Joseph And Benjamin: The Way Back To The Family
Mending Relationships And Missing Ribs
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Parshat Vayigash opens with a tense scene: Joseph, whose identity is still unknown to his brothers, has just declared his intention to take his brother Benjamin as a slave. The rest of his brothers know that leaving Benjamin behind will devastate their father, and is simply not an option. But they are also powerless to stop Joseph from doing as he pleases.
In a last ditch effort, Judah makes an impassioned plea to Joseph, explaining the unique bond between his father and Benjamin. And he uses an interesting turn of phrase: "The lad is unable to leave his father."
As it happens, that particular phrase about "leaving father" comes up somewhere else in the Book of Genesis: the Garden of Eden. That phrase is used following the union of Adam and Eve, of all things, stating that man leaves his father and mother to cling to his wife.
But what could marriage possibly have to do with the drama of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt? Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores the mysterious connections between Eden and Egypt, Adam and Benjamin, and more.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and you are watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Vayigash.
This week’s parsha opens with Judah’s impassioned plea to the high Egyptian official who is really his long-lost brother Joseph. Now there’s a fascinating undercurrent, I want to argue, that lies just under the surface of Judah’s words.
What he’s saying is actually eerily reminiscent of an event that occurred a long time ago – way back in the Garden of Eden of all things. So I want to explore that echo with you. Is the echo really there, and what might it mean?
Joseph Frames Benjamin
So the connection kinda begins with Judah’s explanation as to why Benjamin can’t stay behind in Egypt. Binyamin, of course, has been framed by Yosef for stealing his silver goblet. Yosef, this high Egyptian official, has suggested that the thief remain behind as his personal slave, while all the other brothers return to their father in Canaan. And Yehudah now begins to speak about why that can’t be allowed to happen; why Binyamin, at all costs, has to be allowed to return to his father. Here are Judah’s words:
לא־יוכל הנער לעזב את־אביו
The lad is unable to leave his father (Genesis 44:22)
Now, if you listen to those words, that phrase לעזב את־אביו, “to leave his father,” you know, you’ve heard that phrase before. It is constructed precisely the same way as a phrase we hear all the way back in the Garden of Eden. A phrase that describes marriage, of all things:
על־כן יעזב־איש את־אביו ואת־אמו
Because of this – in other words, because Eve was formed from Adam’s rib – a man leaves behind his father and his mother (Genesis 2:24)
Kind of interesting, right: That phrase – la’azov et aviv – leaving behind father, is now showing up again, in Judah’s speech about Benjamin of all things. It’s kind of strange.
Echoes to Joseph and Benjamin's Story
So that lone echo of Eden might be dismissed as mere coincidence, except that there is another echo too. Go back to the opening words of Judah’s speech to Joseph, and you will find him saying this: ישׁ־לנו אב זקן וילד זקנים קטן – we have an older father, and a son born to him in his old age.
And then he says:
ואחיו מת ויותר הוא לבדו לאמו
His brother is dead, so he alone remains of his mother (Genesis 44:20)
“He alone remains…” Right? There’s that word לבדו. Which of course reminds you of something back in the Garden. We had a levado there too.
Adam was levado, alone, and God had not thought that that was very good, so He created Eve to be Adam’s companion in marriage. And now, for some reason, Judah is using that very word, levado, to describe Benjamin.
Except if these connections, if they are really there, and not just the product of our overactive imagination, they seem a little strange. Why are they there? Benjamin isn’t getting married. There’s no romance in our story. So why would such echoes exist? What is the Torah trying to tell us here?
So here’s the theory I want to share with you. Maybe the connection between these two stories has to do with what is about to happen next.
Joseph and Benjamin's Missing Connection
You see, Adam is alone… and he is about to meet Eve, another person, and what’s she going to do? She is going to complete him. And Benjamin too is “alone” and, although he doesn’t know it yet, he is about to meet his long-lost brother: He and Yehudah are about to discover that this high Egyptian official before whom they are pleading, is actually their long-lost brother, Joseph.
Which means that each of these people, Adam on the one hand, Benjamin on the other, has “another half,” as it were – a person he is deeply connected to, someone who completes him – and each is alone, sort of separated from that person.
For Adam, that person is Eve, a woman quite literally created from his own rib. Without her, he is missing something essential, he’s missing his feminine side. He is only a part of what he needs to be. With her, he is complete.
Man was once a part of his father and mother. And what makes him ready to leave that unity? Only to seek another unity. Because he understands that in order to really be whole, he has to come together with that lost rib, with that feminine side of himself, that he’s missing.
And it’s only because he understands that he’s missing that lost feminine side that he can bring himself to leave his father and mother.
על־כן יעזב־איש את־אביו ואת־אמו ודבק באשׁתו והיו לבשר אחד׃
This is why a man leaves behind his mother and his father and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
But it is not only when we are missing a spouse that we feel alone and fragmented. We can feel only a shell of ourselves, only a part of ourselves, when we’re missing someone who, by rights, should be with us, should be at our side in our family too.
When we become estranged from someone in our family, the painful sense of loss and fragmentation is… palpable. And on the other side, when, against all odds, we find a way to seek one another out again, when brothers somehow find a way to put aside that which separates them, when they find one each other again, the pull that brings them close is magnetic, virtually irresistible.
Joseph and Benjamin's Family Link
Benjamin and Joseph: Together, they were a deeply entwined pair – the only two children of Rachel. And yet fate would separate them. Joseph would be sold off as a slave to Egypt. And it wasn’t just geographical distance that would separate them. Joseph would eventually become “estranged” from the family, part of a whole new culture, a whole new life.
And of course, even in Egypt, Joseph remains a God-fearing man; except in this moment, as Judah faces off against him in the episode of the silver goblet, reconciliation with his family seems to be the furthest thing from his mind.
Yosef has just framed his brothers. He’s falsely accusing them of stealing his silver goblet. Joseph seems truly estranged from his family.
But, through the power of Judah’s words, Yosef is somehow transformed. Judah describes the “aloneness” of Benjamin – him being all that is left of Rachel, their mother – and Joseph’s heart seems to melt at that portrayal.
In tears, he unmasks himself. He reveals himself to be Benjamin’s long-lost “other half.” Almost like Adam and Eve, Joseph and Benjamin, they find themselves drawn to each other. They embrace with tears of joy as they revel in their newfound sense of “completion”. They have found each other at long last.
Joseph Saves His Family: from Benjamin to His Brothers
I want to close by adding one more point: Joseph’s embrace of Benjamin is dramatic and emotional, but it also serves as a hopeful entry point into something larger. Because look what happens right after Benjamin and Joseph embrace:
וינשּׁק לכל־אחיו ויבך עליהם ואחרי כן דברו אחיו אתו׃
And then he kissed all his [other] brothers, too, and cried upon them, and afterwards, his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:15)
So in the end it wasn’t just Benjamin. There was a larger circle of brothers from whom Joseph was estranged, and now Joseph, he first reaches out to Benjamin, but then reaches out to the other brothers, embraces them, and kisses them, too.
It is as if Benjamin is a kind of stepping stone for Joseph, a way back into connection with the larger family, the children of Leah, more broadly.
But here’s the thing: The conclusion of the verse we just read, is a bit odd:
ואחרי כן דברו אחיו אתו׃
And afterwards, his brothers spoke with him. (Genesis 45:15)
It seems like the ultimate anticlimax. Here are Joseph and his brothers: they haven’t seen each other for years; the brothers had thrown him in a pit; he, in turn, had very nearly taken them all as his slaves; and now they reunite in tears and hugs. And it’s all wonderful.
Why add “and afterwards, his brothers spoke with him”? Who cares about that? And besides: What did they even speak about? We don’t know, and the Torah doesn’t bother telling us. So why is it so important to relate this seemingly trivial detail?
Unless... it’s not trivial at all.
Joseph Helps His Family Heal
Go back to the very beginning of the Joseph story, and you’ll see what’s going on. The Torah, with a grand arc, is closing a circle. Because all the way back at the beginning… the estrangement between brothers that we’ve been talking about, how did it start?
It expressed itself... through the brothers’ inability to speak to Joseph:
ויראו אחיו כי־אתו אהב אביהם מכל־אחיו וישנאו אתו ולא יכלו דברו לשלם׃
And the brothers saw that it was he who their father loved from among all his brothers—and they hated him, and could not speak to him in peace. (Genesis 37:4)
So let’s add it all up: At the very beginning, the brothers, their hatred of Joseph, was so intense that they “could not speak to him in peace.” But now… at the end of the story, when all is said and done, what really changed, most of all?
What changed is that deafening silence in the relationship between brothers... That silence is gone. The brothers, at long last, can speak with him again.
As we reach Vayigash, the deafening silence of hatred is finally over. Now whether the wounds of the past will truly and finally heal, or whether the reconciliation of Parshat Vayigash will prove to be merely a passing truce in a larger war, that we do not know yet.
Joseph and his brothers will spend a long time together, still, in Egypt, and what transpires between them later will decide this issue. But for now, a little slice of wholeness has been brought back into a family torn by pain.
What, in the end, did Joseph and the brothers speak about? It doesn’t even matter. Brothers are once again on speaking terms; and for now, that is a victory of unimaginable proportions.