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Parshat Vayigash


“And he sent Yehudah before him to Yosef, to Goshen to prepare before him; and they came to the land of Goshen.”

Yaakov is well-versed in the fine art of moving. There is good reason his symbol is the staff he used to cross the Jordan River. So it behooves us to learn how to prepare ourselves for such transitions from him. He did not move down to Yosef’s house in Egypt with his large family on a whim. Yaakov thought it through and planned accordingly, and not just about the technical details involved in packing up his home and uprooting his family. He fills the journey itself with meaning, as we can learn from the sacrifices he offers in Be’er Sheva. (46, 1) And he also sends Yehudah down before him. (46, 28)

On the surface one could interpret that Yaakov sent Yehudah on ahead in accordance with certain social norms and niceties.

When people go to a place they have never been it is proper for someone to go before them, as the text says, (Bereishit 47, 28) ‘And he sent Yehudah before him.’ (Arvei Nachal, Bamidbar Shlach, Drosh 1)

Any self-respecting person would not just show up in a new place without preparing their accommodation in advance. According to this interpretation “to Goshen to prepare before him” means that Yehudah was in charge of informing of Yaakov’s imminent arrival and preparing for his reception. Similarly, one could interpret that he was sent ahead to guide the way. “To go before him, before they enter the city, so he can prepare them as to which way to enter the city and what to do.” (Radak, ibid) Likewise, the Pesikta explains, “To Goshen, to prepare before him- To tell him that your father is coming to Goshen.” (Pesikta Zutra, Vayigash, 46)

The midrash brings a dispute regarding the purpose of Yehudah’s advance descent:

And he sent Yehudah before him: Rabbi Chanina, the son of Rabbi Acha, and Rabbi Chanina (disagreed). One said to set up a home for him. And one said to set up a home for him so he can teach Torah in it and the tribes can learn in it.(Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 95)

According to one opinion Yaakov did indeed send Yehudah to set up his home. This interpretation is part of the same school of thought we have already seen. Yehudah was sent to prepare a proper welcome, to ensure that Yaakov wouldn’t find himself on the street, defenseless and homeless, or to plan out the easiest and best path to travel. He was also commanded to find a home for Yaakov that suits his needs and to prepare the place so Yaakov can comfortably acclimate and ease the transition.

While this may fit the plain meaning of the text, this opinion has been relatively marginalized over the years in favor of the second position which explains that Yehudah was sent to establish a meeting place to teach Torah. According to this opinion Yehudah went down before Yaakov to set up a yeshiva, a place where valuable lessons could be taught and the family could delve into Torah study. We will not dwell on the clear assertion that organized education is of primary importance for the People of Israel; instead we will focus on the significance of the view that a yeshiva is basic need, as crucial as physical shelter.

 ‘And he sent Yehudah before him,’ to establish a house of study for him, so that instruction will go forth from there. We can learn a valuable lesson from this- that before undertaking any action a person should prepare something for “higher needs.” One who merits to be able to build a house should first set out in his mind some room in the house that will be dedicated for him to seclude himself off in Torah study and prayer and meditation. And a place prepared as a meeting place for wise men. And afterward he should set out the things that he needs. (Shlah, Derech Chaim Tochachat Mussar, 78)

The Shlah learns practical advice from Yaakov’s actions. Just like he set up a yeshiva in Egypt before he got there, we should have similar priorities when setting up our home. The main point of our home is to be our spiritual center, so the light of our Torah can shine forth. And so we must plan our homes so that they are a place that is conducive to Torah study. This may involve the considered arrangement of a library and computer, or creating a quiet corner for study and prayer, or it may have to do with the comfort and accessibility of the space and the ways it affects the rest of the house. An appointed space set aside for study and reflection helps to determine the atmosphere in the rest of the house.

There are other sources that build on the line of thought advanced in this midrash that view  it on a national level instead of a personal one. They understand that the midrash is emphasizing the importance of Torah study in the context of the descent into exile. Specifically at such a time, Torah study is critical in order to safeguard the People of Israel, keep us whole, and maintain our connection to God throughout the dark days ahead.

The two paths of interpretation offer utterly disparate answers to the question of how Yaakov prepared his descent to Egypt. The answers provided seem to be based on a more general assumption regarding the main challenges that await the people in Egypt. Will they be social or spiritual? Is the foremost necessity to ensure comfort and stability or to nurture spirituality and ideals?

Either way no one disputes that Yehudah was sent down as part of the preparations for the descent. In this way both interpretations emphasize the importance of preparing for the future, be it physically or spiritually, as the Tiferet Moshe explains here “l’horot (lit. to prepare)- from the language of herayon (pregnancy).”

In Chassidus the importance of preparation is a topic unto itself. The Talmud tells us that the first Chassidim would wait an hour before praying. They spent this time preparing themselves mentally, making sure that they were properly attuned to the process of prayer. The most novel aspect of this preparation is that it is not merely a period of time that is dedicated to the future, but rather it was understood that preparation provides an opportunity to focus on the process itself as an independent state that requires diligence and focus. Just as the time spent in school is not merely time spent preparing and acquiring tools to cope intelligently with future situations, similarly there is no period of time that does not have its own inherent importance. While university students may pursue their degrees in preparation for their future profession, the period spent studying feels like a significant experience in its own right. Likewise our life is compared to a corridor that leads into the parlor, yet we still take it seriously and see it as meaningful.

Yehudah was sent ahead to lay the groundwork, to ensure the soil is fertile so the seeds of the future may be sown. As it turns out this is one of his greatest talents. His greatness does not lie in his impressive accomplishments, the bearing of fruit, or being on the forefront of the action. His power is found in his ability to initiate and firmly establish new processes. His talent is approaching the new and novel and making it accessible to others, Just as he approached (vayigash) Yosef and saved the People of Israel through his wisdom, so too he saved the People of Israel when he went down to Goshen and paved the way so they could withstand the severity of the upcoming exile.

The midrash sheds light on an interesting aspect of Yehudah’s actions here. “’Yet no man remembered…’ (Kohelet 9, 15) [God says] You do not remember it, so I remember it, ‘and he sent Yehudah…’” The people involved in preparing the foundations are quickly forgotten. No one pays attention to them. Most of their job is to make their part in the endeavor unremarkable. No one would remember who drew the plans for the Maccabiah bridge if the work had been done properly. No one remembers who invented the wheel, but many people have used it as the basis for their own impressive and renowned accomplishments.

This midrash presents a point of view that offers a third path of interpretation, one that is neither social nor spiritual, but rather mystical. This point of view can see the bigger picture; everyone has a role to play and everything fits together to create a whole. There are those that plow and those that seed. And it is only through the joint effort that the process is completed. And this brings us to the component of “maaseh avot siman l’banim,” “the actions of the fathers are portents for the sons,” which maintains that the actions of our ancestors are powerful hints that determine the path of future events, and ultimately the future redemption. Yehudah is sent because there is great significance in the meeting between Yosef and Yehudah. The midrash in Bereishit Rabba (Vayigash, 95) draws a bridge between this past event and the future redemption, The redemption is often symbolized by the verse “the lamb will lie with the sheep.” The midrash states: “He sent Yehudah before him as is written, (Yishayahu 65) ‘The wolf and lamb will pasture together and the lion will eat hay like the cattle.’” The lion is the symbol of Judah and the cattle the ox of Yoseph. And when these two brother unite they can set the process of the future redemption in motion. 

English translation by Debbie Zimmerman


Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778