s relationship with Bilhah, which clearly has not been forgotten. It seems as though this act has removed Reuben from the running to maintain the status that comes with being the first born son. Therefore, while Jacob acknowledges the good qualities of his oldest son, and clearly still seems to love him, there is a distance there that cannot be overcome after this act of betrayal.

“Shimon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; to their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel (Genesis 49:5-7).” Shimon and Levi are the only brothers mentioned together. They shared in the violence of the murder of Shechem, and now share the same fate according to their father. With this negative view of them, I’m wondering how, later on, Levi becomes chosen to be the tribe of the priests? This seems to be a great honor, and not one that he would necessarily deserve.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who will rouse him up? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, as long as men come to Shiloh; and to him shall the obedience of the peoples be (Genesis 49:8-10).” This moment sets Judah up for the mantle of leadership that he, and his descendants through his tribe, will have. While Judah is the fourth son, he is the first one who hasn’t significantly hurt his father. Therefore, he is given much of the honor of a firstborn son, proving once again that in this family, it’s not always the actual first son who is deserving of the rights and responsibilities that come with that status.

Jacob moves on to his younger sons. Zebulun is told that he will live by the sea, and Issachar between the sheep. Dan will be a Judge, Gad a warrior, and Asher will be prosperous. Next, Joseph, who has been dealt harshly with, will be blessed, and will remain a prince among his brothers. Finally, Benjamin, the youngest son, is compared to a wolf.

“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them. And he charged them, and said to them: ‘I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife; and there I buried Leah (Genesis 49:29-31).'” This seems like a very long description for Machpelah, which is a place that the brothers presumably know about and are familiar with. I’m wondering if possibly Jacob needs to say all of this for himself more than for them, because he’s feeling insecure about dying in Egypt rather than at home. By reiterating exactly where he should be taken, he reassures himself, more than informs his sons, of his rightful place and home.

“And when Jacob made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered to his people (Genesis 49:33).”

Bereshit Forty-Eight: HaMalach HaGoel Oti

Jacob is now both old and sick. So, Joseph brings his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to visit their grandfather. When the three arrive, Jacob sits up in his death bed and says, “God appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and blessed me, and said to me: Behold, I will make you fruitful, and multiply you, and I will make of you a great nation; and will give this land to your children after you for an everlasting possession. And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Menashe, even as Reuben and Shimon, shall be mine (Genesis 48:3-5).” Jacob is concerned with the fate of his grandsons, and wants to make sure that they’ll be included in the fulfillment of the birthright. So, he claims the two boys as his own, so to speak, in order to keep them as members of the family, even though they were born outside the land.

However, just following this promise, “Israel beheld Joseph’s sons, and said: ‘Who are these (Genesis 48:8)?'” After his impassioned decision to count the boys as his own, it seems odd that he now asks who they are. Nevertheless, Joseph introduces his sons to his father, and Jacob tells him to bring them to him for a blessing. “Now the eyes of Israel were dim from age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near to him; and he kissed them, and embraced them (Genesis 48:10).” This is setting up for a moment that mirrors his own father’s past. Just as when Isaac was old and lost his sight, Jacob also is about to make a mistake between those that he his supposed to bless.

“And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Menashe’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Menashe was the first born. (Genesis 48:14).” He gives his blessing to the boys, which has endured as a lullaby that Jewish parents often sing to their children. The translation is “The angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth (Genesis 48:16).” I encourage everyone to listen to the song version:

Joseph notices that his father has his hands on the wrong heads, and tries to correct him. But Jacob refuses, and says, “I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.” And he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel bless, saying: ‘God make you as Ephraim and Menashe.’ And he set Ephraim before Menashe (Genesis 48:19-20).” This is a blessing that has endured as well. Jewish parents bless their sons on Friday nights with these words. They are not blessed in the names of the traditional patriarchs, but rather these boys. I’ve been taught that this is because Ephraim and Menashe were the first Jews to be raised in the Diaspora, in this case Egypt, and maintain their Judaism. As an outgrowth of that, we, as a people largely formed in the Diaspora of our land, bless our sons to have the strength of character and love of Judaism that these boys did. I personally like this explanation, but see now that this might be the midrash of this original textual moment. We bless with the blessing that Jacob gave directly to his grandsons, something that has been passed down. We aren’t given as much of an explanation in the text itself, but I am personally moved by this example of a tradition I know today, and hope to perform with my own children one day, stemming from the very origins of our people.

Bereshit Forty-Seven: Slavery in Egypt

Immediately following his reunion with his father, “Joseph went in and told Pharaoh, and said: ‘My father and my brothers, and their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have, are come out of the land of Canaan; and, behold, they are in the land of Goshen.’ And from his brothers he took five men, and presented them to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to his brothers: ‘What is your occupation?’ And they said to Pharaoh: ‘Your servants are shepherds, both we, and our fathers (Genesis 47:1-3).'” I’m still not clear on why shepherding, so I decided to research it a little. The prevailing theory seems to be that one of the Egyptian cults worshipped sheep, and therefore took issue with shepherds because in addition to herding sheep, they were generally the ones who killed them. I’m not sure how much this commentary makes sense to me, but it seems that if they engaged in sheep worship, the people who worked with the sheep should be honored rather than reviled.

“And Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, saying: ‘Your father and your brothers have come to you; the land of Egypt is before you; in the best of the land make your father and your brothers dwell; in the land of Goshen let them dwell. And if you know any able men among them, then make them rulers over my cattle.’ And Joseph brought in Jacob his father, and set him before Pharaoh. And Jacob blessed Pharaoh (Genesis 47:5-7).” According to ancient Egyptian belief, Pharaoh was a god on earth. Why, then, would this living god need the blessing of the shepherd from Canaan? What value could Jacob have had in his eyes that he would be the one giving, rather than receiving, a blessing? Was it due to Jacob’s age that he was honored in this way? Or was it his connection to Joseph? Or was there something else that Pharaoh saw in him that caused him to want a blessing of him?

So the family settles in the land, and the famine continues. “And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph, and said: ‘Give us bread; for why should we die in your presence? For our money fails.’ And Joseph said: ‘Give your cattle, and I will give you bread for your cattle, if money fails.’ And they brought their cattle to Joseph. And Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, and for the flocks, and for the herds, and for the asses; and he fed them with bread in exchange for all their cattle for that year (Genesis 47:15-17).” This isn’t the best view of Joseph, who seems to be profiteering from the suffering of the general public. If he had been in charge of gathering the grain for all of Egypt to begin with, shouldn’t the people have been entitled to it?

The famine still rages, and the people have already given Joseph their livestock and their possessions. They have nothing left but themselves and their property, so they say, “Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land not be desolate.’ So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine was sore upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s (Genesis 47:19-20).” Now, we have Joseph effectively creating the institution of slavery in ancient Egypt. Spoiler: this turns out to not have been his best move.

So all of Egypt is starving and enslaved, and Jacobs family is being fruitful and multiplying in Goshen. Awkward juxtaposition. While Jacob and his family are prospering in Egypt, when Jacob realizes that the time of his death is coming near, he calls Joseph to him to make him promise that when he dies, he will bring his body back to Canaan. “But when I sleep with my fathers, you will carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying place (Genesis 47:30).” Joseph promises to fulfill his father’s wish, which I see as highlighting the idea that the time in Egypt was always seen as temporary. Even though Jacob thrived outside the land, he wanted to be back with his fathers, a theme that has continued through all of the years of Diaspora that the Jewish people have experienced.

Bereshit Forty-Six: Reunited and it Feels So Good

“And Israel and all that was his set out and came to Beer Sheva, and he slaughtered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God said to Israel in visions of the night, and He said, “Jacob, Jacob!” And he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation (Genesis 46:1-2).'”

Jacob is on his way to his long awaited reunion with Joseph, and he’s scared. He’s scared of leaving the land that he knows, the familiar home of his father. In this moment he’s almost childlike, and needs to be reassured. I think this is why God, who gave him the name Israel in the first place, addresses him as Jacob at this time. This is the name that his father gave him, and right now at this moment of fear, that’s the name that he needs to hear as a reassurance.

So Jacob goes from Beer Sheva to Egypt with all of his sons and possessions. We are given a list of Jacob’s sons, and their descendants who travel with them to Egypt. And then, a mention of the elusive daughter: “These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, with his daughter Dinah; all the souls of his sons and his daughters were thirty and three (Genesis 46:15).” This is the first mention we have of Dinah since Shechem, and it indicates that she’s been there, in the clan of Jacob, all along. I wonder what she’s been doing for the years since then. If she’s going down to Egypt with Jacob’s family, does it mean that she wound up marrying and bringing a husband into the tribe for real? Or has she been living as a spinster? What did the silent daughter think about all of the antics of her brothers? I’m not surprised that modern midrash has been fascinated with her story. It’s easy to dream about these stories through Dinah’s perspective, specifically because she was there, in the shadows, but neither seen nor heard.

In total, sixty-six people (not including the wives of Jacob’s sons) come into Egypt. Jacob sends Judah ahead to Joseph, to show the rest of them the way. And now, we have the big reunion: “And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; and he presented himself to him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. And Israel said to Joseph: ‘Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are yet alive (Genesis 46:29-30).'” Finally, after so many years, father and son are reunited. It’s such a touching moment, because you can feel the intense emotions coming from each of them. Jacob is finally at peace, knowing that his beloved son is really alive and with him. Joseph finally has the relief of being back in his father’s arms after all these years. As someone who lives far away from my parents, I know the intense joy and comfort that comes from our reunions, and being back in their arms. I can’t imagine enduring a separation like Jacob and Joseph did, and am so touched by this story of them coming together once again.

Joseph pledges to tell Pharaoh of the arrival of his family, and that they are shepherds. “And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation? that you will say: Your servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that you may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians (Genesis 46:33-34).” This seems like a very odd way to end the chapter. It seems that there’s some trouble brewing, in that Joseph feels obligated to warn and prepare his father and brothers that their occupation is not approved of in Egypt. Could this be one of the things that leads to the eventual enslavement of the people? Why is shepherding so abhorrent in Egypt? What will happen when Pharaoh meets Jacob?

It seems like a lot of drama is yet to come, but for today, we’ve had the culmination of one long awaited moment. Joseph is back with his family once again, and for the moment, all is well.

Bereshit Forty-Five: The Big Reveal

“Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Make every man go out from me.’ And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he sept aloud and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said unto his brothers: ‘I am Joseph; does my father yet live?’ And his brothers could not answer him; for they were frightened at his presence (Genesis 45:1-3).”

Finally, the truth is out. Joseph has revealed himself to his brothers, and has done so in such a dramatic way that all of Egypt has heard him too. I wonder what this means – are we meant to understand that his weeping was that loud that it alerted everyone? Or are we meant to think that because Joseph had been closeted in his Egyptian self for so long, the revelation of his true identity extends beyond his brothers and to the Egyptians as well? Has Joseph finally gotten back in touch with his true identity and his true self, after years of hiding behind the mask of being an Egyptian lord? Clearly, the brothers are overwhelmed by the revelation, and cannot respond. This moment, which we’ve been building up to for so long, is simultaneously a climax for Joseph and slightly anti-climactic, as there is no response.

Joseph explains further: “And he said: ‘I am Joseph your brother, who you sold into Egypt. And now don’t be grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me thus; for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years has the famine been in the land; and there are yet five years, in which there shall be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to give you a remnant on earth, and to save you alive for a great deliverance (Genesis 45:4-7).'” Joseph clearly seems to have reached a place of peace and closure. He has found personal meaning in the actions of his brothers, and seems to believe that al that happened between them was destiny. This story truly seems to be a manifestation of the idea that everything happens for a reason, even if you can’t see the reason right away. The brothers plotting to murder Joseph and selling him into slavery seemed tragic in the moment, and still doesn’t sit well with me. However, with the passage of time and the gift of a little distance, we’re able to see the bigger picture, and it seems that everything worked out the way that it was meant to.

Joseph immediately tells his brothers, “Hurry, and go up to my father, and say to him: Thus says your son Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, don’t tarry. And you will dwell in the land of Goshen, and you will be near to me, you, and your children, and your children’s children, and your flocks, and your herds, and all that you have; and there I will sustain you; for there are yet five years of famine; lest you come to poverty, you, and your household, and all that you have (Genesis 45:9-11).'” It’s amazing to me that after all this time, Joseph is still so attached to his father. While it wasn’t his father who harmed him in any way, I would think that with the years that passed, in order to preserve his own sanity if nothing else, Joseph would have repressed some of his feelings about his father. With no evidence that there would ever be an eventual reunion between them, it must have been so hard for him to keep his father so close to his heart.

Joseph stops speaking, “And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept on his neck. And he kissed all his brothers, and wept on them; and after that his brothers talked with him (Genesis 45:14-15).” This is a beautiful moment of reunion. I wonder, and I’m sure there are many theories, about what was said when the brothers finally spoke with Joseph. Did they apologize? Or did they leave the past in the past and update him on the events of their lives? What do you even say to someone in that moment?

Pharaoh hears about these events, and echoes Joseph, inviting the brothers to bring all that they have from Canaan to Egypt. So, the brothers go to bring the news to their father, and are sent with many gifts and provisions. They get home, and say to Jacob, “‘Joseph is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.’ And his heart fainted, for he believed them not. And they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them; and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived. And Israel said: ‘It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive; I will go and see him before I die (Genesis 45:26-28).'” Once again, we have a shift, in the middle of a story, from Jacob to Israel. What has changed in this moment that he is both of his personas? Maybe it is specifically Israel declaring that he will go down to Egypt to see Joseph because this sets the stage for the next major part of the story: the children of Israel leaving the land and going to Egypt. In that moment, he is not just a man; he’s a nation.

Bereshit Forty-Four: Judah Becomes a Leader

The brothers have finished eating, and are preparing to go back to Canaan. “And he [Joseph] commanded the steward of his house, saying: ‘Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth. And put my goblet, the silver goblet, in the sack’s mouth of the youngest, and his corn money.’ And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken (Genesis 44:1-2).” My first thought is, was Joseph normally this eccentric that his servant didn’t question this extremely odd order? Or had Joseph become such a strict taskmaster in his own right that his steward wouldn’t think to question him? Either way, this request is very strange, and sets the stage for the next round of drama.

The brothers leave, and Joseph orders his steward to follow them and accuse them of having rewarded Joseph’s generosity with evil. When he did so, the brothers were of course confused, and tried to defend themselves. “And they said to him: ‘Why are you saying my lord such words as these? Far be it from your servants that they should do such a thing. Behold, the money, which we found in our sacks’ mouths, we brought back to you out of the land of Canaan; how then should we steal out of your lord’s house silver or gold? With whoever of your servants it be found, let him die, and we also be my lord’s slaves (Genesis 44:7-9).'” By saying this, they fall right into the trap that Joseph has set for them, and when the steward searches their possessions, the goblet in question is found, where Joseph ordered it placed, in Benjamin’s pack. By their own words, the brothers are now bound to leave Benjamin as a slave to Joseph.

Instead, they all return to the city. We are then told, “And Judah and his brethren came to Joseph’s house, and he was still there; and they fell before him on the ground (Genesis 44:14).” I’m intrigued by the sentence. Why is Judah specifically highlighted at this moment? Benjamin is the one in question, and Reuben is the oldest. Therefore, why is Judah seemingly being placed in the leadership role? Have his actions afforded him this status, or has something happened that we’re not aware of? I know that there’s a tradition that Reuben lost his claim as the firstborn when he had relations with his father’s concubine, and Shimon and Levi could not get this status due to their actions in Shechem. With this understanding, Judah is the next in line to assume the leadership role amongst the brothers, and does so in this moment.

Judah pleads with Joseph for Benjamin’s life, saying that it will kill their father if they don’t return with Benjamin. “Now therefore, let your servant, I pray you, abide instead of the boy a bondman to my lord; and let the boy go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father, if the boy is not with me? Lest I look upon the evil that shall come on my father (Genesis 44:33-34).” Judah offers himself in exchange for Benjamin. He is willing to become a slave in Egypt, rather than once again see the pain that it causes his father when he returns home without his brother. Of all the brothers, it’s clear that he at least has truly learned his lesson, and is not willing to let history repeat itself.

By the end of this chapter, we haven’t heard Joseph’s reaction to Judah’s plea. Does it soften him? Does he believe the sincerity of his brother’s words? Yet another cliffhanger before the big reveal!

Bereshit Forty-Three: Eat, Drink, Make Merry

“And the famine was sore in the land (Genesis 43:1).” The famine continues to plague the whole region, with both Egypt and Canaan suffering from the lack of food. Jacob’s family has finished eating the food that the brothers had brought back from Egypt, and Jacob decides to send them to buy food once again. But Judah reminds his father, “‘The man did earnestly warn us, saying: ‘You will not see my face, except your brother be with you. If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food; but if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us: You will not see your face, except your brother be with you (Genesis 43:3-5).'”

I’m wondering how long it’s been since they were in Egypt. While I understand that Benjamin is the new favorite, Shimon is still in Egypt, being held as ransom by Joseph. Did Jacob seriously leave his son in captivity until they ran out of food once again, instead of rushing to figure out a way to rescue him as soon as possible? Once again, how does he not see the pain that favoring one son causes the others?

Judah reassures his father. “‘Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live, and not die, both we, and you, and also our children. I will be sure for him; of my hand shall you require him; if I bring him not unto you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever (Genesis 43:8-9).'” Like Reuben in the previous chapter, Judah is willing to sacrifice himself for Benjamin, and promises his father that he will be responsible for the care and protection of the youngest brother. Jacob finally agrees to let them go, with Benjamin, and the brothers return to Egypt, and to Joseph.

“And when Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house: ‘Bring the men into the house, and kill the beasts, and prepare the meat; for the men shall dine with me at noon (Genesis 43:16).'” The brothers were afraid, because they were brought into Joseph’s house, and didn’t know why, or what would come upon them. It’s clear to me as the reader that Joseph intends to play with his brothers a little, to mess with them before ultimately revealing his true identity. Perhaps he’s testing them, or maybe he just isn’t ready, due to all of the traumas of the past, to be vulnerable before them once again. Even though he’s the one with the power now, he’s clearly still emotionally tied to his family, and doesn’t want to be weak before them.

The brothers immediately try to clear the record about what happened with the money. “And he said: ‘Peace be to you, fear not; your God, and the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks; I had your money.’ And he brought Shimon out to them (Genesis 43:23).” The men are treated well in Joseph’s house, and are made comfortable. “And when Joseph came home , they brought him the present which was in their hand into the house, and bowed down to him to the earth (Genesis 43:26).” Once again, Joseph’s dreams are becoming reality, and his brothers are bowing before him, without even knowing it.

Joseph enquires about their father, and is told that he is alive and well. “And he lifted up his eyes, and saw Benjamin his brother, his mother’s son, and said: ‘Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?’ And he said: ‘God be gracious unto you, my son.’ And Joseph made haste; for his heart yearned toward his brother; and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there (Genesis 43:29-30).” Joseph seems to be softening towards his brothers, particularly as a result of the emotion of seeing his youngest brother, the only one who never hurt him. When he eats with his brothers, he gives Benjamin the largest portions, demonstrating the favor that he shows this brother. While one cannot blame Joseph for this, once again, he of all people should know the risks that come with showing one brother favoritism. He doesn’t know yet whether or not his brothers have truly changed and repented, and therefore is potentially putting Benjamin in harm’s way.

The chapter ends with all 12 brothers eating and drinking together. Although Joseph’s true identity has not yet been revealed, they are slowly bonding, and learning about each other once again. “And they drank, and were merry with him (Genesis 43:34).”

Bereshit Forty-Two: Coming Full Circle

So, Joseph is hoarding grain and the whole region is suffering from a massive famine. News of the food in Egypt has spread, and even Jacob has heard of it. “And he said: ‘Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt. Get you down there, and buy for us from there; that we may live, and not die (Genesis 42:2).'” Ten of Joseph’s brothers go down to Egypt, with Benjamin remaining behind because Jacob was scared of anything happening to him. When I first read this, I was surprised that Jacob hadn’t learned his lesson about playing favorites amongst his sons, but then I realized that at this point, he still doesn’t know that Joseph was betrayed by his brothers. We also don’t know yet if they’ve learned their lesson and are feeling guilty, or if Benjamin is treated the same way that Joseph was.

Now, we have the reunion we’ve been waiting for. However, it’s a one-sided reunion. “And Joseph’s brothers came, and bowed down to him with their faces to the earth. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself  strange to them, and spoke roughly with them and said to them: ‘Where did you come from?’ And they said: ‘From the land of Canaan to buy food.’ And Joseph knew his brothers, but they knew him not (Genesis 42:6-8).”

I can’t imagine what must have been going through Joseph’s mind at this moment. He hasn’t seen his brothers in years. The last time he saw them they were throwing him into a pit, contemplating his murder, and selling him into slavery. Now, he has a whole different life. He is a powerful man, with a wife and children, and the respect of the king of Egypt. And now, before him, are the brothers who betrayed him. Is he surprised that they don’t recognize him, or does he expect it? After all, he’s a different person by now, with a new name and life completely foreign to the one that he had in Canaan. In this moment, his dreams begin to come true: his brothers are bowing before him. Yet, who could have predicted that these would be the circumstances in which that prophecy would come to be?

Joseph accuses the brothers of being spies. They reassure him that they aren’t, and explain, “We are all one man’s sons; we are upright men, your servants are not spies (Genesis 42:11).” Without even knowing it, they are fulfilling the prophecy of Joseph’s childhood dreams by declaring themselves his servants.

Joseph commands them to return to Canaan and bring back Benjamin, the youngest brother, in order to prove that they aren’t spies. He holds them in Egypt for three days, and then says on the third day, “‘This do, and live; for I fear God: if you are upright men, let one of your brothers be bound in your prison-house; but you go, carry corn for the famine of your houses; and bring your youngest brother to me; so shall your words be verified, and you will not die.’ And they did so (Genesis 42:18-20).”

Speaking amongst themselves, the brothers recall their earlier actions against Joseph. “‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us (Genesis 42:21).'” It’s clear now that the guilt of their actions has weighed upon them for years, and it almost seems like they’ve been waiting for some kind of punishment to eventually fall on them as a result of what they did to their brother. Joseph weeps as he overhears them regretting their actions, but they don’t seem him. He chooses Shimon from amongst the brothers, and ties him up. He then fills their bags with provisions, and returns their money to them secretly, and they leave. While they’re on the road, one of the brothers opens his bag, and realizes that the money is there. They get scared, wondering what will happen to them now that it looks like they’ve been as dishonest as they were accused of being.

They return home to Jacob, and tell him of their adventures in Egypt. They tell him that they have been commanded to return with Benjamin. He responds, “‘Me have you bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Shimon is not, and you will take Benjamin away;upon me are all these things come.’ And Reuben spoke to his father, saying: ‘You shall slay my two sons, if I bring him not to you; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him back to you.’ And he said: ‘My son will not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he only is left; if harm befall him by the way in which you go, then will you bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave (Genesis 42:36-28).'” It is clear from this promise on behalf of Reuben that he has truly repented from the sins of his youth. He is willing to promise and risk the lives of his own sons in order to reassure his father that this time, he will protect the beloved younger son. Benjamin will not suffer the same fate as Joseph, and Jacob will not be bereft of yet another son. This truly shows a lesson learned, and is one of the first times in Tanakh where a sinner has the opportunity to show his growth, by being placed in the situation that he was in previously once again, and acting differently. How many of us have those opportunities? There are so many things that we say we would have done differently, but we aren’t given the opportunity to prove that by facing the same circumstances. Reuben, however, has this chance to truly make up for a wrong. As the oldest brother, he didn’t stand up properly and save Joseph. But he can make up for his guilty conscience by protecting Benjamin, bringing peace to both himself and his father.