Shabbat candles: 4:15 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 47:28-50:26
Haftorah: I Kings 2:1-12
Havdalah: 5:21 p.m.
Rarely can words affect not just the present, but the past and future as well. Joseph is able to create just those effects in Vayechi, stunning his brothers by telling them that although he is Egypt’s second- in-command, he is actually without power, confiding, “Am I in the place of God?” [Genesis 50:19], echoing what his father told his mother when she bewailed her barren state [Gen. 30:2] before the birth of Joseph.
After their father’s death, the brothers fear that nothing will now hold Joseph back from the revenge they believe they deserve. When they find the money they have paid for their provisions back in their sacks, they say, “We are guilty about our brother, that we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded to us and yet we didn’t listen” [Gen. 42:21].
When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s sack, Judah tells Joseph “God has uncovered the crime of your servants” [Gen. 44:16]. Yet, Joseph contradicts their version of the story. Recall that among Joseph’s first words to his brothers are “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves… for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you” [Gen. 45:5]. He lets them know that “you planned evil against me, but God planned for good in order that now I could keep a large nation alive” [Gen. 50:20].
Joseph has a certainty about the way events have unfolded, knowing that neither he nor his brothers are in place of God’s directing the unfolding of their lives. In reading his life backwards this way, Joseph’s power is to control (through interpretation) the entirety of their history and relationship. In an essay in the forthcoming anthology “Reading Genesis,” literature professor Jeffrey Shoulson says that Joseph’s “imposition of a teleological hermeneutic — reading the ending back into the beginning — is his culminating act of interpretation, his pitaron of the dream/nightmare he has been living.” It’s a fascinating notion, the past re-envisioned through interpretation.
It is strange that the brothers lie about the words of their dead father; after all, the Torah never records Jacob instructing the brothers to tell Joseph to forgive them, as they claim [Gen. 50:16-17]. Why didn’t the brothers discuss their role in getting Joseph sold to foreigners and taken from his father? Another “Reading Genesis” contributor, anthropologist and public health expert Steve Albert, elucidating about modern experiences of death, writes that much goes undiscussed in families. Most, like the family of Jacob, simply do not have the encompassing final conversations. No one ever brings up the disappearance of Joseph; no forgiveness is offered or withheld during Jacob’s lifetime. Jacob earlier had said that he will go down to Sheol mourning the loss of Joseph. Despite Joseph’s immense power, he is still mortal, powerless over death.
I’ve always been troubled by the fact that the Book of Genesis, opening with Creation and possibility, closes with the words “b’aron b’Mitzrayim” (“a coffin in Egypt”), particularly since the very name Mitzrayim (Egypt) literally means a narrow place, a place of constriction. Why such a conclusion? Before his death Joseph does bequeath a future to the generations. He promises them, “V’Elokim pakod yifkod etchem,” God will surely visit you and bring you up from this land [Gen. 50:24] unto the Promised Land. You will not remain in that place of constriction forever.
A wonderful modern rendering of how thoughts of the future can impact the present is found in the 2001 novel, “Our Holocaust,” by Israeli writer Amir Gutfreund. The character of Grandpa Yosef survives the camps with the aid of his friend Adler who beseeches him, “The future, we must think only of the future.” This echo of the Joseph story underlines the power of a hopeful narrative to sustain life, even in the harshest of environments.
Although Genesis ends “in a coffin,” Joseph’s Divinely assisted confidence in his ability to sustain life, both nullifying the brothers’ sins and assuring the family’s future, is enough to allow us to keep reading and interpreting, both past and future.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of “Reading Genesis” (Continuum 2016), in which academics use the tools of their particular fields to add a layer to our understanding of the Genesis text.